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As the NBA trade deadline approaches, the Blazers face the franchise-defining choice of trading Damian Lillard or holding onto him for another playoff run.
The trade deadline typically serves as an inflection point of the NBA season, both for the league as a whole and for individual teams. Championship contenders try to upgrade their rosters, lottery-bound franchises sell off parts for future assets and the teams in between often choose a more firm direction, all of which help clarify the state of the overall league landscape.
As Feb. 10 approaches, perhaps no team sits at a more important crossroads than the Portland Trail Blazers, who appear likely to miss the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade and face the unenviable choice of either maximizing what’s left of Damian Lillard’s prime or parting ways with their franchise player and building the team back up from scratch.
The Portland Trail Blazers can trade Damian Lillard or they can keep him, but neither is a guarantee
Whatever direction the Blazers choose, neither is likely to yield immediate success. Lillard will miss most, if not all, of the rest of the regular season after undergoing abdominal surgery last month, and a full-scale rebuild would obviously set Portland’s window back several years. That requires interim General Manager Joe Cronin and the rest of the front office to take a longer view of the situation: What does a team built around a 32-year-old with three years left on a supermax contract look like? What, if any, reasonable avenues exist to maximize the remainder of Lillard’s prime, and is that pursuit worth the resources required to get there? Would the team be better off moving into a new era with a relatively blank canvas, unburdened by the pressure of doing right by a franchise icon with a ticking clock?
It may be decades before the Blazers have another player as good as Lillard, even in his relatively depleted form. It might be worth taking as many swings as the front office has left to try and compete for a championship with a star who, at his best, has been good enough to captain an elite playoff offense. That appears to be Portland’s stance going into this deadline. The Athletic’s Jason Quick described Cronin as “staunchly devoted to Lillard” while ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said last month that Portland wants to keep building around their six-time All-Star once he gets healthy. “They continue to be committed to Damian Lillard,” Wojnarowski said. “They still want to make deals, Jusuf Nurkić, Robert Covington, those are players that are very much available. … So they can continue to try and fine-tune this roster, see what value in the trade market they have, and continue to try to get Damian Lillard healthy and come back.”
And yet, Portland also faces the reality that neither the current team around Lillard nor any version the front office could reasonably construct in the near term is likely to contend for an NBA title. To continue toiling in the glorified version of mediocrity the Blazers have reached during Lillard and CJ McCollum’s primes would not only deny Lillard the chance to compete for a championship, but hurt Portland’s own chances of eventually winning a title. The Blazers sit in 10th place in the Western Conference, they have little of making a deep playoff run and they’ll owe their 2022 first-round pick to the Bulls if they make the playoffs.
Even in a down season, even coming off of surgery, even on that hefty contract, Lillard would likely be worth significant assets via trade with a team either in or on the precipice of contention. When healthy, the 31-year-old has provided one of the surest pathways to elite offense in recent NBA memory and has the kind of game that could complement other elite talent. Capitalizing on that value now would provide Portland with resources — both players and draft picks — to begin reshaping its roster around Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little (currently out for the season after shoulder surgery) and whatever other young players the team acquires in the coming years.
Should Portland decide to trade Lillard, finding new homes for role players like Covington, Nurkić, Larry Nance Jr. and Tony Snell would be a logical next step. None of those support players will likely fetch more than a mediocre first-round pick, but they can all help playoff teams in need of depth more than they’re helping the Blazers, and those middling draft assets could still be useful in a potential rebuild. McCollum may be trickier to move because of the $69.1 million remaining on the final two years of his contract, but finding a way to move on from him could give Portland the chance to evaluate its young players, or at least improve its lottery odds.
In all likelihood, the Blazers will mostly stand pat, make a slight shakeup to the rotation and go into next season hoping to get back into the playoff mix. That route will lead to the least short-term pain, and it appears to be Lillard’s preferred option. But it also might lead to a dead-end, leaving all parties wondering what they might have left on the table. Next week could present an opportunity for Portland to get a head start on the inevitable, and the team should take a clear-headed view of where it stands and where it’s going — however difficult that may be.
Two young wings carve out roles on potential contenders
Less than a year after being widely considered co-favorites to make the NBA Finals, both the Nets and Clippers find themselves fighting to make the playoffs. LA knew it would be without Kawhi Leonard for most — if not all — of the season, then Paul George’s right elbow injury set them back even further. Brooklyn, meanwhile, has logged just 32 minutes this season with Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving on the floor together, and will be without Durant through at least the All-Star break. And yet, with Durant slated to come back well before the playoffs begin and murmurings that Leonard and George could play again this season, both teams could feasibly return to full strength by the postseason.
In that hypothetical scenario, each team will need a solid foundation upon which its stars can hit the ground running ahead of the playoffs, which makes this a critical period for the Nets and Clippers’ role players. At full strength, these teams play somewhat similar styles, surrounding elite offensive wing creators with like-sized shooters and defenders. But in order to access those small lineups, teams must have viable wing depth, and the challenge in constructing top-heavy teams via free agency is that teams run out of money to spend on the rest of the roster. It becomes imperative to hit on cheap, usually young players on the margins to cultivate depth around the players absorbing the bulk of the salary cap. Second-round picks, undrafted grinders and under-the-radar veterans become not just interesting fliers, but vital parts of the team’s identity.
That makes the emergence of Brooklyn’s Kessler Edwards and LA’s Amir Coffey — two 6-foot-8 wings on two-way contracts — particularly intriguing. Edwards and Coffey have become full-time starters since Durant and George went on the shelf, and both have flashed enough two-way ability to beg the question of whether they could become legitimate playoff contributors. As an undrafted three-year college player, Coffey only played sparingly for the Clippers in his first two seasons. But with more opportunity available to him, the third-year forward has given LA a needed jolt in its starting lineup, averaging nearly 15 points on 50/40/90 shooting splits over the last 14 games. Coffey has become a dependable catch-and-shoot marksman this season, and has even flashed the ability to get to the rim more regularly. While he’ll never be a primary ball-handler with George and Leonard in the lineup, he moves the ball well and can make basic reads after collapsing defenses:
Defensively, Coffey is good enough not to be targeted by playoff opponents, though he isn’t quite a true wing stopper. Edwards, meanwhile, offers slightly less ball-handling and playmaking than Coffey but is a more spry on-ball defender. The 44th overall pick in last year’s Draft didn’t see real playing time until mid-December, and only became a regular starter on January 12. Since then, he has emerged as a solid 3-and-D gap-filler, shooting over 39 percent from 3, playing active defense and, like Coffey, taking almost nothing off the table.
Edwards has played just 52 possessions alongside Harden and Durant, but is theoretically the kind of versatile, low-maintenance role player who could thrive around two (or three) ball-dominant players and help mask their defensive weaknesses. Edwards has become the Nets’ primary defender against perimeter stars, and while his technique could use some polish (he struggles getting around screens and often concedes too much space on closeouts) his length and quickness help partially compensate for those nuances he has yet to master:
That neither Edwards nor Coffey is a high-usage scorer or playmaker isn’t particularly concerning because the healthy versions of their teams won’t feature them in those roles. What matters is whether they continue to reliably convert on the chances they do get, and, in time, make life easier on their star teammates.