We’re just three weeks into the NBA regular season, yet we’ve already learned so much about the association and its cast of characters. For example, Kyrie Irving — who publically broke up with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the offseason — has a super hot, defensive-minded new girlfriend.
It’s just Kyrie Irving scoring 22 of his 25 points in the 2nd half of a comeback win vs Westbrook & the Thunder pic.twitter.com/0gKF64rFb7
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) November 4, 2017
At the ripe age of 22-years-old, Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like he’s on the verge of becoming the best player in the league, as well as elevating Milwaukee from merely a cheese lover’s paradise to a perennial NBA town.
Full highlights from Giannis Antetokounmpo as he finished with 28 points, 8 rebounds, 3 dimes and a block against the Thunder!! pic.twitter.com/K2DthjC5Gd
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) November 1, 2017
We’ve also learned about the Trail Blazers, who bare a striking resemblance to the 2016-2017 team that earned an eight seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
Portland still deploys one of the most flammable offensive backcourts in the league, and inversely, they still struggle to defend opposing guards. To better understand where the Blazers reside in the NBA’s hierarchy, let’s split the league into four different tiers.
Tier 1 — Championship Contenders
- Golden State Warriors
- Cleveland Cavaliers
- Houston Rockets
- Boston Celtics
One of these four teams will win the championship this year, and unless Steph Curry or Kevin Durant comes down with Ebola, it will be Golden State.
Tier 2 — Almost Contenders
- Oklahoma City Thunder
- San Antonio Spurs
- Toronto Raptors
- Washington Wizards
- Milwaukee Bucks
These six teams are guaranteed to make the playoffs, and they’re one trade away from becoming a title contender.
Tier 3 — Middle Class
- Memphis Grizzlies
- Minnesota Timberwolves
- Portland Trail Blazers
- Los Angeles Clippers
- Detroit Pistons
- Charlotte Hornets
- Denver Nuggets
- Philadelphia 76ers
- New Orleans Pelicans
- Utah Jazz
- Indiana Pacers
- Miami Heat
- Orlando Magic
About half of these teams will make the playoffs. They have multiple weaknesses, and they’re at least one trade away from being a tier two team. This is the tier that voted for Donald Trump.
Tier 4 — Tanking
- Phoenix Suns
- Brooklyn Nets
- New York Knicks
- Sacramento Kings
- Los Angeles Lakers
- Chicago Bulls
- Dallas Mavericks
This group is actively tanking. Someone send help for Porzingis.
Portland finds themselves stuck in the middle class of the NBA for the fifth straight season, and the same weaknesses continue to limit their success.
Lack of Depth
After Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic, the Blazers have a plethora of mediocre players that don’t belong on a crunch time playoff rotation. I’m convinced Caleb Swanigan, Maurice Harkless, Noah Vonleh, Ed Davis and Al-Farouq Aminu were all created from the same NBA2K template: 6’9” defender who can can’t shoot threes. The 3-point shot has sort of developed into an important aspect of professional basketball; the Blazers might want to start acquiring players who can shoot them. Instead, Neil Olshey signed Meyers Leonard to a four year, $41 million contract (ouch), and Evan Turner to a four year, $70 million contract (ouch, oh God that burns).
Lillard and McCollum Allergic to Defense
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are franchise cornerstones and offensive aliens, but when was the last time a team won a championship when their two best players were below-average defenders? In the last 35 years, it’s probably the 2011 Mavericks (although you could make the case that Tyson Chandler was the second best player). Western conference guards feast on Portland’s undersized backcourt.
But the Blazers don’t have to remain stuck in the NBA’s middle class; they have the assets and excellent organizational culture to make a trade for defense and depth. And for the record, Portland happens to be a dynamic city with strip clubs, rivers and great food. Who wouldn’t want to play here? (@CarmeloAnthony).
Here are three trades that eliminate Portland’s two glaring weaknesses and immediately vault them into a championship contender:
Trade 1 — Boogie/Bledsoe for McCollum/Nurkic/Turner
Damian Lillard and DeMarcus Cousins pick and rolls would be an absolute nightmare for opposing defenses. Cousins finally gets to play for a competent coach and franchise, and Rip City would embrace his love of trash talk and technical fouls.
Eric Bledsoe hasn’t played for the Suns in two weeks after tweeting “I Dont wanna be here” following Phoenix’s firing of head coach Earl Watson.
I Dont wanna be here
— Eric Bledsoe (@EBled2) October 22, 2017
When he’s playing, Bledsoe is one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, meaning Lillard wouldn’t have to exert energy defending Western Conference point guards. Bledsoe averaged 21.1 points and 6.3 assists last season, and Portland has the culture to inspire him again.
A starting lineup consisting of Lillard, Bledsoe, Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless and Cousins would be a major upgrade defensively, and Western Conference defenses would struggle to matchup with Lillard and Cousin’s dynamic playmaking.
Trade 2 — Brogdon/Middleton/Teletovic for Lillard
I know, I know. You can’t trade Dame D.O.L.L.A. — the franchise cornerstone and all-around good guy — for three non-stars. But what if Milwaukee offers a Rookie of the Year point guard who shoots and defends, perennially underrated Khris Middleton and one of the best 3-point shooters in the league, all on team-friendly contracts?
I would do it.
With this trade, Portland becomes one of the best defensive teams in the league and a 3-point brigade. Brogdon and Middleton — both oversized for their position and good 3-point shooters — epitomize the modern NBA wing.
Lillard is the league’s sixth best point guard and his shot making is transcendent, but this roster is deeper, better defensively and has 3-point shooters everywhere. Against the Warriors and Rockets, Portland could easily go small with Brogdon, McCollum, Middleton, Teletovic and Aminu, with plenty of shooting and defense.
Trade 3 — Gordon/Capela/Anderson for McCollum
Similar to the previous trade, this is about 3-point shooting, defense and depth. Last year’s sixth man of the year Eric Gordon is a career 38 percent 3-point shooter who defends at a high-level. Although his contract is over-priced, Ryan Anderson is a terrific 3-point shooter (40 percent last season) an underrated defender and active rebounder.
The best piece coming to Portland is 23-year-old Clint Capela — a freakishly athletic 6’10” big man with elite defense and rebounding ability. Capela shot 64 percent last season, and he’d be asked to pick-and-roll with Lillard, defend switches and crash the glass alongside great 3-point shooters.
The Capela–Nurkic pairing has the potential to be awkward considering how often each player occupies the post. A crunch time lineup with Lillard, Gordon, Turner, Anderson and Capela would offer excellent defense and spacing for 3-point shooters.
Trading away offensive stars like Lillard or McCollum seems ludicrous. It’s difficult to draft stars, yet Portland drafted two with the sixth and 10th picks in back-to-back years. But both players are fundamentally flawed defensively, and the Blazers have failed to assemble a team with the depth and defense to compete with the league’s title contenders. With a single trade, Neil Olshey and the front office have the ability to pluck Portland from the NBA’s middle class and into title contention.