The Portland Trail Blazers have been stuck as a fake championship contender, pretender for short, for the better part of this decade. They’ve never been seen as serious threats to win a title, only going to the Western Conference Finals once (last season). And yet you can count them in as a playoff team just about every year (minus this season’s disappointing record).
It’s time for this team to change that narrative and capitalize on having a star player amid his prime. That’ll be easier said than done with the Blazers entering this offseason with very little wiggle room to sign high-quality Free Agents.
‘20-’21 Under Contract: PG Damian Lillard, SG C.J. McCollum, C Jusuf Nurkic, F Trevor Ariza, G/F Rodney Hood (Player Opt.), C/F Zach Collins, G Anfernee Simons, F Nasir Little, G/F Mario Hezonja (Player Opt.), SG Gary Trent Jr., F Wenyen Gabriel (Restricted FA)
‘20-’21 Player Losses: C Hassan Whiteside, F/C Caleb Swanigan, F Carmelo Anthony
With Hassan Whiteside’s $27M contract coming off the books, one would think the Blazers would have money to spend this offseason, but that is not the case. Nearly 35% of their upcoming cap is owed to 2 players, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. That percentage becomes nearly 50% when you add the contracts of Jusuf Nurkic and Trevor Ariza. Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic are solid pieces to have, but the rest of this roster is weak compared to the rest of the league’s true contenders.
With limited cap space ($8M-$18M depending on their decision on cutting or retaining Trevor Ariza), the Blazers’ most viable option to land a viable 3rd option next to Lillard and McCollum would be via a sign-and-trade involving Whiteside.
Another tradable piece the Blazers can use to build around Lillard and McCollum would be Nurkic. Unfortunately, Nurkic’s value isn’t as high as it once was. Even so, his value is still higher than Whiteside’s as he is under contract for 2 more seasons ($12M in ‘20-’21 and $12M partially guaranteed in ‘21-’22).
Now let’s discuss a few players the Blazers should target this offseason to reshape after a failed season.
Kevin Love has been rumored to be a target of the Portland Trail Blazers for several seasons now. The team’s best chance at landing him would have been earlier this season. However, now that the Cleveland Cavaliers made a midseason trade for C Andre Drummond, the Blazers’ main trade assets are no longer pieces that the Cavaliers desire.
To pull off a deal for Love, the Blazers would have to include a few draft picks to entice the Cavaliers to take Whiteside or Nurkic in return.
Love would provide the Blazers with a reliable 3rd option offensively but he’s a high ask for a team with limited assets.
Aaron Gordon is in a similar situation as Love, in terms of how the Blazers would be able to land him in a deal. Gordon may be a much better fit alongside Lillard and McCollum, rather than Love, as he provides a lot more versatility defensively as well as a pick-n-roll partner for either guard.
The main issue is that the Orlando Magic have already solidified their future at C by inking C Nikola Vucevic to an extension through ‘22-’23.
They also still have C Mohamed Bamba on his rookie deal. Dealing for Gordon would once again likely require draft picks and/or young assets such as G Anfernee Simons or F Nasir Little.
A much more attainable F/C that the Blazers should target is LaMarcus Aldridge. Yes, the same Aldridge that departed from the Blazers back in the 2015 offseason. Aldridge has spoken about returning to Portland, however; and at this stage of his career, playing as a 3rd option may be perfect for both him and the Blazers.
Landing Aldridge should be easier than landing Love or Gordon. The Spurs aren’t the same Spurs of yesteryear. They may finally be heading towards a rebuild, or at least in the direction of selling older assets. The decision lies with the Spurs on who they’d rather receive in return, Nurkic or Whiteside.
With Nurkic, the Spurs have a perfect, temporary experiment at C as Nurkic’s age fits the team’s timeline and his contract doesn’t hamper them from any future dealings. With Whiteside, the Spurs get a more traditional C who rebounds and protects the rim at elite levels.
However, they’d be getting him on a minimum 3-year deal worth upwards of $25M a year. We will likely see the Blazers losing Nurkic to land Aldridge in a deal.
If the Blazers can land either of the 3 above-mentioned players, but at the cost of starting C Jusuf Nurkic, there may be a few replacement options available in FA.
The Blazers can start Zach Collins at C and go after inexpensive backup Cs like Willy Hernangomez, John Henson, or even a flier like DeMarcus Cousins. Or they can try and sign a possible starting C such as Dwight Howard, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, or Aron Baynes. The latter bench may come with a heftier price tag, limiting the Blazers’ ability to address other team needs.
The SF/PF spot has been the Blazers’ biggest weakness ever since the 2015 departures of all-star PF Aldridge and versatile SF Nicolas Batum.
Since then, the Blazers have put out combinations of Allen Crabbe, Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner, Maurice Harkless, and Carmelo Anthony at those 2 starting positions. None of those guys have managed to add much offense (all under 11 points per game), up until Carmelo Anthony’s 15.3 points per game this season.
The Harkless and Aminu experiment was the most successful as they helped cover Lillard and McCollum’s lackluster defensive efforts. However, neither player provided consistent enough outside shooting or offensive playmaking ability to alleviate pressure off of their star guards. And though Melo was the most successful offensively, his lackluster defense hampered the Blazers’ duo.
There won’t be many FA options for the Blazers to target as a starter at either position unless they plan on going all-in with their remaining salary cap space (approximately $8M). The best-case scenario for them would be to release Trevor Ariza (only guaranteed $1.8M of his $12.8M contract) and hope that Rodney Hood accepts his $6M player option. Doing this would free up more cap space while still keeping a possible starter at SF (Hood).
Resigning Melo on a small deal is also an option, but it would have to entail Melo coming off the bench. A few affordable targets for the Blazers would be Jae Crowder, Markieff Morris, Derrick Jones Jr., or Jeff Green. Even with the added cap space of releasing Ariza, the Blazers should be looking to add depth rather than 1 larger contract to fill a position.
The Blazers can also attempt to convince a few bigger name FA forwards to take smaller, short-term contracts with plans of a big extension. There are a few players they may be able to sway into accepting a deal between $8M-$15M per year, such as Paul Millsap, Marcus Morris, Danilo Gallinari, or Joe Harris. Another option would be to keep Ariza for depth purposes and rely on the developments of Trent Jr. and Nasir Little. They can also slot Zach Collins at PF as long as his shoulder injury hasn’t taken away from his improved floor-spacing.
Another long-term issue that the Blazers have faced is their backup PG options. They’ve relied on Lillard playing 35+ minutes for far too long. They need a player who can capably spell Lillard, or even slotted next to Lillard to spell McCollum.
There are several options out there that may not receive many big contract offers in free agency: D.J. Augustin, Jeff Teague, Reggie Jackson, Rajon Rondo, Isaiah Thomas, to name a few. The biggest grab would be Goran Dragic, though he may be the most expensive free agent PG alongside Fred VanVleet. The Blazers need to nab one of these PGs to play alongside young combo guard Simons if they want to improve one of the league’s worst bench units.
Barring any major trades, we’ll likely see a very similar Portland Trail Blazers team (slotting Jusuf Nurkic into the lineup for Whiteside). The Front Office has proven that they’re willing to deal players away (besides Lillard and McCollum), but they’ll once again be hampered by a lack of cap space to work with. At best, they can hope for an over-the-cap team looking to add Whiteside to their rotation in return of wing or guard depth.
A last-ditch effort for this team to climb out of perpetual pretender status is to trade away Lillard or McCollum, preferably McCollum. The team simply has not been able to get over the hump with these 2 guards as their feature players. Lillard would get the Blazers a larger return but he seems to be the featured player that a team can win behind, with elite playmaking ability and clutch shooting.
Although McCollum has been a consistent 20-point scorer who can take over in spurts, he doesn’t hide the deficiencies of Lillard’s game like one would like. The Blazers have some tough decisions to make this offseason to change the narrative of this franchise.