Damian Lillard is out for at least the next 5-6 weeks, and the Portland Trail Blazers are at something of a crossroads. Given that they’re 16-24, with the second-worst defense in the NBA, they no longer fit the profile of a win-now team. There is a case to be made that, as the Feb. 10 trade deadline approaches, they should become a lose-now team.
Broadly speaking, there are a couple of ways Portland can punt the rest of the season.
- Option A: Total reset. Trade Lillard. Trade Jusuf Nurkic and Robert Covington, both of whom are on expiring contracts. Be open to trading everyone else, except for 22-year-old guard Anfernee Simons and 21-year-old forward Nassir Little.
- Option B: Soft reset. Shelve Lillard, get what you can for Nurkic and Covington, be opportunistic otherwise. If there’s a trade involving Norman Powell or CJ McCollum that makes the team worse in the short term but sets you up to be better — or at least different — next season, do it.
Option B is looking likely, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. In an appearance on “SportsCenter” on Wednesday, Wojnarowski said, “They’ve been very active in the trade market. They want to continue to build around Damian Lillard. Their interim general manager, Joe Cronin, listen, they’ve had discussions on players like Robert Covington, Jusuf Nurkic. Now, CJ McCollum has been out, away from the team, he’ll come back here at some point. But this is a Portland team now that I think will continue to try to make some deals, continue to try to move toward building a team around Damian Lillard, but now you have a team that certainly may struggle and may have the opportunity to start playing for ping-pong balls and higher draft position this summer.”
Portland got Lillard with the sixth pick in 2012, McCollum with the 10th pick in 2013 and haven’t had a top-10 pick since then, unless you count the time that it traded the 15th and 20th picks in the draft for the chance to draft Zach Collins 10th in 2017. For a franchise in this position, a one-year dip — like the one that brought Scottie Barnes to the Toronto Raptors — is appealing. This is the silver lining to Lillard’s injury, provided that it doesn’t turn out to be career-changing.
But while Option B allows the Blazers to envision a new and improved team next season, it does not offer the same kind of clarity that Option A does. Proponents of Option A would argue that a soft reset is merely delaying the inevitable, or, worse, a form of self-sabotage. It is easy to find executives who wish they had hit the rebuild button sooner, rather than allowing their superstars’ value to decline. Option B comes with all sorts of questions — including a big one about a potential contract extension for Lillard — and is difficult to execute.
Covington, 31, and Nurkic, 27, are two of the most obvious trade candidates on the market. Neither is having a standout season, though, and, as rentals, Portland cannot expect to get huge hauls for them. If this is going to be a successful bridge season, the Blazers will need some lottery luck.