By: Ben McCarty/Oregon Sports News
The Portland Trail Blazers have crossed the threshold.
There is no more running it back. No more hoping Damian Lillard, Joseph Nurkic, CJ McCollum, and whatever pieces you throw around them are enough to carry the team.
Like it or not, the rebuild is in full swing.
After trading McCollum, as well as Larry Nance and Tony Snell, to the New Orleans Pelicans for a pile of players and some draft picks, the team is in full “burn it all down” mode.
A few days ago, I would have been surprised to see the Blazers make many big moves. Usually, an organization is not inclined to let someone with an interim tag steer the future direction of the franchise. But after trading Norm Powell and Robert Covington to the Clippers over the weekend, interim general manager Joe Cronin clearly has the green light to go big.
We can argue whether the return was enough – for Powell and Covington, I would say certainly not, for McCollum, I would have hoped for more, but it’s a reasonable package – but the Blazers have clearly chosen a direction.
This season has been tough to watch for Portland fans, and it’s about to get even more difficult. The team is now in full tank mode for the rest of the year. Their own draft pick this summer is owed to the Chicago Bulls unless it’s a top 14 choice, meaning they only have an incentive to keep losing the rest of the year. The Pelicans’ pick comes to the Blazers this summer if it falls between spots 5-14.
There is a real chance the Blazers could wind up with a pair of top draft picks this summer to begin remaking their roster.
With McCollum gone, the question now becomes about what happens with Lilliard and Nurkic. Even though Lillard is currently injured, you better believe other teams now smell blood in the water and will begin ramping up their efforts to acquire him. I poo-pooed the ham-handed efforts of the Philadelphia 76’ers to acquire Lillard in exchange for Ben Simmons all offseason. But now that the Blazers are motivated to sell, I wouldn’t discount the possibility of Simmons as a straight salary dump and as many draft picks as the Blazers can extract heading to Portland.
If Lillard is still on the roster after Thursday, it is surely going to be a brutal remainder of the season for him. The man is wired to try and win, while the Blazers will be focused on doing anything but win for the rest of the year. Even once he’s healthy, I would not be surprised if we don’t see him on the court the rest of the season with a string of “DNP-Coach’s decision” after his name, simply to help draft position.
This year will go down as a lost year for Lillard and a lost year for the Blazers. With three years left on his contract, the Blazers will need to make a decision quickly- radically rebuild the roster around Lillard and hope to get on the upswing quickly enough to take advantage of the prime years he has left or add him to the firesale and reboot entirely.
Both options are on the table, and it may depend on what direction the franchise takes this summer. Is the clearing of salary a pure basketball decision to rebuild, or is it also clearing the decks to set up the team for a sale? Is Cronin a long-term answer as general manager, or is he just keeping the seat warm for the next person? Does Chauncey Billups get a second season as coach?
So many of those questions are intertwined, and even though the trades of McCollum and others do make it clear the direction the Blazers are moving on the court, they won’t be answered until some of the dominos start falling.
Just a few days ago, I would have said that I didn’t expect the Blazers to make any significant moves until the offseason, when the ownership and front office situations are settled. But this is a team that appears to be preparing for any eventuality. Regardless of whether Jody Allen decided to stop throwing good money after bad and is looking to rebuild the roster around Lillard or is getting ready to clean everything out and sell the team, this is a team that will look radically different by next season and could look radically different by next week.