Is It Time For The Portland Trail Blazers To Tank The Season?

Portland Trail Blazers fans have endured an interesting season. From front office drama in Neil Olshey, trudging through a collapsed lung with CJ McCollum and an underperforming Damian Lillard, fans are asking, “Should we just tank?” At 18-25 currently, they are in the play-in game and could eek their way into the semifinals, but for what? Let’s look at the roadmap to tanking and whether or not the Blazers should do it.

Current Injuries

Every NBA team this year has dealt with their fair share of injuries, whether from COVID protocols or the typically broken bones or torn ligaments. Here is the current state of the roster on the injury front:

CJ McCollum – Returned Monday from a collapsed lung

CJ Elleby – Sprained ankle, listed as day-to-day

Damian Lillard – Out 6-8 weeks with abdominal surgery

Larry Nance Jr – Out with right knee inflammation, listed as day-to-day. (to be evaluated this week)

Norman Powell – Listed out with COVID/personal, status unknown

Dennis Smith Jr –  Sprained ankle, listed as day-to-day

Cody Zeller – Out with a fractured knee, no timetable as of now.

What a rough list of injuries. These injuries essentially leave a starting five of Simons, McCollum, Little, RoCo, and Nurkic with McLemore, Snell, and Watford. Even with countless injuries, I still think this lineup is better than those below the Blazers in the standings, maybe minus a healthy Zion on the Pelicans. 

Draft Picks in 2022-2024

Draft picks always is a hot topic of teams that decide to tank. Usually, it’s not a quick turnaround when teams decide to ship everyone out. Take the Sixers as an example. It took them five years after narrowly missing the playoffs in the 2012-2013 season to make it back into the playoffs. While we certainly hope it won’t take the Blazers that long, let’s take a look at what the Blazers have stashed away for the next three years. This may get slightly complicated, but I will guide you through:    

2022-2023 Season:

  • First Round – If the Blazers fall in the bottom half of the league (worst to 14th), the Blazers will get to pick. If they finish in the top half, the pick will go to the Chicago Bulls (part of the Derrick Jones Jr, this pick, and a future second in return for Larry Nance Jr)
  • Second Round –  The Blazers own their pick

2023-2024 Season:

  • First Round – If the Bulls didn’t take their pick in the previous season, the same stipulations apply. If the Bulls did take the pick, the Blazers would own their pick.
  • Second Round – The Boston Celtics own this pick through an extreme roundabout way that started with the Rodney Hood to Cleveland for Nik Stauskas, Wade Baldwin IV and two second-round picks trade and ended with Tristain Thompson to the Atlanta Hawks for Kris Dunn plus this pick and the following year pick.

2024-2025 Season:

  • First Round – If the Bulls didn’t take their pick in the previous season, the same stipulations apply. If the Bulls did take the pick, the Blazers would own their pick.
  • Second Round – This pick would go to the Sacramento Kings via Kent Bazemore Anthony Tolliver, plus this pick to SAC for Trevor Ariza, Wenyen Gabriel, and Caleb Swanigan. If Portland falls first to fourth in the league, this pick will go to Atlanta via the trade mentioned in the previous year.

For this year, I think it’s safe to say that Portland will finish in the bottom half of the league, retaining that pick. It’s slightly early to speculate what will be available in the lottery, so saying they should tank for prospects would be a shot in the dark.

Current Contracts

After covering the draft side of tanking, what will the team look like next year and beyond? Here are the existing contracts for the Blazers sorted by how many years are left:

PlayerPositionYears Left
Robert CovingtonF/CFinal Year
Jusuf NurkicCFinal Year
Anfernee SimonsGFinal Year (Restricted)
Ben McLemoreGFinal Year
Tony SnellG/FFinal Year
Cody ZellerCFinal Year
Dennis Smith JrGFinal Year
CJ EllebyFFinal Year (Restricted)
Keljin BlevinsGFinal Year (Restricted)
Trendon WatfordFFinal Year (Restricted)
Larry Nance JrFTwo Years
Nassir LittleFTwo Years (Restricted)
Greg Brown IIIFTwo Years (Non-Guaranteed)
Damian LillardGThree Years (Player Option)
CJ McCollumGThree Years
Norman PowellG/FFour Years

Dame, McCollum, and Powell are locked up for at least three years, which seems to be the front office’s nucleus to build around. I feel they’re missing two crucial pieces, though. 

The Blazers must resign Nurk and Simons. As I covered before, Nurk is almost as important to this team as Dame because those two orchestrate the offense. There are not many players in the league currently at the center position that can rip off the game that Nurk had on Monday with 21 points and 22 rebounds. I feel that if Portland hasn’t had discussions about Nurkic’s motive for next year or feels he won’t resign, they will find a team during the trade deadline and try to recoup some assets. 

Simons also has shown flashes of leadership and all-around excellence. Given he’s on a rookie contract, other teams can bid for Simons, leaving Portland to either match the offer or letting Simons walk. Simons offers a potential offense beast that can be just as effective off the dribble as he is a spot-up shooter.

The other players and I mean this with nothing but respect, can be replaced in free agency for the 2022-2023 season, which brings me to next year’s free-agent class.

Upcoming Free Agents in 2022:

Notable Guards: James Harden (player option for $42.7m), John Wall (player option for $42.7m), Russell Westbrook (player option for $41.3m), Bradley Beal (player option for $35.1m), Kyrie Irving (player option for $34.1m), Gary Harris, Zach Lavine, Collin Sexton (Restricted FA)

  • We all know that the first five guards on this list won’t take the kind of pay cut that the Blazers need to afford them. Plus, there’s no point for the Blazers to go after any of these guys as they already have a loaded backcourt.

Notable Forwards: Joe Ingles, TJ Warren, Montrezl Harrell, Derrick Jones Jr, Marvin Bagley III (Restricted), Kyle Anderson, Chris Boucher, Kevon Looney, Bobby Portis (player option for $4.4m), Miles Bridges (Restricted FA)

  • This is where the Blazers need to do some work. Adding any of these players would be an instant upgrade to their team. I’m intrigued by how much Charlotte will give Miles Bridges. A player like him would become an instant fan favorite in Rip City.

Notable Centers: Deandre Ayton (Restricted), Derrick Favors (player option for $10.1m), Thomas Bryant, Mohamed Bamba (Restricted), Mitchell Robinson, Tony Bradley, Hassan Whiteside

  • After Ayton, the talent drops down a level. I can see Thomas Bryant and Mitchell Robinson being starters, but the rest of the group would be a team’s sixth man.

If Portland is to do anything in this year’s upcoming free-agent class, it would have to be at the mid-level exception, as they are way over the salary cap for the next three years. That’s why I would target those restricted free agents, as their teams may not offer enough for those players to stay.

Are We Tanking?

We know Portland won’t compete for the top seed in the Western Conference, especially with Dame going down for the near future. However, the current roster construction can get them into the playoff game and even the semifinals. Fast-forwarding to their draft standings, they’ll be in the lottery this year and possibly next, but trying to rebuild through the draft is one of the most difficult tasks to do in any major sport. Moving to their roster, as it stands, they need to focus on resigning Nurkic and retaining Simons. Nurk is a top ten center in this league, close to the top five, and there is nothing in free agency or in the draft to replace him. Simons is young and shows great potential and could be a replacement if the Blazers go the way of trading McCollum or Powell. Free agency next year shows a glutton of guards with a low amount of forwards and big men. If Portland makes a splash here, it will have to be for cheap, as they lack any cap flexibility, even if they don’t resign all of their ten possible free agents this year. 

Verdict: If the team stands firm at the trade deadline, there’s no point in tanking as the team is too talented at fighting for the first pick in the draft. Either trade three out of the four players in Nurk, McCollum, Powell, or Lillard, or ride this out for the next couple of years. Don’t go half into a tank, or you’ll face a lifetime of mediocrity.