Offseason Plans For The Portland Trail Blazers – Who To Keep, Who To Go After

by Rian Williams/Oregon Sports News

After a disappointing exit in the first round of the NBA Playoffs to a severely short-handed Denver Nuggets squad, the Portland Trail Blazers enter an offseason of uncertainty.  Coach Terry Stotts is gone, and Damian Lillard now looks toward the wrong end of 30 without the only coach he has ever played for in the NBA.  Now the questions come in two forms:  Player Retention and Player Acquisition.

Player Retention:

Part one of the offseason involves what to do regarding Portland’s pending free agents.  Norman Powell and Derrick Jones Jr. both have player options.  With Lillard and CJ McCollum taking up a combined 55 percent of the current cap space, it is hard to imagine either player returning.  Jones, in particular, was locked in coach Terry Stotts’ doghouse for much of the year.  The Blazers will likely try to make some offer to Powell, but losing him was a distinct possibility, and General Manager Neil Olshey’s choice to swap him with pending restricted free agent Gary Trent Jr. could come back to bite him.

Zach Collins is an interesting case as a Restricted Free Agent.  Portland can match any offer for him, and Olshey has been bold in matching offers in the past, usually with disastrous results (Allen Crabbe/Meyers Leonard).  Collins is a huge investment.  Portland traded two first-round picks to take him 10th overall in the 2017 NBA Draft.  However, he has always been severely limited on the offensive side of the court and has played just eleven games in the past two seasons.  A rebuilding team may take a flier on him, but do not be surprised if Olshey matches to save face.  Collins is just 23 years old and is an above-average defender when healthy, but it is unknown how much of his athleticism was robbed by his injuries.

Other free agents include Enes Kanter, who has likely worn out his welcome, as has Carmelo Anthony.  Harry Giles III, TJ Leaf, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Keljin Blevins were end of bench fodder that are well out of town at this point.  It is telling that the 6’11 rebound specialist in Giles never saw the court in the playoffs, even in key rebounding situations.

Player Acquisition:

Acting under the assumption that both Jones and Powell are gone, the Blazers have very few options to re-tool without making a trade.  Lillard, McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic, Robert Covington, and Anfernee Simons account for 77 percent of the team’s cap space.  So while appealing targets like Kawhi Leonard, DeMar DeRozan, and John Collins are expected to be on the market, Portland does not have nearly enough cap space to sign any of them.  The 2021 free agency class mostly consists of shoot first guards like Duncan Robinson and players of unfulfilled potential like Lauri Markkanen.  Neither of those options solves any of the Trail Blazers issues:  lack of defense and strength on the wings.

Option one is the nuclear option:  Trading away Lillard and anyone else of value to stack draft picks and focus on the future.  Build the team around Simons and Nassir Little, and hope they hit high enough in the lottery to get a game-changer or two.  Construct their tank, and roll it to a 15 win season.  This would be a hard sell.  The team already got rid of a young rising player in Trent to try and win this year.  They off-loaded picks to acquire Robert Covington.  Simons and Little are not ready to carry a high-end bench load, let alone be the team’s focus.  The tank job would stretch for multiple seasons and likely cost Olshey his job.  When teams are trying to focus on financial recovery after the pandemic, a tank that does not put people in seats at the Moda Center is a rough road to travel.

Option two is the hardest to do.  Moving McCollum (and anyone else except Lillard) to re-tool the team around Lillard and a second-star player.  Portland has spoken to the Minnesota Timberwolves about disgruntled center Karl-Anthony Towns, and a first-round exit by the Miami Heat may put Jimmy Butler on the table.  The New Orleans Pelicans could be persuaded to give up Brandon Ingram for the right price.  Kyle Kuzma’s stock with the Los Angeles Lakers is as low as it has ever been.  The major problem, obviously, is that Portland has little trade stock outside McCollum, Nurkic, and Covington.  Their first-round pick is late in the round this year, and Houston owns the next one.  Moving McCollum for a younger, cheaper rising player could work and give the Blazers valuable free agency space.  However, if that player cannot step up immediately, you risk throwing another year of Lillard’s prime out the window.

The final option is the one that Blazers fans are dreading:  re-signing Powell and running it back with the starting lineup of Lillard/McCollum/Powell/Covington/Nurkic and with cheap fodder to fill the bench.  The task would then fall to the new head coach to try and solve the puzzle that Terry Stotts could not:  functioning in the NBA today with two undersized guards who cannot defend and two wings that are forced to make up for that massive defensive hole.  The reality of the situation is that Neil Olshey likely has plenty of slack, with all reports being that owner Jodi Allen is far more focused on her ownership of the Seattle Seahawks.  This final option should be unacceptable.  Asking Lillard to be Superman for 82 games and carry the team on his back to the playoffs yet again, just to get trounced by far more balanced and offensively stacked teams can only lead to fan alienation.  The Lillard/McCollum experiment banking on their offense strengths, neutralizing their defensive weakness has not worked, and there is no sign that it will work.

The upcoming offseason shows all the signs of being the most cataclysmic since the exodus of LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez, and Wesley Matthews.  Once Portland has a coach, the task falls on them to make sense of the chaos that awaits.

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