Twenty-six games into their NBA season, the Portland Trail Blazers have won just 10, sitting in 11th place in the Western Conference. The franchise that surprisingly reached the conference finals just months ago has fallen into mediocrity.
The injury bug is punishing Portland as hard as any team in the league. Damian Lillard is playing as well as ever, and C.J. McCollum is healthy too, although he’s not having his strongest year. But the Blazers’ depth is unrecognizable. Jusuf Nurkic’s fractured leg from March is expected to keep him out until the NBA All-Star Game at the very least. Zach Collins, maybe the team’s most promising young player, is expected to miss at least four more months after having shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum three games into the year. Rodney Hood’s torn Achilles will cost him the season.
On top of the injuries, eight rotation players from last year aren’t in Portland. Mo Harkless, Al Farouq-Aminu, Jake Layman, Evan Turner, Seth Curry, Enes Kanter, Nik Stauskas and Meyers Leonard are gone. The Blazers are using placeholders like Carmelo Anthony, Hassan Whiteside and Kent Bazemore in the interim, but it isn’t working. Portland ranks No. 19 in the league in net rating, getting outscored by 2.03 points per 100 possessions. That’s worse than the Chicago Bulls.
So where does Portland go from here?
Option 1: The Blazers can wait it out
If Portland holds out, it’s expected to have more than $22 million in cap space for this upcoming free agency season. Whiteside and Bazemore’s pricy contracts will come off the books; Anthony will be an unrestricted free agent. Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic will still be under contract, Hood has a player option he’ll likely opt into, and Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little and Collins will all still be under rookie contracts.
Portland can retool in a free agency class that lacks star-power, but has quality starters including Danilo Gallinari, Joe Harris, Paul Millsap, Montrezl Harrell set to become unrestricted free agents. At that point, it should also have a healthy Collins and Nurkic, with Hood returning at some point during the season.
That decision can come with consequences. The obvious one being the potential that Portland strikes out in free agency. But even if they don’t, this means wasting an amazing Lillard year in the interim, unless a healthy Nurkic bounces the team back quickly.
Lillard might be the best player to ever wear a Blazers uniform, and at the top of his game, he’s one of the league’s best 10 players. Right now, he’s scoring 26 points on 36 percent three-point shooting with eight assists and four rebounds This type of talent doesn’t come by Portland often. Are the Blazers willing to let that go to waste?
Option 2: The Blazers make a blockbuster trade
This idea sounds drastic, but it has to at least be in the back of some fans’ minds. Last year went about as well as possible minus the Nurkic injury, and Portland reached the conference finals. If Nurkic played, would the Blazers have knocked off the Warriors? Probably not, but with Golden State broken up, that’s no longer a meaningful question to ask. The question to instead ask is if a core involving McCollum and Nurkic can beat LeBron James and Anthony Davis’s Lakers or Kawhi Leonard and Paul George’s Clippers, or stop Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks.
If the season keeps taking a turn for the worst, maybe the Blazers start exploring the market for McCollum, a 28-year-old who’s only good on one side of the ball. Would the Pistons consider moving Blake Griffin from an Andre Drummond fit that doesn’t work? Is there a bigger trade to work with the Thunder that includes Chris Paul and Gallinari?
The Blazers have no reason to panic, but if there’s ever a time to consider shaking things up, now might be the time.
Option 3: The Blazers try and salvage this season with smaller changes
The Blazers could try and make trades before the deadline to reshape their lineup. Bazemore’s expiring $19 million contract makes for an easy trade piece, as does Whiteside’s $27 million, and Portland still has all of its first-round picks.
Can Portland swing a trade involving Whiteside and first-round picks for Kevin Love? Love stretching the floor in an offense when Nurkic returns could be really effective.
If not, can it sell Oklahoma City on a trade involving Bazemore and picks for Gallinari? How about that same trade with pick protections to New York for Marcus Morris? The Blazers can get creative at the deadline if they want, maybe even securing a better player than it could get if it held out to free agency.
Smaller retooling might be the best option of all for the Blazers. The team remaining competitive now, while having potential to grow when everyone’s back to full strength next year is ideal.
Filling the small forward gap with a player like Gallinari interests me most. If Portland can roll out a lineup with Lillard, McCollum, Gallinari, Collins and Nurkic, with Anthony and Whiteside off the bench, they could be in business to take the seventh and eighth seeds in the west that are so easily up for grabs. That starting lineup with Simons and Little in 2021 could be explosive.