No one would look at this Portland Trail Blazers‘ season and claim things are going well. At 19-26, the Trail Blazers are far away from being amongst the elite few in the Western Conference. Worse yet, franchise cornerstone Damian Lillard is out for the next several weeks after undergoing abdominal surgery.
Yet despite all of that, the Trail Blazers are still in the playoff conversation. Portland maintains the 10-seed and a spot in the play-in round if the season ended today.
The NBA trade deadline is fast-approaching, and the Blazers are one of several teams facing major question marks. Given Lillard’s recovery timetable and its current playoff position, Portland could decide to either stand pat or add pieces for a run. The alternative, however, could mean a mini-fire sale in Rip City.
Poor injury luck has hurt the Portland Trail Blazers
For several years, the Blazers have built their team around a pair of high-scoring guards — Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. It just so happens that neither has been able to contribute consistently across the first 45 games of the season.
As mentioned earlier, Portland is reeling from Lillard’s injury. The six-time All-Star has been a beacon of health over his first nine seasons, missing no more than nine games in any individual year. But Lillard has already missed 16 games in 2021-22 with many more to come, as his estimated return won’t be until March at the earliest.
Lillard’s last game was on Dec. 31, 18 days before McCollum returned to action. McCollum missed 18 games after suffering a collapsed lung on Dec. 4. Unlike Lillard, this is CJ’s second major injury in as many years. The 30-year-old missed eight weeks last season after suffering a hairline fracture in his foot.
The losses of Lillard and McCollum, its two leading scorers, have greatly impacted Portland. The Trail Blazers have finished top three in offensive rating in each of the last three seasons, but sit just 16th this season.
Injuries to its two guards aren’t the only reason Portland is struggling, however. The Blazers are currently 28th in defensive rating, putting them on pace for a third straight bottom-three finish. In other words, Dame and CJ have done enough offensively to overcome miserable defense, but that’s no longer the case.
The Trail Blazers are likely to be sellers at the trade deadline
If you’re being optimistic, you can look at Portland’s current playoff standing and believe a healthy Lillard helps them contend down the stretch. But given its defense and sizable gap between other Western Conference foes, Rip City shouldn’t be in the playoffs for long if it does make it in.
That’s why Portland has to go into the trade deadline with a massive “For Sale” sign in its yard.
Two veterans on expiring contracts stand out as viable trade options. The first, Robert Covington, is on the last year of a four-year, $47 million contract previously signed with the Philadelphia 76ers. The 31-year-old isn’t the 3-and-D player he once was, but he does enough things well to receive interest from contending clubs.
The second veteran — one who is continuing to up his value — is Jusef Nurkic. The big man is averaging 14.3 points on a career-best 54.0% shooting with 10.8 rebounds. Nurkic was hurt for much of the last two seasons but has been healthy and productive for a struggling Blazers team. At 27 years old, he’s in line for a huge payday in free agency; one Portland probably wouldn’t be able to offer anyway.
Trading Covington and Nurkic would net the Trail Blazers some valuable draft picks, especially in the center’s case. With no first-round pick this year (unless it lands within the top 14) or second-rounder next year, recouping some draft capital would be a smart decision for interim general manager Joe Cronin.
Even if they’re sellers, a rebuild isn’t necessary … yet
With the 2021-22 season looking more and more like a lost year, the Blazers would be wise to ship out Covington and/or Nurkic. Additionally, Portland could scour the market in search of a taker for Larry Nance Jr., another vet who could offer some value in return.
Ideally, the Trail Blazers will have a fully healthy Lillard and McCollum back next year, along with a re-tooled supporting cast and a few more draft picks. But there is an x-factor who can make Portland reconsider its plans; fourth-year guard Anfernee Simons.
After serving in a reserve role for the last three years, the 22-year-old Simons has exploded onto the scene. Since entering the starting lineup in place of the injured Lillard on Jan. 3, Simons is averaging 25.7 points and 7.4 assists. For reference, MVP candidate Ja Morant is averaging 26.0 points and 7.5 assists in the same span.
With Simons proving himself as a long-term option with each passing game, does Lillard or McCollum become expendable? The two veterans are on the books through 2024, with Lillard having a player option of $48.7 million in 2024-25. Unless Portland plans on starting three guards who are 6-foot-3 and under, someone might be squeezed out. McCollum is the most-likely option, although trade rumors surrounding Lillard never seem to quite go away.
Trading either Lillard or McCollum down the road would certainly usher in a new era of Trail Blazers basketball. But the first order of business is to work the phones now and revamp the supporting cast surrounding them.