No team since the NBA-ABA merger has won a championship without a well-rounded roster – and at least a second player accepted as a star. Before super teams, front offices were drafting players and making below-the-radar trades to improve their on-court product into a long-term championship contender. Portland was once one of those teams with a deep belief in developing a core and building around it. These days, it seems like the whole thing is being held together by duct tape rather than a solid foundation.
The gross mismanagement of the roster and its construction, an inability to develop more than two players in nearly a decade, and doling out crazy contracts to second-tier players, has this team in a really tough spot. It’s beyond surreal to hear GM Neil Olshey talk about having limited assets and contracts that are tough to move when he’s the bleeping person that traded away those assets and agreed to those contracts. He’s been here nine years now; this isn’t someone else’s mess he’s cleaning up. This is 100% his mess, and the fact that he tried to blame the whole thing on Terry Stotts shows his true character. Stotts absolutely had his shortcomings as a coach. But Olshey is selling snake oil that no one is buying, and until ownership shows him the door, it won’t matter how many coaches he “mutually parts ways with.”
Despite all the questionable moves and bad attitude toward the fans Olshey has, he did bring us Damian Lillard. So it’s tough to hate the guy – at least completely. There isn’t a player on the current roster that brings more value to this team than Lillard. Literally, everyone but Lillard is expendable, especially the more expensive they are. Despite all the chatter from talking heads about what the team can get for CJ McCollum to bring a second star to Lillard’s lineup, the other GMs around the league do not appear as high on Mr. McCollum as Olshey is. For what he’s paid, he doesn’t do enough on both ends of the court. Nor is his deal exactly cheap or expiring, he is signed through the end of the 2024 season, and he will make more than $90M over the next three seasons. So whoever trades for him has to see him as an asset for a bigger trade later on or a player they are comfortable paying a king’s ransom for the next three seasons.
We’re not here to question CJ’s ability on offense; he’s one of the better shooters in the league today. What they question is whether he gives maximum effort on both ends, and he makes it a little too obvious how little energy he gives when a play is not designed for him. When Olshey awarded him a monster deal in 2016, he was a star on the rise and won the most improved player in his first full season as a starter. Most folks here assumed he would continue to elevate his game as he played alongside Lillard. When CJ was awarded another huge deal in 2019, he was coming off an amazing performance in the playoffs as he helped get Portland to their first conference finals in nearly two decades. And since then – his game has become flat.
Once a star on the rise and very deserving of a mega deal, CJ has since become exposed as a liability on defense, and his play at times on offense is less than enthusiastic when a play isn’t clearly designed for him. It is time to see what the team can get in exchange for him. But it’s not likely they’re going to get a player of greater value, not straight across anyway. Portland is likely going to have to include another major asset if they want to make a deal. A bigger issue is that Portland does not hold a pick in the draft next week, so they can’t even offer their potential trade partner a rookie to develop in a deal with CJ. They would either have to move valuable depth they can’t afford to lose, or they would need to deal future picks, which might make the most sense. CJ and a future first-round pick might be the best way to unload a now upside-down contract and improve their overall talent. But their potential trade partners will need to see CJ as their missing link or have a contract they want to unload, or both. The other teams know how desperate Portland is to improve, so it won’t be easy to make a deal.
With their history of missing on marquee free agents, let’s just assume Olshey doesn’t suddenly pull off a miracle signing and leave those players off the list for now. The main targets will have to be players on expiring deals and restricted free agents. Kawhi Leonard would be a player with an expiring deal who would help Portland the most, and John Collins is the most likely to help as a restricted free agent.
If Leonard opts into the final year of his current deal, he will make roughly $5M more than CJ this year. Knowing it would only cost you a few million dollars, wouldn’t you trade for Leonard in a heartbeat? He would be a free agent next year, but imagine what you could do with that one year. You can sign Norm Powell to a new deal right away and move him to his natural position at shooting guard. Then you put Leonard at small forward and let Robert Covington play forward alongside him. If you can sign a couple of savvy veterans willing to chase a title on the cheap, you could really round out an amazing one-year roster.
Then in the summer of 2022, you let Kawhi go his own way, and you can trade for another stopgap player with your extra cap space. If we continue to see Olshey sign band-aid players instead of making long-term plays, let’s see him start using really good band-aids rather than the cheap stuff that falls apart in less than a season.
If a trade for Kawhi is not available, Collins is a very talented and young power forward for Atlanta and is a restricted free agent this summer. Portland can make him an offer, but they aren’t likely to be able to outbid anyone. Their best bet might be to trade for Collins and hope they can re-sign him next year before he gets to free agency. Without CJ on the books, they would have more than enough money to sign Collins and Powell. Collins does not come without injury concerns, but there are not many young forwards more productive, and the team would be getting him just as he prepares to enter his prime years.
Adding Collins would move Covington to small forward and would give Portland a more traditional lineup. Covington spent most of 2021 at power forward, and while he is a gifted rebounder, he had trouble defending the taller and more physical forwards and centers under the hoop. Strangely enough, John Collins was drafted 19th overall in the same draft that Portland selected forward Zach Collins 10th overall. While the team would have benefited if they had selected Bam Adebayo instead of either player, it’s not too late to bring in the correct Collins.
Collins is integral to Atlanta’s renewed success, but with so much young talent on their roster and a lineup heavy on forwards, it might be best for them to add a veteran shooting guard to pair with Trae Young, especially if they can’t re-sign Lou Williams.
Whether Olshey knows he created this mess or not is irrelevant, the mess is here, and he needs to clean it up. Lillard is likely being told by his Olympic teammates how bad his situation is and how weird it looks that his GM won’t go to bat for him and give him the loaded roster he definitely deserves. Few outside of Portland buy CJ as a realistic running mate to the Finals, and I think Dame might finally see why. If he isn’t going to insist on CJ being traded, he probably needs to take a hard look at demanding more from him. For all the talk we hear about CJ the shark, we get a lot of tuna.
It’s time to break up the band and give Lillard the fighting chance he deserves. Other teams have traded their star for another star like Washington did, dealing John Wall for Russell Westbrook. Others have traded their running mate as Golden State did with Monta Ellis once Klay Thompson developed. Portland has been on the Golden State route for some time now. It’s time to finally see the transformation from “fun little team” to title contender we’ve been waiting for.
Lillard and Powell are a more well-rounded and aggressive duo than Lillard and McCollum. It’s time to see what they can do together, add another player to their rotation, and give CJ the freedom to shoot his heart out somewhere else. His value is flat at the moment; it’s time to deal him before he starts to lose value. Olshey might wait until the trade deadline to make a move, and no matter when a deal is struck, it needs to make the team around Lillard better NOW, not in the coming years. If you’re just going to put cheap band-aids on this roster, it’s better to let Lillard go. If you’re hell-bent on keeping him, you owe it to him to trade CJ and include anything else you have to to get Lillard the team he needs – and, more importantly, deserves.