In a series of stunning moves, the Portland Trail Blazers have jettisoned four key rotation players. CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, Robert Covington, and Larry Nance Jr. have all been significant contributors so far in 2022. All were expected to be contributors to playoff basketball. And as of today, all are gone.
McCollum will be by far the biggest loss. As the Trail Blazer’s second-biggest star, McCollum has provided an incredible amount of production and is a known clutch performer. He averaged about 22 points per game over the last seven seasons, operating as one of the more dangerous knockdown shooters in the league. His mid-range game provided consistent offense at the end of the shot clock, and he was a team leader. His stability on the offensive end of the court helped the Blazers achieve an incredible amount of success.
Unfortunately, his size and lack of high-end athleticism made him a questionable defender, which is where Powell, Covington, and Nance Jr. were supposed to make up for McCollum and Damian Lillard’s weaknesses on that side of the court. Unfortunately, all failed to make an impact for a variety of reasons. Powell was supposed to play up a position at the three and be a pest on the wing. Unfortunately, the task was too much, as he struggled to go against larger players regularly. Covington was acquired to check the super-forwards of the league, to finally be an answer to the LeBron James’ and Kawhi Leonard’s of the world. Previously seen as a defensive stud, former GM Neil Olshey failed to research too much into why that was. Covington is a monster as a help defender, able to wreak havoc on rotations and doubling opposing players at the last second. His man-to-man defense is questionable at best, though, which Portland has found out the hard way. Nance’s failures were mainly on his health and usage, as he was regularly shoved into the four spot by head coach Chauncey Billups instead of as a small-ball 5. His size made it difficult to keep up with opposing power forwards – giving teams another avenue of attack.
The Blazers have never been able to plug the holes defensively around Damian Lillard, especially these last couple of seasons where they have been basement dwellers in the defensive rankings. Olshey saw McCollum as a second star with Dame and paid him as such. Now he’s gone because opposing teams dealt with next to no defensive resistance at the point of attack. Powell, Covington, and Nance Jr. were brought in, at a high price (Gary Trent Jr. and three total first rounders), to be switchy defenders that could allow such a weak defensive backcourt. That bet was wrong.
It cost Olshey his job, it cost the Blazers this season, and now leaves the organization in flux, which may be exactly where they want it. Currently operating as the head of the organization is Joe Cronin, a career front office type that moved in as interim GM after Olshey was let go due to personal misconduct. While ostensibly in the running, it feels like his job is to undo Olshey’s mistakes to give a future hire some real roster flexibility. According to spotrac, if they get rid of Eric Bledsoe’s contract and let Jusuf Nurkic go, the Blazers could have nearly $25 million in cap space for 2022.
All that cap space will be in addition to at least one guaranteed lottery pick, which could land in the top-five range if Portland remains committed to purely playing the youth and keeping Dame on the shelf. The other is the pick they received from the Pelicans, which Portland gets if it falls in the 5-14 range. Now holding at the ten seed with 3.5 games behind the Los Angeles Lakers, there’s a real chance New Orleans fails to escape the play-in mix.
A new general manager could be receiving two top-10 picks, significant cap space, and, most importantly, a healthy Damian Lillard for the 2022 season.
While Dame has been rumored to be unsettled and operates as a flight risk, the Trail Blazers’ current strategy isn’t the worst route to sell him on staying in the Pacific Northwest long term. Anfernee Simons has already emerged as a possible future all-star on his rookie contract, Nassir Little took a real step forward in his second season, and there’s a possibility of a possible rookie of the year candidate coming to the team if their pick falls in the top-4. You could sell him on being the leader of a young and emerging squad or try and package all those plus assets for a more established star. Flexibility is the name of the game, and the Blazers are pushing for it.
It hurts that they already jettisoned a player with potential in Gary Trent Jr., as well as chose not to take a chance on Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Trading Trent Jr. was perhaps the biggest misstep of Olshey’s tenure, given that they just gave away the guy they traded him for pretty much nothing. They didn’t want to pay Trent the contract he wanted, something that Toronto gladly did. In return, the Raptors got a young player who plays aggressive defense, hits 40.0% of his threes, and just averaged nearly 28.0 ppg over his last ten games. He just turned 23 and has already proven he has a much higher ceiling than Norman Powell. A player like that is sought after. He could’ve been an awesome piece around Damian Lillard or a valuable trade asset for a disgruntled star. Instead, the Trail Blazers now have a second round pick and cap space; neither will help them win soon.
Alexander-Walker is a much worse player but has flashed some potential during his time with the New Orleans Pelicans. While incredibly inefficient, he’s a good defender and could be a good three-point shooter. He’s also just on the third year of his four-year rookie deal. He wouldn’t help the Blazers win consistently right now, which is exactly what the team is trying to do. Tanking requires inefficient offensive play, which can be a bonus if that is done while giving young players a ton of reps in a stress-free environment. Instead, they never even let him don a uniform, swapping him for an expiring Joe Ingles and another second-rounder. Giving him a little bit of shine in this stretch run could have raised his stock and proven to be another piece in a potential asset package.
The current iteration of the Blazers are caught at a crossroads, hoping they can quickly tank for a high draft pick while still maintaining enough positive players on the roster that Dame will want to return. It’s unclear who is making the decisions that have led them here. It could be Joe Cronin. It could be Damian Lillard and his camp. It is most likely Jody Allen. But they could fail into an amazing situation. Lillard could return to a team with a talented young Simons, and a couple of lottery picks with enough room to lure a real player to pair with. Or the Blazers pick does not land in the top four, the Pelicans pick does not convey, and all that cap space does little good amongst a lackluster free agent class. It could launch a new era of Blazer’s playoff basketball, or it could serve as the vanguard of a full-scale rebuild if Dame asks to leave. They’re truly counting on ping pong balls for the moment to determine their future.