NBA 2022 Off Season Guide: Portland Trailblazers
The Portland Trailblazers cratered at the end of last season, losing their final 11 matches and 19 of their 21 post All Star weekend contests. That was by design, though. In trading Norman Powell, Robert Covington and especially long time Blazer CJ McCollum, general manager Joe Cronin, who recently had his interim tag removed, finally acknowledged what the rest of the NBA world had long known: a team based around McCollum and Damian Lillard, whilst lots of fun, was never going to compete for a title.
The Blazers are in a tough spot. The long overdue rebuild is underway, yet Portland’s most valuable asset is still on roster. Whilst Lillard remains a Blazer, can the team fully embrace a youth movement?
The Blazers roster, as is to be expected in the early stages of a rebuild, is a hodgepodge of under performing veterans and unproven youngsters. In addition, the Blazers also have no fewer than eight players who’s contracts have now expired.
At the veteran end of the scale, the Blazers are headlined by the soon to be 32 year old Lillard. The six time All NBA selection played just 29 games this past season, by far a career low, though some of that can surely be chalked up to the Blazers tanking efforts. Worryingly, when he did play his production was generally down. The question has to be asked: is this just an injury/tanking related blip or is this the beginning of a decline for Dame DOLLA?
Trade acquisitions Eric Bledsoe and Josh Hart are on partially guaranteed deals. Hart was magnificent after coming over from the Pelicans, putting up almost 20 points per game as a Blazer. He’s a lock to be re-signed. Bledsoe, on the other had, is almost certain to be moved on. Justice Winslow had his moments as a Blazer. He’s on a team friendly deal and will almost certainly be retained.
As for the rest of what is a threadbare roster until the team looks to retain their free agents, it’s pretty much all youth that is still developing. Nassir Little had his best season as a pro and looks a long term rotation player. Keon Johnson showed some very interesting flashes after coming over in the Powell/Covington trade. The rest of the roster? Not so much.
Brandon Williams might stick as a spark plug scorer, but he’s at best a 5th guard. Those types of players are 13 to the dozen. Trendon Watford, Greg Brown, Didi Louzada….none get the blood racing.
Where the Blazers roster construction will prove fascinating is in the decisions they make on their own free agents.
Cronin has publicly stated that he wants to keep Jusuf Nurkic and Anfernee Simons will surely demand a pretty penny after breaking out in McCollum’s old role. Of course, the Blazers need to decide if they want to rebuild around Dame and an undersized two-guard after pivoting away from just that scenario.
Joe Ingles and Elijah Hughes are highly unlikely to stay as Blazers, nor is Ben McLemore. CJ Ellerby may be kept around to see what he could become. Keljin Blevins is Dame’s cousin. He’s not anything close to NBA standard, but nepotism may just earn him another season in the big league.
It’s difficult to assess Portland’s roster needs with so many free agency decisions still to be made.
Whilst the team clearly want to keep Nurkic, failing to do so would create a clear need at the pivot. In that situation, does the team look to throw money at restricted free agent Deandre Ayton? If they retain Nurkic then adding a power forward – or at least a bigger wing – becomes a priority.
If Simons leaves the team to sign what would surely be a monster deal elsewhere then the Blazers are stuck with Dame and very little else. Trading their talisman is surely the only course of action from there. That opens up an obvious need at guard.
Assuming that Simons is re-signed, then the Blazers guard rotation is set for the foreseeable future, or at least until Lillard ages out of his productive years. At 6’6” Hart is exactly the type of bigger, more robust guard that should thrive next to Lillard and Simmons. Johnson is a very handy 4th guard, capable of playing on the wing and with plenty of growth left in him.
The forward positions are a little more perilous, Little could be a long term small forward. He’s undersized at 6’5” but is athletic and tough. He’s on a team option so the front office can take another look at him next season and then make the call on his long term viability.
Winslow is a walking sick note. He’s just never healthy. Still just 26 years old – it feels as though he’s been around for ever – Winslow looked last season something like the player he was in Miami back in 2019, when he provided solid defense and play making as a stretch four. If he can remain healthy (the biggest of ifs) then there’s no reason why he can’t be that man once again.
That’s the conundrum of this Blazers roster. If they re-sign their prime free agents then there is enough talent to push the Blazers into play-in contention. But is that really what the team want? After finally starting to tear the team down, is mediocrity really the goal?
The Cap Sheet
The aforementioned stable of free agents on the Blazers 2022 roster make their current salary cap situation murky.
The Blazers currently have $93 million committed to nine players (assuming Little’s team option is picked up), with Lillard accounting for just over $42 million of that. That figure includes Bledsoe’s $19 million, though only $3.9 million of that deal is guaranteed. Moving Bledsoe would open up considerable cap space which will inevitably be eaten up by Simons, who will likely sign something close to a $20 million deal.
Nurkic will almost certainly sign for more than his $12 million per year deal this time around, as well. Those two deals and the $7 million cap hold for the Blazers 1st round pick take Portland extremely close to the salary cap for 11 players.
For all of their deals to trade away expensive veterans over the past 6 months, the team will still be over the cap in 2023 once their free agency moves are made.
This week’s lottery drawing confirmed the Blazers will pick at seven in the upcoming draft.
Given Chet Holmgren, Jabari Smith and Paolo Banchero will almost certainly be off the board at that point, the Blazers will be praying that Keegan Murray falls to them. The Iowa products skill set would slide in perfectly on the Blazers roster. At 6’8” and 225 lbs, he’s big and athletic enough to guard most big men and whilst he’s not the quickest laterally he won’t get cooked on the perimeter. His hands are excellent. He’ll get his fair share of steals as an NBA rookie.
He’s a genuine three level scorer who will compliment Dame in a way that Winslow simply can’t. As a shooter he can open up lanes for Lillard and Simons. As a slasher he can both score and find Portland’s array of shooters. His shot selection in college was usually outstanding. He’s also an older rookie meaning his development curve should align closer with Lillard’s timeline.
Should he not be available, then Portland could look for a similar positional fit in Jeremy Sochan or the rugged Tari Eason. They could also go for a long term Nurkic replacement in the hyper athletic Memphis centre Jalen Duren. All three would be positional fits, but at pick seven, all three would be reaches.