It’s been 17 years since the Portland Trail Blazers made it to the conference finals in the NBA. Years of poor decision making, career-ruining injuries, and the inability to land a superstar has kept this franchise from making a serious run at the title. Through it all, though, the Blazers have a young, promising roster, but one that’s still not quite ready for contention. So what moves can the organization make to possibly vault themselves into the title picture?
After a surprising run into the second round of the playoffs in the 2015-16 season, a lot of fans and experts speculated Portland to build on that season coming into this year. A rocky start lead to Portland being out of the playoff race early on. After starting out .500 at the conclusion of November, the Blazers ended the year 4-11 in the month of December. Portland finished the rest of the regular season 27-20, highlighted by an impressive 13-3 record in March.
The turning point in the season occurred at the trade deadline. Portland acquired the “Bosnian Beast” Jusuf Nurkic and a 2017 first-round draft pick from the Denver Nuggets in exchange for Mason Plumlee. Nurkic, only 22, averaged 15.2 points and 10.4 rebounds after the trade to Portland and showed an array of talents. His impact was evident, and he was a bright spot in an otherwise sub-par season.
Portland’s main pride and joy this season, however, was the dominance of its young backcourt. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum were the highest-scoring backcourt in the NBA this season, combining for 50 points-per-game. McCollum improved on his Most Improved Player season by increasing his scoring to 23 points a game while shooting a scorching 42 percent from three and a league-high 91.2 percent from the free throw line. Lillard had a somewhat quiet season, as McCollum took most of the shine, averaging 27 points, six assists, all while shooting 37 percent from the three-point line.
Despite impressive numbers from McCollum and Lillard, the team only finished with a 41-41 record, barely getting into the playoffs. Their late push in the season awarded them with a first-round matchup against the reigning Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors, where the Blazers were swept four games to zero. The series showcased that Lillard and McCollum clearly needed more help to beat such a stacked team, and a team that is the gold-standard as of now.
So we’ve come to the main question: what now? Portland has plenty of young assets, a stockpile of draft picks, and players whose salaries would work as fillers in any possible trade. The team has three picks in this year’s stacked draft, but none of them were in the lottery. The Blazers have the 15th overall, another at 20th (via Memphis) and another at 26th (via Cleveland). Even though the odds of them drafting a game-changer that late is not very promising, it does give the Blazers a good chance of getting some contributors or players that could be packaged in a trade.
Portland’s main issue is that they currently have the third-highest payroll in the NBA, behind only the Los Angeles Clippers and the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Bad contracts such as Meyers Leonard, Allen Crabbe, Evan Turner, and Maurice Harkless have shackled the Blazers from signing a star free agent. Portland though, could be able to trade away some of these pieces if General Manager Neil Olshey is crafty enough.
One target on the Blazers radar should be Indiana Pacers All-Star Forward Paul George. George is set to be an unrestricted free agent following the 2017-18 season, and has shown clear frustration with Indiana as of late. During a twitter question-and-answer session on April 26, McCollum said he would like to see Portland pursue George this offseason.
A trade of Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless and a bevy of draft picks for Paul George and Al Jefferson’s expiring contract works salary-wise according to ESPN’s Trade Machine. The Pacers would acquire two young players, with Crabbe being the standout, while getting rid of Jefferson’s horrid contract. Although the Pacers won’t get much in return for George, they won’t get much due to the fact that whoever trades for George risks him walking away after just one season. The Pacers also run the risk of not trading George, and getting nothing for him while he walks away in free agency.
Portland would be able to convince George to stay by pairing him with a high-scoring backcourt and a young, dominant center. For Portland, this is a no-brainer. With this lineup, Portland would easily have one of the three or four best starting lineups in the NBA and would give them the firepower to battle with Golden State. They would have three players capable of scoring 20 points a game while giving them a great perimeter defender in George, which is a weak point with McCollum and Lillard.
In all likelihood, Portland probably won’t get George, but hopefully they’ll do something. The main need is dumping off the big salaries so they have the flexibility to entice a free agent to come to Rip City. That shouldn’t be too difficult with the trio of McCollum, Lillard, and Nurkic to go along with one of the most dedicated fan bases in the entire NBA. Now it’s time to just sit back and hope our savior Neil Olshey can pull off something big time.
Column by Nick Fields