The Portland Trail Blazers are, once again, in the midst of an injury crisis. Franchise stalwarts CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic are both out for weeks to come, along with franchise icon Damian Lillard and starting power forward Robert Covington struggling with nagging injuries. But even before this run of bad health, the Trail Blazers were struggling, especially on the defensive end of the court. During the 12 games where all Blazers starters were healthy, the team was blitzed to the tune of 115.9 points per game. While the offense is good enough to bail out the other end of the court on most nights, that attitude won’t fly in the playoffs. For Portland to really try and make some noise in the post season, they need to greatly improve on their 28th ranked unit. To do that, they need to answer some tough questions on what they can do to improve as a team.
There is room for some natural improvement on that end of the floor, as Portland brought in two new starters this season in Derrick Jones Jr and Covington. Both have struggled overall, but the defense is what is most concerning. Both carry a strong-defensive reputation and were targeted by the Portland front office this offseason to bolster the wings around McCollum and Lillard. That theory has yet to prove true, as both are contributing career lows in their defensive box-plus minus, a metric that measures defensive impact. Covington is at least still contributing a somewhat positive impact at 0.2, but that’s a stark decrease from last season where that number was 1.3. The difference is even more startling for Jones Jr, as has fallen from a +1.1 mark down to a -0.5, meaning that he has actually been a net negative on the defensive end of the floor. The good news is that both those numbers should regress to the mean, as both have been forced to play a ton of minutes without a good defensive center on the floor as well as having to adapt to a new team. Still, Blazers brass can’t be happy with the return they’ve gotten from both players so far, considering they gave Jones a sizable contract and were forced to cough up two first round picks in order to acquire Covington.
And herein lies the rub, Portland does not have a lot of maneuverability to go out and acquire another player. According to Spotrac, Portland is only $627,852.00 from being in the luxury tax, something it could be assumed that that team would want to avoid while team ownership is still somewhat of a question. The means that the Blazers would have to match salary to acquire a new player, which is somewhat difficult as the most likely salaries (Covington, Jones Jr, Rodney Hood) are unable to be traded for a while due to all being acquired or re-upped this offseason. Their asset chest isn’t too inspiring either, as CJ Elleby, Zach Collins, Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little are all question marks at this point in their young careers. The only real trade chip the Blazers have is Gary Trent Jr, who has proven himself an ascending young player that projects to be a plus-starter. With CJ McCollum already being the team’s long-term starter in Trent’s projected best position, the Trail Blazers could convince themselves that using him (a-soon-to-be-very-expensive-role-player) as a sweetener in a trade for a more win-now player could be worthwhile. If the team waits for Rodney Hood’s salary to become available as filler, they could theoretically package GTJ + Hood to acquire a veteran at around $13,000,000.
Other potential assets in a theoretical deal could include all their first-round picks from 2022 & beyond, along with multiple extra second rounders gained from the Trevor Ariza, Rodney Hood and Skal Labissierre trades.
Players who have a yearly salary around or below that $13,000,000 mark and could be available include Thad Young, Larry Nance Jr, Taurean Prince, Kelly Olynyk, Terrance Ross, Norman Powell, Will Barton, PJ Tucker, Trevor Ariza, Nemja Bjelica.
The only names on that list that are good enough and would warrant the inclusion of someone as good as Gary Trent Jr are Nance and Barton. They are very different players, but both would bring something that Portland has been missing. Barton is a 6’6” small forward that packs a real scoring punch and creativity that the Blazers haven’t had on the wing in recent years. While not quite the defender than Jones or Covington have been in the past, it could be argued that the upgrade on offense could outweigh that, especially with McCollum out. Nance is a much larger player than Barton, as the lanky power forward is also a sky-high athlete and rim-runner. He isn’t a ballhandler but has become a more dangerous shooter in recent years, converting 38% of his shots from behind the three-point line. His real strengths are on the defensive end though, as he leads the league in steal % and is a capable rim protector. With the ability to slide to the five in smaller line-ups, Nance is what Blazers fans wish Zach Collins could be.
Barton is in and out of the starting line-up for the Nuggets, while Nance is plying his trade on the rebuilding Cavaliers. Both teams may view the young GTJ as a potential upgrade in their starting units.
The other players that the Blazers should be inquiring about are Young, Tucker and Bjelica. Young and Tucker are wily vets at this point in their respective careers, power forwards that provide a defensive edge that would be more valuable on a contending team. Tucker, in particular, also provides a spacing element that would likely cost the Blazers a future first but would instantly upgrade the frontcourt. Bjelica is also a power forward, but it’s his passing and shooting that would draw interest from other teams. While he wouldn’t be a nailed-on starter for the Blazers, he could provide huge spacing in bench line-ups or (in the right match-up) in a closing group. Both he and Young are on expiring contracts, are older and are on losing teams. If either the Bulls or Kings start to crater, they might only cost a second-round pick or two.
Long story short, upgrades are out there if the Blazers choose to search for them. Odds are though, they sit on their hands and hope that good health and more time for their projected starting line-up to gel are what’s needed to improve team performance. They sunk both money and assets for Covington and Jones, they won’t be eager to invest more assets. But early indications are that a starting five of Lillard-McCollum-Jones-Covington-Nurkic has not been defensively potent enough to make up for the offensive struggles of their forward line. More importantly, neither Jones nor Covington look up to the task of facing the best forwards in the league 1-on-1 on either end of the court. A player like Nance is one of the few players out there that might hold up athletically to Anthony Davis and Lebron James, while Barton could significantly increase offensive output, specifically with shot creation on the wing. Other veterans are out there for cheap, the question is whether or not Portland makes the plunge. Dame isn’t getting any younger, the time is now to maximize their potential window.