Most Portland Trail Blazers fans and many pundits are optimistic about the Blazers’ improvements heading into the 2022-23 NBA season. Portland traded for Jerami Grant, signed Gary Payton II, retained Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic. People see this as a fresh start after the relatively calm debates of the past seven years.
But not everyone is convinced the new experiment will work. What if it just isn’t? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge mailbag.
What will happen next season if this team is not performing? Swap a bunch of parts and re-equip around Dame again? Is it likely that Hart, Grant and Little will all be brought back next season? I have just what you think the future looks like.
First, we need to define “perform”. The Blazers are adjusting to a new roster and will likely continue with transition moves throughout the season and/or into next summer. They are not yet in their final form. This buys them leeway. The bar will be lowered, if not reset, for them this year.
Had they continued on the same path, with a virtually unchanged roster – CJ McCollum alongside Lillard, a few rental forwards filling the three and four spots – another first-round outing would have been emotionally draining. Without evolution, no end of the grind could be foreseen. Everybody would raise their hands and say, “That will never change.
By taking big steps, the Blazers changed the narrative. Because the list has evolved, the results don’t have to be so dramatic. If they make the playoffs but drop out in the first round this year, they can say they’re getting used to each other or just need to make another move or two.
The Blazers likely have two playoff cycles — 2023 and 2024 — to get past the first round before desperation returns. For now, making the playoffs in any form remains their “success” bar. If they do, they won’t tear it down.
That leaves our working definition of “failure” as not making the playoffs this season. Unless it happens because of a string of weird injuries, missing the playoffs would call the team’s build into question. I think that would cause changes.
The last try
If the Blazers fell apart this year, the first place they would look would be practice. I’m not saying this because of any particular Chauncey Billups assessment. This is the simplest and most common solution in such situations: “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” of the NBA. Coach Billups’ contract would still have a long tail, but the team would likely be willing to eat that in order to avoid a full rebuild.
But let’s say they didn’t go that route or they weren’t convinced that a coaching change was enough. If disaster strikes again this season, I don’t believe this list will come back. If Damian Lillard, Jerami Grant, Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic can’t make the Year 1 playoffs, there’s no reason to think they’ll be challenging for a Year 3 title.
It’s an order of magnitude different than what we’ve seen since 2015 when LaMarcus Aldridge left, but the Blazers are following a similar pattern. Building a team around Damian Lillard by recruiting, trading and signing quality players is the front office’s stated mission, and really the only thing they can do. They moved their best assets – former veterans McCollum, Norman Powell and Robert Covington – to give themselves the picks and the ceiling space to take the best swing possible. That’s it, the last try.
Unless something weird happens, there are no trades from players like Grant, Payton and Simons. These are the best possible examples of their positions/archetypes that the Blazers can get, reasonably. Joe Cronin pushed the process to the limit, once again, to see if it will work.
If it doesn’t this time, the Blazers and the world will have to conclude that it won’t. It’s not going to be pretty, but there it is.
What if it doesn’t work?
But wait, Dominic. All is not lost, even if it does not work. I don’t know if you noticed, but the Blazers have done a pretty good job of cropping their roster while maintaining future flexibility so far.
Let’s take a look at Portland’s roster by player age and whether that player can reasonably be expected to continue beyond the type of course correction that short-term failure would require.
Players who could continue through a rebuild
Greg Brown III, 20 years old
Elijah Hughes, 24
Keon Johnson, 20 years old
Nassir Little, 22 years old
Didi Louzada, 23 years old
Shaedon Sharpe, 19
Anfernée Simons, 23 years old
Jabari Walker, 20 years old
Trendon Watford, 21
This roster won’t win any awards, but note that nine Trail Blazers players are young enough to truly be tomorrow’s team, not just today’s. Not all would have staying with the team if a restart was in sight, but none of them could.
Players who would not continue through a rebuild
We’re going to separate players who would likely be offloaded in a rebuild into color categories based on how easy they are to trade or release. Contract status is the main factor, with talent and age also playing a role.
GREEN STATUS—EASY TO MOVE
Damian Lillard, 31, owed $259 million through 2027
Josh Hart, 27, owed $13 million through 2023 with player option in 2024
Justise Winslow, 26, owed $4 million through 2023
YELLOW STATUS — MIGHT NEED INCENTIVE
Jusuf Nurkic, 27, owed $70 million until 2026
RED STATUS—PROBLEMATIC CONTRACTS
Jerami Grant, 28, owed $21 million through 2023*
Assuming the failure condition occurs a year from now, the Trail Blazers still aren’t too burdened with their veteran talent.
Some might quibble about including Damian Lillard in ‘green’ contract status with so much owed to him in the future, but assuming he isn’t injured, he’s still an NBA superstar. Several teams will want it. If the Blazers have trouble moving his contract, it will be down the line, when he’s well into his 30s and earns 50% of the salary cap on his own.
Josh Hart will either be out of contract or choose a reasonably priced option, which will make his talent-to-cost ratio attractive league-wide. Justise Winslow’s contract ends after the season.
That just leaves Jusuf Nurkic and Jerami Grant.
At $17.5 million a year, Nurkic makes a reasonable salary considering his value to the Blazers (starting center, ONLY center, fits into the system and culture). He is also at a decent level compared to other centers, on the verge of being the 14th highest paid center in the league. His contract will not become an albatross.
Nurkic’s ‘yellow alert’ status comes from his injury history and the fact that teams simply aren’t investing in non-elite centers these days. The Blazers may have to resume an uneven return to move him. Or they could just keep him on the team. If they were really motivated to trade him, they certainly could, barring a devastating injury.
Right now, Jerami Grant is as easily moveable as green light players. Technically, his contract expires at the end of next season. His red-light status assumes the Blazers will extend him. If they don’t, they would just let it go and award the loss of a 2025 first round as a small price for the experience.
Provided the Blazers extend Grant, he’s going to be expensive. Plus, he’s the main reason the Blazers hope to improve this season. If they don’t improve, that would mean – almost by default – that he didn’t help. Rising pay and the perception of diminishing usefulness combine for dubious business prospects.
If the Blazers don’t pay Grant a bundle, however, they don’t have any problematic contracts on the books, or at least none that will cause problems next season.
Rebuild sad, but not tragic
That’s the “intelligence” behind the Blazers’ operations over the past year. They took a dip in dropping veteran contracts mid-season last year. As they advanced, they took their shots, but kept “outs” in case those shots didn’t work.
I don’t believe rebuilding is anywhere in Portland’s short-term plans. If they have to, however, they’re actually in a decent position to do so without having to spend more assets to get to a decent starting space.
Portland may be short of assets to improve, but they still have the wherewithal to pull through.
Thanks for the question, Dominic! You can all send yours to [email protected] and we’ll try to answer it!