One of the teams hardest hit by 2016’s spending spree, the Portland Trail Blazers put a lot of their eggs in the wrong baskets and it continues to hurt their ability to build a true title contender around Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Evan Turner, Maurice Harkless, and Meyers Leonard will earn more than $80 million over the next two seasons, leaving a lot of “dead” money on their books until 2020, at which point Lillard will be 30 and McCollum 29. Portland’s moment is now—they need to compete while those guys are still in their primes as basketball players—but mistakes of the past make it hard to capitalize on their present.
The primary focus in the Trail Blazers front office will be on Jusuf Nurkic, the mercurial big man who will be a restricted free agent this summer. Nurkic has gone through a lot of ups and downs so far in his four-year NBA career, from being a key part of the Denver Nuggets’ rebuild to being ousted by Nikola Jokic to being revived as a starting-level player in Portland. There’s no doubt that Nurkic has the skills to survive as a team’s primary threat at the center position, but questions about attitude and motivation constantly circle his play. The Trail Blazers will have the ability to match any offer sheet Nurkic receives in restricted free agency and the possibility certainly exists that his value as a traditional center in this market will plummet before he’s able to sign with another team, but bringing him back would have serious luxury tax implications for a team already spent over the cap before the draft takes place. I’ve written extensively about Portland’s situation with Nurkic both on the court and financially at Blazer’s Edge, so I won’t reiterate those thoughts here.
$6.1 million will separate Portland from the luxury tax threshold once they bring in their first-round draft pick this year, but they do still have three non-guaranteed contracts in Wade Baldwin, Georgios Papagiannis, and Jake Layman who could be let go and would come of their eventual luxury tax bill, each of whom would give them another $1.5 million in wiggle room underneath the tax if they were to let those guys go. The luxury tax is paid based on end-of-season team salary, so it’s always possible that Portland will dip into the tax until the trade deadline before ducking back under it, as they did last season when they moved Noah Vonleh this past February.
Hanging over everything in Portland (other than the Pacific Northwest cloud cover) is the open question of whether Lillard and McCollum will ever be a good enough backcourt to win a championship. The other top backcourts around the league all have at least one plus defender: Golden State has Klay Thompson, Houston has Chris Paul, Toronto has Kyle Lowry, Washington has John Wall (when he’s engaged). While the Trail Blazers’ combination packs a lot of offensive punch, contending with some of the top guards in league history in the Western Conference requires a level of defensive competence that hasn’t quite developed with these two. Portland put together a strong defense this past season due to Nurkic’s play in the paint and a very solid scheme from head coach Terry Stotts, but by and large their backcourt pairing lacks the necessary fortitude on that end of the floor. The market for a McCollum trade would be very dicey—the Trail Blazers would want back a similarly-leveled talent to continue to maximize Lillard’s prime, but star-for-star trades are very rare in the NBA. Teams give up future assets for stars or put together a trade using a handful of rotation-level players to land a big fish, but it’s once in a blue moon that two stars are like-for-like swapped between teams. It’s possible that the right combination of high-end role players around Lillard would put the team in a better position than they are now, but finding that combination and working out a trade to make it work is exceedingly unlikely.
The sole unrestricted free agent in this year’s crop, Ed Davis will be interesting to watch come July. His offensive game fell off a cliff in 2016-17 but bounced back in 2017-18 to the tune of 61 percent true shooting and career-best defensive rebounding numbers despite splitting his time between power forward and center almost the exact same way as he did in his previous two seasons in Portland. While not a sexy target by any means, there is some thought that Davis could be an in-house short-term replacement for Nurkic, should the latter want a contract too heavy for Neil Olshey’s liking. Davis has a very strong defensive reputation but brings very little of the offensive firepower Nurkic does, but he could also come at a fraction of the price of the man he’s backed up for the past season and a half. Signing Davis up to be a key part of the rotation would allow Portland to use their full Mid-Level Exception to plug holes elsewhere on the roster, or they could sign another big man with the MLE and retain Davis as a quality backup.
Barring a trade, Portland will be sitting out extension season this year: the only two players on their current roster under rookie-scale contracts are rising sophomores Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan. Decisions for their third-year options are due in late October, but they’re both no-brainer opt-ins. Collins might be their center of the future and certainly has a role to play on Portland’s team the next few years and Swanigan showed enough his rookie season to keep him around for that third year at just $2.0 million.
The Trail Blazers might not make a huge splash this year but continuing to build around the Lillard-McCollum core isn’t just on the top of their priority list; it’s the entire list. How they do that will be of great intrigue; is there a team that will push a strong offer sheet on Nurkic to force Portland to match or lose him for nothing? If not, will the oft-unhappy big man return for a below-market contract, especially if Olshey plays hardball with him? If they opt to let Nurkic walk, from where does his replacement come? Davis and Collins are two low-budget options, but with their full mid-level possibly available to them, they could go out and nab an undervalued center once the big man market dries up. There are lots of potential paths for Portland this summer as they continue to wait out the expiration dates on their 2016 contracts while trying to remain competitive with Lillard and McCollum.
30 Teams in 30 Days takes you through every team’s thinking heading into the offseason, from evaluating their own personnel to dealing with their cap situation. This is the fourth installment, covering the Portland Trail Blazers. You can find Portland’s full cap sheet here.