The Trail Blazers got lucky on draft night. But they didn’t hit the jackpot.
Portland will pick third in this year’s NBA draft, moving up from fifth in pre-lottery odds. The San Antonio Spurs were awarded the first overall pick—and the right to draft 19-year-old phenom Victor Wembanyama.
The Blazers may be missing out on Wembymania, but make no mistake. The third pick will still leave a lasting impact on the franchise. Pre-draft comments by Damian Lillard strongly hinted that the pick will be traded for an impact veteran if it came in anywhere but No. 1. General manager Joe Cronin now knows how valuable that draft pick will be. Which moves us one step closer to The Big Trade.
What isn’t known is what The Big Trade will look like. Lillard wants to win now. Which means flipping draft capital, and a player already on the roster, for an All-Star. It remains to be seen whether Anfernee Simons or Shaedon Sharpe will accompany this year’s third overall pick out the door.
Cronin’s public comments have made it clear, repeatedly, that the team believes a Lillard-Simons backcourt can compete. But it would be tough to stomach losing Sharpe. His rapid in-season improvement, Brandon Roy-like feel for the game, and Vince Carter-esque highlights tantalized the Rose Garden faithful—even as the team plummeted in the standings. How do you trade a 19-year-old who averaged 23.7 points and shot 38% from 3 over the final 10 games of the season? Plus, it’s a lot easier to match salaries with Simons’ $24 million contract than with Sharpe’s $6 million.
In addition to the Sharpe-or-Simons question, it’s unclear which impact player the Blazers will target. Multiple teams around the league are in turmoil or transition. The Mavericks, Grizzlies, Suns, 76ers, Raptors, Nets and others are all likely to make moves. But will an All-Star be available to pair with Lillard?
In theory, the third overall pick, plus Simons or Sharpe, should make the answer a resounding yes. In practice, it’s not clear which name accompanies that yes. It’s hard to imagine the 76ers will trade reigning MVP Joel Embiid, and the Nets have already shot down talk of a Mikal Bridges trade. But could a package centered on Simons plus No. 2 pry Pascal Siakam away from the Raptors? It’s Cronin’s job to find out. And to make The Big Trade happen.
In the unlikely event the Blazers do keep the pick, they will have several high-upside forwards to choose from: Brandon Miller and Amen Thompson, to name a couple. Lillard will likely balk at this scenario, but a third overall pick would still be an incredible boost if The Big Trade turns out to be more risk than reward. The Blazers may not have won the top prize, but they came out ahead in any scenario. That’s worth celebrating.