The Portland Trail Blazers ventured through an entire offseason plastered by chatter regarding Damian Lillard‘s future plans. The star point guard may not have expressed any desire to leave, but the Blazers’ performance in the 2021-22 campaign hasn’t given him any reason to feel more confident about staying.
Portland is in danger of even securing a playoff spot, especially with Lillard sidelined for the next few weeks. The front office is now dealing with another problem concerning Jusuf Nurkic ahead of the trade deadline.
Blazers are struggling to push their way into playoff contention
After experiencing a rough summer headlined by speculation around Damian Lillards’ future, the Blazers have limped through the 2021-22 campaign.
Injuries have played a massive part in Portland’s shortcomings, sitting in the 10th spot in the Western Conference with a 21-30 record. Lillard is amid a six-week recovery from abdominal surgery he underwent more than two weeks ago. Meanwhile, CJ McCollum has missed significant time, playing in only 33 of the first 51 games.
The Blazers’ rough path has fueled the trade rumor mill ahead of the All-Star break. However, it hasn’t led to substantial chatter around one key asset.
Jusuf Nurkic failing to draw trade interest spells more trouble ahead
The Blazers’ struggles to maneuver into the playoff picture have ramped up the trade rumor mill.
Jusuf Nurkic has become a prominent name mentioned as a potential movable asset. However, the 27-year-old hasn’t drawn any significant interest in the open market. New York Times‘ Marc Stein recently stated on his SubStack that Portland isn’t receiving many calls for the veteran big man.
“I think people look at Portland and assume that Nurkic is on the move,” Stein wrote. “I haven’t heard his name mentioned a ton, to be honest, in recent weeks talking to other teams, I don’t sense that there’s a huge amount of interest in him.”
Nurkic recently added to the chatter by telling The Athletic‘s Jason Quick that he doesn’t think the Blazers will trade him before the Feb. 10 deadline. Despite lingering frustration with his offensive role, he’s coming off a highly productive month of January, where he averaged 17.3 points, 12.2 rebounds, and 3.2 assists while shooting 51.0% from the floor.
The seventh-year center is making $12 million in the final year of his four-year, $48 million deal. He’s become a reliable factor on both ends of the floor, but that hasn’t translated to serious trade interest. Instead, it’s fueled that he may depart next offseason, especially if Damian Lillard becomes no longer part of the team’s future.
The Blazers are locked into a challenging position where the state of the franchise is uncertain, as making the playoffs is no guarantee. As much as it feels like Nurkic’s last year in Portland, the front office may be stuck with the reality of letting him finish out his contract without acquiring any assets before his departure.
Damian Lillard holds the Blazers’ future in his hands
As much as the Blazers want to avoid the discussion, Damian Lillard controls the franchise’s future plans.
Lillard hasn’t fueled the conversation with any concerning comments, nor has he privately done it behind the scenes. The chatter stems from his career as he’s still in his prime. It’s drawing speculation that he doesn’t want to waste his best years on a non-championship contender.
Lillard is in the first year of his four-year, $176.2 million deal that holds a $48.7 million player option for the 2024-25 campaign. Although he hasn’t expressed a desire to leave, the Blazers haven’t provided him any reason to believe they can build a title contender.
Portland isn’t a desired free agent landing spot even with the opportunity to play alongside one of the league’s best players. It leaves the franchise with the only option of acquiring premier talent through trades, and the front office hasn’t done that.
Unless Portland blows up the roster, the franchise will never push its way into serious championship contention. With how the 2021-22 season is unfolding, Lillard could finally reach the point of wanting a trade next summer.
The Blazers know what is at stake, and it’s on them to put forth what their star point guard and fans deserve.
Contract figures courtesy of Spotrac.