The Portland Trail Blazers are currently in flux, with no sign of commitment to either using the rest of this season to tank and retool their roster or to try their best to revive a playoff push. The team currently sits at 18-25, firmly entrenched in the 10th-seed for the final play-in spot, equidistant from the sixth-seed Nuggets as they are to the 13th-seed New Orleans Pelicans. Just as Damian Lillard went under the knife following a losing stretch and fans began to suspect that a full-on tank was coming, the Trail Blazers rattled off several impressive victories.
Since Lillard went out with his latest injury flare-up, Portland has gone 5-3, behind improved team defense, better offensive execution, and the inspired play of Anfernee Simons. The Trail Blazers have put together this impressive stretch despite missing both Larry Nance Jr. and Norman Powell, as well, for most of the games.
With Portland winning four of their last five contests, it appears that Interim General Manager Joe Cronin, rookie Head Coach Chauncey Billups, and the Trail Blazers still able to play aren’t quite ready to throw in the towel yet for the season. The longer they put off fully committing one way or the other, though, the more detrimental it may be to the team.
The Portland Trail Blazers need to commit one way or the other
There’s a number of reasons why remaining in this weird purgatory that the Trail Blazers have elected to float in could come back to bite them:
- Damian Lillard’s recovery – Damian Lillard went under the knife to repair his abdominal tendinopathy. The average recovery time for such a procedure is six-eight weeks, so Lillard could certainly return before the playoffs begin. Not knowing whether Lillard should be trying to recover for a playoff push or if he should take his time and shut it down for the season could affect his psyche and how he approaches his rehabilitation. The sooner the team commits to a direction for the rest of the season, the sooner we’ll get definitive word on Lillard’s availability.
- Trade strategy – A team’s approach heading into the trade deadline can look significantly different depending on what their goals are for the rest of the season. A team that’s hovering in the lower playoff seeds will look to land a major piece to improve their title chances. A team leading their conference may look for affordable depth to help bolster a long playoff run. A rebuilding team will try to sell off any useful veteran pieces still on their roster for draft capital or young talent. The Blazers have flip-flopped between being buyers and sellers throughout the season. Joe Cronin can make his life a lot easier if he can determine the team’s outlook for the remainder of the year, as well as his strategy heading into the trade deadline.
- Player futures – Many of the Trail Blazers’ veteran role players started to perform better following the start of Dame’s furlough. Jusuf Nurkic and Robert Covington in particular have significantly elevated their play compared to the early season. It could be surmised that the two have put their best foot forward in order to boost their trade values in hopes of landing on a contender where they can contribute to a title chase. Not knowing what the future holds for themselves could put a damper on their newfound efforts and revert them to the disinterested shells that showed up to begin the year.
- 2022 first-round draft pick – If the Trail Blazers make the playoffs, their pick will convey to the Chicago Bulls. If not, Portland will retain their own pick in the upcoming draft and the protections will carry over on to their 2023 first-rounder. If Portland is serious about shooting for the title this season, it’d be in their best interests to renegotiate the protections on their 2022 FRP with the Chicago Bulls. Removing the protections will free up their future draft picks to be moved in trades — assets the Blazers will need in any move that would net a return significant enough to improve their title odds. If they still plan to tank, then they need to shut down all of their veterans and commit to losing. There’s no point in them retaining a pick that will land in the late lottery and then still have to deal with the protections that will slide to the 2023 FRP, which will similarly handcuff their ability to make trades.
All players that can be moved this season were made available for trade on January 15th. We saw the first significant domino fall when the Atlanta Hawks sent Cam Reddish to the New York Knicks in exchange for a protected first-rounder and Kevin Knox.
With the trade deadline — February 10 — fast approaching, the Portland Trail Blazers need to make a decision about their future. The sooner, the better.