Why a Ping-Pong Ball Matters So Much to the Portland Trail Blazers

Joe Cronin is precariously close to repeating the mistakes of his predecessor.

The Trail Blazers need some luck on Tuesday.

The NBA will reveal the results of its annual draft lottery at 5 pm on national TV. The Blazers will have the sixth-most lottery balls, conferring a 37% chance of moving into the top four of the draft and a 9% chance of winning the top overall pick. But if Portland’s numbers aren’t chosen, they’ll draft in the 6-to-9 range, with a seventh pick being the most likely outcome, at 30%.

At this point, a lucky bounce would be a relief for the Blazers. They already saw their chances at two lottery picks go up in smoke when the Pelicans made the playoffs via two play-in wins.

If the Pelicans had missed the playoffs, the Blazers probably would have received their pick as part of the compensation for sending CJ McCollum to New Orleans. Instead, the Blazers will get the Bucks’ 2025 first-round pick—a significantly less valuable prize given the ongoing dominance of Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Losing the Pelicans’ pick was a particularly harsh blow for the Blazers given their publicly stated hopes of contending for playoff success next season. General manager Joe Cronin already pushed the chips in on one gamble: trading CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, Larry Nance Jr. and Robert Covington for very little in return.

Cronin presumably figures that the Blazers, who finished the regular season with a dismal 27-55 record, would improve more quickly by jettisoning the approximately $140 million in salary owed to those four players rather than extending negotiations into this summer in a bid to secure stronger trade terms.

Baked into that assumption was the reported plan to dangle the Pelicans’ pick in trade to the Pistons for forward Jerami Grant. Extending Grant’s contract when it expires at the end of next season would have been more palatable after the salary-dumping trades in February.

Instead, the Blazers are left with a conundrum after losing the Pelicans’ pick: They have very little depth on the roster, few tradeable players or draft picks, but are focused on winning next season. In short, Cronin and his staff need some good news tomorrow night.

Why’s a lottery pick so important for the Blazers?

Once the Blazers know their draft position, they’ll shift focus to constructing a roster that best complements superstar Damian Lillard and his sidekick Anfernee Simons. Specifically, Lillard and Simons are subpar defenders with some advanced metrics even suggesting they are among the worst defensive players in the league.

Cronin is precariously close to repeating the mistakes of his predecessor—we’ve already seen that Lillard and McCollum with Jusuf Nurkic at center weren’t a title-winning combination in and of itself. Is there reason to believe Lillard and Simons will have that much more success?

To avoid getting sucked into a Groundhog’s Day vortex of 40-something wins mediocrity, Cronin’s top priority this summer will be finding a legitimate starting forward. Since LaMarcus Aldridge left Portland in 2015, Al-Farouq Aminu has probably been the most talented forward to start alongside Lillard. That’s simply not good enough to compete in a league featuring elite two-way wings like LeBron James, Jimmy Butler, Jayson Tatum and Khris Middleton. Quite frankly, it’s been downright insulting to see Lillard’s offensive heroics undermined by the likes of Mario Hezonja and Allen Crabbe.

Further complicating matters, the Blazers need all-Defense skill, or at least all-Defense potential, at the forward position. Anything short will be insufficient in a league where teams win playoff games by spamming pick and rolls on their opponents’ worst defender like an unscrupulous high schooler spamming their pet Madden call. Head coach Chauncey Billups already saw that even a very good defender, like Covington, isn’t quite enough to fully cover for the defensive deficiencies of the team’s backcourt.

Indeed, it’s fair to say that the Blazers have failed in the first year of their on-the-fly rebuild if they don’t have at least one long-term starter at forward by the 2023 trade deadline.

This is where Tuesday’s lottery becomes crucial. No pick in the NBA draft is a guaranteed All-Star, but odds of a successful pick are significantly higher earlier in the draft. It’s a lot more exciting to be choosing between probable sure-things like Jabari Smith and Paolo Banchero than weighing the prospects of Ochai Agbaji and AJ Griffin.

Moving up from a probable seventh or eighth pick into the top two or three would hopefully solve half the Blazers’ starting forwards problem overnight. One player won’t the roster instantly, but some good luck Tuesday evening would at least fix one problem for Cronin, Lillard and the Blazers.