Damian Lillard turns 31 in July. If ever there was a time to go all-in on a 1-2 year title window, that time is now. There is a bevy of quality players hitting the free-agent market this summer, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t consider coming to Portland to bring Lillard to his first Finals, and ideally, his first championship.
Before we get to the players to go after, the team has some tough decisions to make on their own players. These are Portland players under contract through next season –
Based on these numbers, Portland is already well over the cap before the offseason even officially starts. But this chart does not factor in certain salary cap figures such as bird rights, which give a team the option to sign players without taking as much of a hit toward their total cap. I’ll leave that math to the CBA experts, and we will work off what we have.
Lillard is worth 35% of the salary cap, which makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is that McCollum, Covington, and Nurkic make up 50%. Does that trio play like they are worth nearly half of what it takes to make this team go? Probably not. Subtract McCollum from the equation, and you stand at 23%, which sounds closer to reality. This is before factoring in Collins, who stands to make about half of what Covington or Nurkic are set to make this season.
At $12M, Nurkic is not exactly overpaid, but when you compare his salary to, say, Hassan Whiteside’s ($2.3M), Nurk made about $10M more in 2021. Did he outplay Whiteside? Opinions vary, but I doubt you’ll find many people who believe he played six times better than Whiteside, as his salary would indicate. After appearing in just 36 games last season, Whiteside might be the most rested he’s been since he became a starter for Miami in 2014 and likely will sign a deal a fraction of the cap hit of what Nurkic is being paid.
Collins is definitely overpaid for his performance, but in this league, you need talented athletes out there, and whether he performs or not, Collins is definitely a talented athlete. Essentially anyone listed below Damian Lillard is expendable and should only be kept if a willing trade partner isn’t offering equal or better value compared to their contracts. This team is paid like a championship contender, but their play on the court doesn’t add up.
GM Neil Olshey arrived here right before his previous team got into the same trouble of overpaying guys that weren’t getting the team over the hump. The Clippers moved away from those contracts and are right now one win away from the conference championship. What moves can Portland make to be on their level?
It starts with moving away from the idea of what a team could be and grading them for what they are. The old Clippers weren’t winning, so they were disbanded, and new stars were brought in. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were traded in 2017 and 2018, and DeAndre Jordan signed with Dallas in 2018. LA was on their way back after a surprise berth in the playoffs in 2018, and in 2019 they signed Kawhi Leonard and traded for Paul George. Just like that, they were a title favorite again.
What can Portland do to get on that same track but without dealing Lillard? The first step would be to trade McCollum, which will free up a lot of cash as long as they don’t get an equally lopsided contract in return. The team needs a starting small forward with length, a power forward with scoring ability, and a center that can stay healthy and out of foul trouble. Those aren’t difficult needs to fill, but they aren’t cheap, either.
Otto Porter Jr, PJ Tucker, and Robin Lopez would be solid fits at forward and center, and none of them should be getting ridiculous offers either. These are solid players, but they aren’t guys you break the bank for. Mike Conley, Danny Green, and Louis Williams would all be great adds at guard, and all three provide great effort on both ends of the floor. Whiteside and Nic Batum will be out there this summer, and both should be looked at to add to an increasingly talented roster.
Trading CJ and signing Powell gives Portland and Lillard the financial flexibility to go after the guys key to winning. Powell has proven to be a great backcourt mate for Lillard and has great closing ability, something CJ showed in flashes but did not use regularly. When the 2021 season starts, CJ will be 30. Let’s assume this is the player we’re getting and not fall for the trap that a new coach will make him a more selfless player. CJ has amazing offensive talent but spends a lot of plays trying to look busy. For what he’s being paid, he needs to be in the zone on every single play.
If the team can then bring in a guy like Porter Jr to play power forward, they can move Covington to small forward (or vice versa) and sign players like Batum and Williams; it would give this team great defensive help off the bench. Make a move for Whiteside and trade Nurkic, sign Lopez, and you could have a Frankenstein’s monster of a lineup ready to attack the elite of the Western Conference. We all love Nurk; he’s the kind of player who gives absolutely everything when he’s on the court. But to compete with the top teams, you need a center that doesn’t get into so much foul trouble against elite centers or make so many questionable bad plays out of frustration. Or you at least need a talented player that doesn’t cost as much so you can afford a capable backup when they are out.
We have heard for years that Portland is not a place elite players want to go. Perhaps Lillard has helped change that perspective, but the main takeaway is this – if anyone has earned the right to see their team go all-in and pay what it takes to win now; It’s Lillard and the front office owes it to him to make it happen. We don’t need the splashy free agents; we don’t need first-round picks. What we need are guys that want to win and want to help Lillard pull it off. Whatever those guys are asking if you have to pay the luxury tax for a couple of years? Pay it. A title is worth a lot more than the alternative of not paying for what might have been.