Saturday, May 21, 2022

If Blazers want to sell Damian Lillard on contending, trading Norman Powell for nothing was a bad start

Norman Powell is a really good player, and the Portland Trail Blazers just traded him to the Los Angeles Clippers, in essence, to save money. The move allowed the Blazers to duck under the luxury-tax line while taking back Keon Johnson, Eric Bledsoe and Justise Winslow, the latter two of whom come off the books in the summer of 2023, whereas Powell is in the first year of a five-year, $90 million contract that runs through 2026. 

If you want, you can spin this that Portland is trying to create more financial flexibility to continue building around Damian Lillard, but I find that story tough to buy. Even if the Blazers renounce everyone possible, save for Anfernee Simons, they’re going to be over the salary cap this summer. They could trade CJ McCollum for a bunch of expiring deals to try to create some room in 2023, but Lillard will be 33 years old by then. 

So now Powell, McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic are gone. Since when did Portland, even with a little cap space, become a free-agent hotbed that is going to attract a bunch of big-time players to not serve as just replacements for McCollum, Powell and Nurkic, but actual upgrades? 

Not going to happen. 

This is the start of a rebuild, plain and simple. 

Now if Lillard is cool with heading up a rebuild, fine. But let’s not spin this as the Blazers are going to be better in six months or even a year than they could’ve been this season with a fully healthy roster. They got worse when they traded Powell, and they’re going to get worse again whenever they trade McCollum, which feels inevitable. 

And by the way, they didn’t even get anything of value back for Powell. There’s not a team in the world that wants anything to do with Bledsoe or Winslow or the 2025 second-round pick that all got tossed into the deal. So the Blazers aren’t going to be in the business of rerouting these “assets” for actual good players. Newsflash: They’re not going to get all that much more for McCollum, who’s a non-All-Star on the wrong side of 30 set to make almost $70 million over the next two seasons. 

There was talk that the Blazers were offered Ben Simmons for a McCollum-centric deal. If that is true, and they had actual intentions of retooling around Lillard, they should’ve pulled that trigger. There is no chance whoever they end up trading McCollum for is going to be a better player than Simmons. 

So again, they’re going to get worse. 

With no short-term route to getting better. 

The Blazers can tank the rest of this season and perhaps end up with a top six or seven pick, but how is that pick, even if used as a trade asset, going to turn into two players better than McCollum and Powell? You could package it with Simons, but now that’s four core players you’re trying to replace with upgrades. 

How does any of this add up to Lillard staying in Portland to ride out the rest of his prime on a bad team? When Powell was cashed in for nothing, that was the first domino. McCollum will be the second. After that, let’s connect the dots. There’s a better than good chance that Lillard will not be playing in Portland next season.

In one sense, I hate to say that. I love Lillard and I love him with the Blazers. I don’t take the idea of him not bailing for a superteam lightly. I think that’s awesome. But that’s not what he’d be doing here. At this point, Lillard is the only play the Blazers have to bring back real assets that can fuel a true rebuild. 

It’s the same deal with Bradley Beal in Washington. The Wizards have tried to sell us the idea that they are going to build around Beal. How’s that going? Beal is — and long has been — the only Wizards asset anyone cares about enough to send back real value. Washington is fooling itself to think an actual championship contender is possible by moving some peripheral parts around Beal.

It makes me chuckle when I hear Domantas Sabonis as a possible Wizards trade target. Beal got to the second round once with prime John Wall, but now Beal and Sabonis are going to compete for a title? Stop delaying the inevitable. 

Let’s call a spade a spade: The Blazers’ window of competing for a title with Lillard, if it was ever actually open a smidge in the first place, has slammed shut. First-year head coach Chauncey Billups was never going to get them over some contending hump. Bledsoe and Winslow surely aren’t going to do that. And whoever they get for McCollum isn’t either. Lillard’s time in Portland, if he wants an honest shot at a title, is done. 

Fact is, even if Lillard doesn’t want out, the Blazers should trade him anyway. We always look at these superstar deals as if the player has to ask out before a move can even be considered. That’s not true. The Blazers can, and should, be proactive about utilizing the only real asset they possess to kickstart what is an inevitable rebuild. To me, it seems like they know that. I can’t think of any other scenario in which Lillard could be sold on a money-saving Powell trade. That was a telling domino to fall, and I’d be shocked if there aren’t a few more big ones to come. 

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