The 2021-22 Trail Blazers face a sad reality: They suck. Really suck.
With the season nearly half over, the Blazers have fallen to the bottom third of the Western Conference—not even good enough to qualify for a play-in game.
And things are only getting worse. Franchise cornerstone Damian Lillard hasn’t played since Dec. 31 and the Blazers announced tonight he will miss at least the next two weeks.
The team has stopped short of shutting its star down entirely, but the message is clear: Lillard’s abdominal injury isn’t resolving on its own and it’s starting to look like he’ll miss an extended chunk of the season.
Shutting down Lillard is, of course, not the optimal outcome. But it does answer the question of whether the Blazers should spend the rest of the season tanking for a top-five draft pick or make a desperation trade and try to sneak into the playoffs. Without Lillard, the only move is to rest veteran players, give younger prospects some playing time, and dip deep into the NBA draft lottery.
Tanking is not an ideal situation, especially given the high hopes that many had coming into the season. But other teams have recovered using similar strategies: The Warriors have one of the best records in the NBA after missing the playoffs the last two seasons as they restocked their bench.
“We need a thoughtful reconstruction, with an eye towards size and defense, compatible with [Lillard’s] skills,” says Catherine Stelzer, who paused her season-ticket purchase this year in disgust. “As a fan, I want to feel like the Trail Blazers have a legitimate shot at being title contenders during Dame’s prime.”
As the team shifts into rebuild mode for the rest of the season, interim general manager Joe Cronin has a clear mandate: The Blazers desperately needs to balance their roster, preferably by trading one of their four 6-foot-3 guards for a big man.
Poor roster construction, combined with inexplicable play-calling, has created a truly putrid defense for the Blazers. Portland plays one of the most aggressive defenses in the league but surrender more points per possession than any other team in the league.
The Blazers are fortunate to have four solid-to-excellent wing scorers—Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell and Anfernee Simons—but it’s also impossible to play more than two of them simultaneously for long stretches because of size disadvantages on the defensive end.
Cronin could immediately improve the Blazers’ defensive prospects for next season by swapping out a small, ineffective defender for a player more capable of checking opposing wings. Outside of Larry Nance Jr., the Blazers struggle to find a player who can match up against larger perimeter opponents, such as LeBron James or Kevin Durant. Defensive stalwarts like Indiana’s Myles Turner and Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons have been mentioned as possible trade targets. Either player, or someone similar, would hopefully be an immediate difference maker for the Blazers.
Which wing player to trade, however, remains less clear.
Lillard is truly untouchable as the franchise cornerstone. It has long been assumed that former president of basketball operations Neil Olshey was unwilling to trade CJ McCollum, and that may have changed under Cronin, but McCollum’s onerous contract may not make him as valuable in a trade as fans hope. Powell may not be as offensively spectacular as McCollum, but his smaller contract could ultimately net more in return. And Simons will be a free agent this summer, possibly limiting his trade value.
Ultimately, one of the Blazers’ guards must be traded, but it’s an open question whether they will net the impact player on defense that is needed to begin balancing Portland’s rotation.
“You have to start with trades. I love McCollum as a player, and he’s been good to the city,” says Justin Hintze, owner of local food truck Jojo, who has attended about half the home games this season. “But it’s long past due to move him and rebalance the roster. They need perimeter defense more than anything.”
The Blazers must also choose what to do with multiple players who will be free agents this summer. Notably, Simons, Jusuf Nurkic, and Robert Covington are all on the final year of their current contracts. Any of the three could be included in a larger package to snag a difference-maker like Turner or Simmons. Alternatively, they could be traded for draft picks or young prospects.
Similar to Gary Trent Jr. last season, Simons will be negotiating his first major NBA payday as a restricted free agent. The Blazers will have a right of first refusal to match any offer Simons receives elsewhere, but if Cronin is concerned that Simons will get a massive offer from another team they may trade him preemptively for a player on a longer deal. It’s difficult to know what qualifies as a “massive offer” in today’s NBA, but anything over the midlevel exception—a contract starting at roughly $10 million a year—should give Cronin pause.
In contrast, Nurkic and Covington are both unrestricted free agents and could walk this summer, leaving the Blazers with no compensation whatsoever. If neither player is in the franchise’s long-term plans, this scenario should be avoided at all costs and they should be traded for assets at the trade deadline.
Just maybe, the midseason personnel changes can at least make the Blazers’ home games watchable again. But the reality is, with two months remaining in the NBA regular season, the Blazers are playing for 2023. And the rest of the season is a long goodbye.
Reflects season ticket holder Ty Delbridge: “I was ready for Stotts to go but, damn, at least his teams were fun to watch every night.”