After an early exit in the playoffs last season, the Portland Trail Blazers have been looking to retool and improve on a dissatisfying 49-33 season. As the third seed in the Western Conference playoffs last year, the Blazers were swept in the first round of the postseason by the New Orleans Pelicans. Exit interviews ensued and as players left for the summer comments were made by management not to overreact to the surprising sweep.
General Manager Neil Olshey said “I don’t want to overreact to one unfavorable matchup against a team that played outstanding basketball. We’re not going to lose sight of the success we had this season.”
Instead the focus was on the successful regular season, the building blocks in place and the possibility to add some veteran leadership that could help them improve.
The Trail Blazers picked up two draft picks that are a year removed from high school in Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr. They also picked up two slightly seasoned free agents, both without playoff experience in Nik Stauskas and Seth Curry.
Ed Davis left for the Brooklyn Nets after being a huge part of the second unit for the last three seasons. They decided not to bring back Pat Connaughton or Shabaz Napier in free agency. But they re-signed Jusuf Nurkic to a four year deal at a great price point for the young center.
The Blazers signed Stauskas the 8th pick in 2014, who has bounced around between three teams in his first four years in the league. Stauskas is a 34.9% career 3-point shooter and has been underwhelming up to this point in his career.
They also signed Curry who sat out last season due to a leg injury. Curry is a 43.2% career 3-point shooter in his 118 games in the league. Curry could be a diamond in the rough for the Blazers if he can return to his old self when he played for the Dallas Mavericks in the 2016-17 season where he averaged 12.8 points a game on 42.5% 3-point shooting.
Napier by contrast shot 37.0% from 3-point range in the 2016-17 season and 37.6% from beyond the arc in the 2017-18 campaign. Connaughton shot 35.2% from distance last year. Curry is a more efficient shooter from downtown then both Napier and Connaughton, which could help Portland, spread the floor for playmakers CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard.
But the concern is how Portland improves with only a couple additions in free agency and the NBA draft while losing some of its continuity with the loss of Davis, Napier and Connaughton. The western conference continues to get better, especially with LeBron James joining the Los Angeles Lakers earlier this month. The Golden State Warriors added DeMarcus Cousins to bolster their dynasty. The Houston Rockets will once again make a push to upset the Warriors as best in the West, with the possible addition of Carmelo Anthony.
Lillard recently talked about the Blazers offseason at his annual youth summer basketball camp “We came into the offseason saying we want to get better, we want to take steps forward and go after some vets. We tried, I guess, we tried to get guys to come here in free agency. We tried everything we could to improve the team.”
Lillard wants to play with better players just like anyone on the planet would. Even though he is happy with his connection to the city of Portland and the franchise, contending for a title is what will keep him happy long term. Or it could be that desire to contend for a title that one day leads him away if the team doesn’t surround him with the players that can help make that goal a reality.
Olshey explained back at exit interviews in April that acquiring talent in this league isn’t easy “Everyone wants to say there’s some magical free agent. There’s an incredible trade. There’s a draft pick who’s going to revolutionize your franchise.”
Going after free agents and bringing them to a smaller market like Portland along with the rainy climate make it a tough sell for Olshey. But Lillard was first team all-NBA this past season and that speaks volumes to the type of player he is becoming. Lillard could be a huge recruiting piece in off-season’s to come, but ultimately Olshey may have to pull the trigger on a risky trade at some point to bring in another high level player. Those kinds of trades are difficult to find, execute and pay off in the NBA.
Which begs the question how will Portland ever reach a championship level if it’s stuck in a situation where it is very difficult to acquire or lure talent? The draft is one solution, as they drafted McCollum, Lillard and even the likes of Zach Collins who will be looking to have a breakout year in his upcoming sophomore campaign. But that can take years developing players and many late first round draft picks where the Blazers are usually drafting don’t typically make huge impacts early on in their career.
At least in the short term, the Blazers should continue to look for shooters to put around their stars. But hopefully bigger moves are on the horizon for this team or two years from now Lillard may grow impatient. At that point he will be 30 years old and have one year left on his current five year contract. If his meetings with owner Paul Allen in the recent months suggest anything, it’s his desire to win big and to also gauge where the owner is at, in regards to how the team is trying to win a championship. Portland has three more years to build title contending teams around Lilllard and to convince him this is the place to continue his career. In three years, signings like Stauskas and Curry may not be enough to keep him around.