Even though the Blazers do all of these marginal upgrades, that core’s cap can be capped below being a title contender. That doesn’t mean this Blazers team can not win a title, but a lot has to happen for that to happen in any given season. It’s possible that Lillard would see the team this way and possibly request a trade, which would propel a rebuild. But even if he didn’t ask for one this offseason, there are still plenty of strong arguments for the Portland front office to consider blowing him up.
Whoever they hire as the head coach will be the biggest and most important decision they make. However, there is no guarantee that the Blazers will improve their defense or remain so strong offensively in the process. As ESPN’s Kevin Pelton points out, the history of offensive-minded teams hiring a new head coach in hopes of improving their defensive problems is mixed. If a new coach and a strengthened bench can’t get them to where they want to be, then they have to turn to the core staff.
After acquiring Covington and Powell, the Blazers have formed a hugely efficient and effective offensive starting lineup with room for growth with a new coach. If they end the 2021-22 season with a similar or slightly better result, any improvement they make to the starting lineup will be diminished in the future. It will be very difficult for them to make a meaningful upgrade if their rightful player is not an All-Star.
Their path to acquiring an All-Star will be difficult. Portland doesn’t have a pick in the 2021 NBA Draft but will have all of their picks going forward. Any trade for an All-Star will definitely require a starter to match wages, but they also might not be five-tier if they have to trade in multiple starters. The Blazers could hypothetically offer McCollum, whose $ 30 million salary makes him natural salary ballast in a potential All-Star trade, and tie up to four future first-round picks in a trade this offseason. Would that be enough to snatch the next available star? It is possible, but there are teams that have more future first-rounders and young players to offer.
If they can’t get an All-Star upgrade for their newbies, then they’d probably be better off keeping them. Swapping a starter for another starter is a sideways move that seems unlikely to improve them. For example, what if Portland and Philadelphia were interested in a McCollum for Tobias Harris to exchange? Both players are fairly talented zero-time All-Stars with similar contracts, so in terms of value, that’s fair. But does this deal improve every team? This profession could bring stylistic changes, which alone could improve teams, but it would be an exaggeration to believe that it improves considerably on both sides.
It will be very difficult for this Blazers team to significantly improve the starting lineup this season or any season to come. The Blazers are going to pay luxury tax this year if they get that core back. Aside from Powell’s next contract this offseason, which is expected to earn him at least $ 20 million a year, Covington and Nurkic are expected to enter free agency in 2022. Covington will be able to extend up to $ 69.8 million on four years while Nurkic will be able to extend $ 64.5 million over four years. Covington’s extension is reasonable while Nurkic’s is too weak. It is expected to be offered over $ 16 million a year on the open market.
If the Blazers property isn’t willing to pay the hefty luxury taxes it will take just to keep this core together, it’s probably best to start the rebuilding because as long as they pay Lillard and McCollum their big salaries, there is bypass spending. If they can’t “do well” by Lillard and pay what it takes to put the best possible team around him, then he would logically be the first player they are looking to move. As painful as it can be to trade him in, there’s also no better time to trade him than this offseason.
Lillard is on the verge of turning 31 and is under contract for another four years, arguably putting his business value at its absolute peak. Every good team will be interested and the Blazers could extract a bunch of draft picks and young players similar to what Oklahoma City got for. Paul Georges. A Lillard trade alone could put the Blazers in place with all the picks and young players they need in a rebuild, although they would likely trade more of their starters to rack up more assets.
Nurkic and Covington are also reportedly available as their contracts expire after this season. While Powell may not fit their timeline going forward, they could still be looking to re-sign him if they can’t find a signing and exchange for him. If the Blazers plan to rebuild, there’s a good chance they’ll be making a lot of money off their books this offseason by trading in their starters. They should then be able to comfortably re-sign Powell and perhaps trade him on the road.
McCollum is under contract for three more seasons, so the Blazers are in no rush to trade him. Before breaking his foot, he was receiving serious All-Star consideration. If the Blazers run out of Lillard, McCollum will become the number one option on offense. The Blazers could get a pretty good comeback for McCollum if they trade him this offseason, but his market value would increase playing without Lillard. They could get a lot more for him by the trade deadline or a year from now.
Rebuilding is an easy path to begin with, but there’s no guarantee that the Blazers will become contenders in the end. There’s even less chance they’ll get a player as special as Lillard in the process. As mentioned earlier, the most common path for teams in this situation is to keep competing. But if things don’t improve next season, it could be a matter of time before major changes actually happen.