The Portland Trail Blazers experienced a few mountaintop peaks this season. The first came on Feb. 14 when Damian Lillard dropped 44 points and Portland defeated the Warriors 123-117, withstanding Kevin Durant’s 50-point onslaught. That victory sparked a 13-game winning streak for the Blazers, catapulting them to third in the West at 44-26.
The next moment of jubilant bliss for the Blazers occurred on April 11. when they defeated the Utah Jazz 102-93. The win clinched Portland’s second Northwest Division crown this century and secured the No. 3 seed — its highest ranking since the 1999-2000 season.
That would be the absolute zenith for Portland. All the hope bottled up during an inspired 49-33 regular-season campaign was smashed to pieces by Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and the New Orleans Pelicans, who swept the Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
There are two approaches the Trail Blazers could take this offseason. Portland could simply view its loss to the Pelicans, with their length and omnipotent big man, as an unfortunate matchup and decide to run it back another season. Of course, the Trail Blazers could realize injuries to other contenders while a relatively clean bill of health for themselves seemingly gift wrapped the Western Conference’s No. 3 seed. A playoff spot, let alone home court advantage, is by no means guaranteed next year.
Without the option of banking on the improvement of a young, dynamic third star or the promise of an essential piece returning from the sideline, Portland’s path to keeping pace with its peers is challenging.
There are a bevy of questions the Trail Blazers will be confronted with during the offseason. Here are five of the most pressing issues
5. Should the Damian Lillard-C.J. McCollum backcourt be a long-term pairing?
The Trail Blazers have made the playoffs in five straight seasons, twice winning a series. However, they’ve also been swept in back-to-back years. Sure, six of those losses came at the hands of the best team of this decade (and maybe ever) in the Golden State Warriors, but there are only been a handful of teams throughout history who have won championships with guards as their two best players (2014-15 Warriors, Bad Boy Pistons are exceptions to the rule).
For all of Lillard and McCollum’s offensive wizardry, each is a net negative defensively, which puts a ceiling on Portland’s long-term upside. Both are in the midst of their primes and could fetch a lofty return if the Blazers were to deal one.
McCollum seems the more likely option given that Damian Lillard is the face of the franchise and beloved by Portland’s fanbase. The NBA has yet to see what a McCollum-led unit would look like and that could be enticing to teams looking to land a scoring guard. For the past few seasons, Portland has had a glaring hole on the wing and down low. In a draft class rich with frontcourt talent, a deal centered around McCollum and a lottery pick could be just enough to shake things up in Portland without hitting the reset button during Lillard’s prime.
4. Is there a realistic path to creating some cap space?
The short answer is no. The Blazers are maxed out cap-wise with $110.5 million in guaranteed salary on the books for next season, which already puts them into the luxury tax. Their only realistic path to freeing up some space would be to trade McCollum (or Lillard), who’s owed nearly $25.8 million next season and is entering year two of his four-year, $106.6 million deal.
The challenge there is landing another win-now piece to pair with Lillard. General Manager Neil Olshey isn’t one to embrace a rebuild unless he has to — think Summer 2015 when LaMarcus Aldridge bolted and other external factors forced his hand — especially considering the mess Portland is already in financially. Dipping into the luxury tax only to win 35 games a year during your franchise centerpiece’s prime is an easy way to get a ton of people fired.
The question then becomes who would be willing to trade for McCollum, a productive scorer coming off a down year efficiency-wise who doesn’t add any defensive value and often gets tunnel vision as a playmaker/shooter. There’s a very select market for that type of player, one I’m not sure can offer the necessary return to make Portland pull the trigger and tinker with a perennial playoff club.
3. Is Jusuf Nurkic their center of the future?
Nurkic came over from Denver in a midseason trade during the 2016-17 season, instantly becoming a folk hero in Portland. He led a late-season surge to the postseason and fans fell in love with his cocky bravado, brutish playstyle and much-needed interior presence. Last season, though, some of that shine wore off. Nurkic is a strong interior defender but there’s not much else he brings to the table that’s a positive. He can’t defend in space, which makes him unplayable against some teams, doesn’t have many go-to post moves, is inefficient in the pick and roll and isn’t a floor-spacing center.
With all of that said, he might Portland’s best option. The team owns his full Bird rights, meaning it can re-sign Nurkic despite diving deeper into the luxury tax. Zach Collins flashed some potential in his rookie season, but it isn’t likely he’ll be ready to slide into a starting role for a playoff squad next season.
Plus, the Bosnian center still oozes an encouraging amount of upside. If he can improve his lateral quickness and post game, the opportunity to become an above-average big man is in play, especially for a team with a recent history of positive player development.
2. Can Zach Collins make a significant leap next season?
The 2017 rookie class is shaping up to be one of the deepest and most talented pools the league has seen this century, though Collins has yet to stand out. Portland took him with the 10th overall pick last summer, assuming the gangly 7-footer who only played 17.3 minutes a night in his lone year at Gonzaga would be a project.
Collins pleasantly surprised in his rookie season, showing a willingness to let it fly from deep, albeit with varying results (31 percent on 113 attempts), staunch rim protection and the ability to defend on the perimeter. His development will be a key for Portland as he’s the only young, promising piece the team has.
But it wasn’t all roses for the Las Vegas native. Despite putting on weight between the draft and the start of the season, Collins was still rail-thin by NBA standards. He’s got a fundamentally sound post game but wasn’t able to show it very often because he lacked the requisite strength to do so. A bulked-up Collins who is ready to battle on both ends of the floor next season would do wonders for his game.
Honing in on a consistent three-point shot will also be important for Collins. Players are only given free reign to hoist up triples at a subpar rate for so long before they’re either pulled off the floor or confined to shots inside the arc.
The Blazers have more or less plateaued, but the 20-year-old’s potential as a stretch-5 and above-average defender serve as a glimmer of hope.
1. What can they do with the No. 24 pick in this year’s draft?
The 2018 NBA Draft has been lauded as one of the deepest classes in recent memory, which bodes well for Portland. At No. 24, the Trail Blazers have a few different directions they could go. Their pick could be the sweetener in a trade that moves McCollum in exchange for a top-10 pick (plus pieces), or a complementary frontcourt star to pair with Lillard.
They could also go the conventional route and retain the pick, drafting any one of the 3-and-D wings projected to land in the 20-30 range, such as Cincinnati’s Jacob Evans, Boise State’s Chandler Hutchinson — who Portland’s reportedly been linked to — or Creighton’s Khyri Thomas.
Whatever the Blazers do with this pick, they need to maximize its value, considering the team’s dearth of assets, and avoid being overtaken by their Western Conference counterparts in next season’s playoff race.
*Special thanks to salary cap maestro Jeff Siegel of Early Bird Rights for assistance with information on that subject. Siegel always produces top-notch work so shoot him a follow on Twitter @jgsiegel and check out his content at the link above or on SBNation’s Peachtree Hoops, Blazer’s Edge and FearTheSword.*