NBA

The Trail Blazers’ offseason is a balancing act

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Drawing: Shutterstock

This is the most important summer of Damian Lillard’s reign in Portland. For the past decade, the Portland Trail Blazers have been the Warriors’ little brother. Think of Seth Curry and Steph Curry, but in terms of candour.

Lineups between Damian Lillard and Steph Curry spark the most heated debate, but Portland have also struggled to unlock ball movement (they’ve generally been among the league’s worst in assists and assists per game) or the defensive backbone that defined Golden State success. This year’s NBA Finals will feature Golden State, the NBA’s second-best defense, against Boston, the NBA’s No. 1 defense.

Since hitting their cap in 2019, the Blazers have finished subsequent seasons 28th, 29th and 29th in the defensive scoring metric, which measures points allowed per 100 possessions. After three years of futility, the Blazers are finally able to fill their gaps. Yet instead of surrounding Lillard with two-way defensive wings like Andrew Wiggins and big switchable all-rounders in the vein of Robert Williams, the Blazers are poised to double down on their global offense, bottom-of-the-barrel defensive strategy this offseason. .

Last month, ESPN insider Brian Windhorst reported that the Blazers were actively involved in talks about acquiring a free agent. Zach LaVine. This week, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor reported that the Blazers were buzzing around LaVine and Wizards free agent Bradley Beal. Targeting longshot scorers seeking between $212 million and $250 million in max contracts is a bet they need to make as the pair also represent their last chance to give Lillard a fighting chance in the West. LaVine or Beal would make Portland an exciting playoff team. Neither is enough to put them within earshot of the finale right away. Both are perimeter defensive turnstiles. Beal has shot 30% from range this season, and LaVine is an explosive athlete with a history of knee issues.

However, that is not the point. Portland is working to put Lillard back in the hunt for the playoffs and simultaneously keep Anfernee Simons, their point guard from the future. CJ McCollum’s move to New Orleans in an unprecedented delay deal could have been an opportunity for a total reset. Portland still owes a future first-round trade pick McCollum, who became a Bucks 2025 first-rounder instead of a Pelicans 2023 first-rounder after New Orleans escaped the lottery and broke into the playoffs as an 8 seed. Instead, the Blazers threw away their momentum to throw a youth movement overboard in favor of a desperate rebuild on the fly.

Re-signing Simons, who is a restricted free agent and just turned 23 today, is just as high on Portland’s priority list as signing Beal or LaVine. Lillard’s injury allowed them to throw their coveted 2018 first-round pick into the fray as a starter. In 27 games, Simons averaged 23.4 points and 5.8 assists on 42% shooting from range and proved to be the point guard heir apparent. His emergence gave Portland the choice of accelerating a raise around a dynamic guard or pairing him with Lillard.

There’s a reason former Blazers general manager Neil Olshey considered Simons the most gifted player he has ever drafted. Simons has thrived as a leading ball handler, meaning Lillard’s return will put Simons back in an uncomfortable off-the-ball role next season, albeit a bigger one than he held before McCollum was shipped to Bourbon Street. Portland doing their due diligence on potential 2022 free agents makes sense, but it puts them in a precarious position. After clearing McCollum’s contract, they’ll have to give up the rights of several other players and the Jusuf Nurkić mall if they want to free up the cap room needed to sign a max-contract player and keep Simons in a Blazers uniform. Defensively, the Lillard and Simons pairing won’t be pretty, but that’s what Portland sells its trusty star on. Things could get uglier on the defensive side if they are forced to get rid of Nurkić to make room for Beal or Lavine. Portland can still trade that seventh pick, but it’s a high-tension, parachute-free act that mortgages their future for minimal short-term relief.

This off-season high-flying act has a parachute option. If Rip City’s offseason fizzles, general manager Joe Cronin can accept reality and trade Lillard for players or picks that fit Simons’ schedule. Lillard’s value in the trading market will only decrease over time. Brooklyn got a pool of talent and choice for a portly James Harden. Boston reached the Finals thanks in part to the pick haul they racked up by trading Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to Brooklyn in 2013. Right now, it’s a seller’s market for Portland and Lillard, but they won’t can’t sell blind hope forever. Lillard turns 32 next month and father time waits for no one.

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