The Portland Trailblazers have already secured the title of the most disappointing team in the postseason after the sixth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans swept them. It was the first time in NBA history that a six seed swept a three seed. Most experts and idiots like me picked Portland to win the series. It was a bad matchup for Portland, it exposed their flaws, and the Pelicans are clicking at the right time and are better than we all thought.
Portland’s sweep is reminiscent of the 2015 Toronto Raptors being swept by the fifth seeded Washington Wizards. It was an embarrassment for the team and organization. The difference is, Toronto had the young assets, draft picks, and financial flexibility necessary to reload instead of rebuild, allowing them to stick with their players and coach through the humiliation.
Portland does not have have those things, and if they keep things as is, their ceiling in the near future will be a first-round exit. They have been swept the past two years in the playoffs.
The Blazers were a surprise this year, finishing 49-33 and claiming the three seed in the cutthroat Western conference. However, they started slow and finished poorly; they were saved by a monster 13 game midseason win streak in which they fed on cupcakes and benefitted by Damian Lillard going ballistic.
In these playoffs, we saw the true Trailblazers; the Pelicans exposed their issues. Portland lacks ant consistent shooting outside of their starting guards; they have no ball movement, an shaky bench, and a defense that is good-not-great, and certainly not elite enough to make up for their other flaws. To succeed they need Lillard and McCollum to be at their peak every night. That may work on Tuesday night during the regular season in Orlando, but in the playoffs, it spells disaster. Changes are needed, but what changes can the Blazers make?
First, they need to decide what direction they want to go in- Retool, rebuild or stay the course. For the purposes of this article, “stay the course” means both McCollum and Lillard stay, “retool” means trading McCollum, and “rebuild” means trading both, or possibly just Lillard.
Portland will go into this summer under the luxury tax by a razor thin margin. Thanks to the Evan Turner, Myers Leonard, and Moe Harkless contracts,Portland has zero financial flexibility. Portland will likely have the 16th pick in the draft, meaning there’s a good chance to get a good player, but probably not a game changer. The only young player they have that for sure will be better next year is Zach Collins. They need to make decisions on their free agents.
The most significant decision is what to do with starting center Jusef Nurkic who is a restricted free agent this summer. Nurkic is still only 23 and showed some defensive promise this season, but his offense is very hit and miss. Even though he improved on defense, certain matchups (like the Pelicans) cause him problems. If a team signs him to a large offer sheet, I would let him walk. It would save some money and give Zach Collins a chance to start.
Then there is Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton. Napier had a career year on both ends of the court but was glued to the bench in the playoffs. He has physical limitations, but is good and still improving. If the price is right, I would try to keep him. Same with Connaughton, but if I had to pick between the two, I would choose Napier.
Then there is Ed Davis who had a very nice season for the Blazers but is an unrestricted free agent this summer. It would be great if the Blazers could keep him, but some teams can give him better offers. Portland’s best bet is that he is willing to take a hometown discount. He fits whatever direction Portland is going.
It has long been rumored that Portland will have to break up the duo of Lillard and McCollum, and I think this is the summer they finally do it. Lillard is the better of the two, but a little older and a little more expensive. Still, he would return more value to the two. McCollum’s value is a little down right now, but teams will still be interested. The Blazers need to target a team that wants a boost of star power, has money and some assets. That is tough to find especially in a summer where only a few teams will have money. Here are three McCollum trade ideas.
Dallas Gets- C.J McCollum, Moe Harkless
Portland Gets- Harrison Barnes, Nerlens Noel, 2nd round pick
This trade would give Portland little financial flexibility and save them about $7 million. They would also get their second round pick back from Dallas. Barnes would give them a nice secondary scorer who could play either the three or four and would function better as a second option next to Portland. Noel gives them a big with potential who can potentially replace the losses of Nurkic and Davis (of course, Noel is looking for a payday as well).
Dallas would do it to pair McCollum with young point guard Dennis Smith, and they would get a solid forward in Harkless to replace Barnes.
Chicago Gets- C.J. McCollum, Caleb Swanigan
Portland Gets- Robin Lopez, Bobby Portis, Jerian Grant
Another trade that will give Portland some financial flexibility: this trade would save them around $8 million. In return, they get a quality center in Robin Lopez who can start or come off the bench and has played in Portland before. They get the talented Portis. who can score and is still improving. Grant gives them an underrated backup point guard to Lillard.
Chicago would do it to pair McCollum with Kris Dunn and Lauri Marrkanen and their first round picks this year. It also lets them get rid of their old players who don’t fit their timeline. Portland may be hesitant though because it doesn’t give them a draft pick or a McCollum replacement.
Orlando Gets- C.J. McCollum, Myles Leonard
Portland Gets- Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic, 2nd round pick (from Charlotte)
Portland only saves about $4 million in this deal, but they get off of the Myles Leonard contract. Vucevic and Fournier are two veterans that will help Portland win now with Lillard, so Portland doesn’t need to rebuild entirely. They also get a good second round pick from Charlotte.
Orlando gets off from two players who don’t fit their timeline, and they finally get a star shooting guard. McCollum can grow with Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Issac plus their first-round pick.
All three of these deals make some sense for Portland, but if I had to pick, I would do the one with Dallas. While they don’t get a pick, they can stay competitive while saving $7 million. Plus while I like Mo Harkless, getting away from his contract helps in the long run.
The more significant move would be to move Lillard. Dame has become the Blazers’ hero, and this would be tough for the city emotionally. Portland should only do it if they get a mammoth offer. There only a few teams that have the drive and the assets to give such an offer- here they are:
Phoenix Gets- Damian Lillard, Myles Leonard
Portland Gets- First-round pick(from Miami), Ty Warren, Dragan Bender, Tyson Chandler and Brandon Knight
This is the rebuild direction. Portland would get Miami’s first-round pick which would give them two first-round picks in this year’s draft. The trade only saves them about $2 million, but they get rid of the Leonard contract. In the trade they get Bender, a decent young player with some upside, Warren (a solid scoring wing), and Chandler, a veteran who can come off the bench and give solid minutes at the five. Knight could potentially be a stop gap at point guard. This is a lot, but Portland may only do it if the Suns give up their pick which is likely to be first in the draft.
Indiana Gets- Damian Lillard
Portland Gets- Darren Collison, 1st round pick, T.J Leaf, Bogdan Bogdanovic
Indiana would make this trade to form a star backcourt of Lillard and Victor Oladipo. Portland would get an extra first round pick, a good shooter in Bogdanovich, a capable stopgap at point guard in Collison and a young power forward with upside in Leaf. They would also save about $4 million in cap space.
These are the two deals that make the most sense for Lillard. There are a few other teams that may be interested in New York or Orlando, but I am not sure the Blazers will listen to them. If I do a Lillard deal, I am doing the Phoenix one. They save less money in the short-term, but by getting rid of Myles Leonard, it helps their long-term financial situation. Plus the Miami first round pick will likely be a little better than the Pacers pick and the players they get in return are better.
The Future Blazers
Now if they fully want to commit to the rebuild, they can trade both. Say they combine the McCollum to Dallas deal and the Lillard to Phoenix deal. They would save about $9 million. Here is what the 2018-2019 Blazers may look like assuming they let Nurkic, Connaughton, and Davis walk, but keep Napier:
PG- Brandon Knight, Napier
SG- Evan Turner, Wade Baldwin
SF- Harrison Barnes, Ty Warren
PF- Al Fariq Aminu, Dragan Bender, Caleb Swanigan
C- Zach Collins, Tyson Chandler, Nerlens Noel
Plus they would add two first-round picks to this group, with one of them likely being a shooting or a point guard. Aminu could also be dealt in a separate deal. They would have a little money to go free agent shopping, too.
Alas, Portland fans, you are not getting rid of Turner: it is impossible. This team would not make the playoffs in the west, but they would be competitive. With two rookies and improving youngsters like Collins, Noel, Bender, and Swanigan, it gives hope to the future. These moves are painful and a lot easier for me to make than Portland’s front office, but it is apparent significant changes are needed. Don’t’ expect McCollum and Lillard on the same team next year.
Ps: If the Suns give you their first round pick for Lillard, you do it Portland.