The Portland Trail Blazers seemingly threw in the towel with two major trades last week, but the team has responded with wins over the Lakers and Knicks
The Portland Trail Blazers appeared headed for a spring heavy on player evaluation and light on wins after trading away three opening night starters for a collection of expiring contracts, draft picks, and young players ahead of the NBA trade deadline.
Gone were CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, Robert Covington, Larry Nance, and Tony Snell. After some of the pieces acquired from New Orleans for the McCollum-based package were flipped to Utah, the Blazers were left with Justise Winslow, Josh Hart, Keon Johnson, Elijah Hughes, Didi Louzada, and Joe Ingles and his $12-plus million expiring contract, Eric Bledsoe and his meager $3.9 million guarantee for next season, and four draft picks.
The moves were presumably supposed to bring flexibility for the upcoming offseason and replenish Portland’s stock of draft picks. The undeniable downgrade in on-court talent was also supposed to drive the Blazers even further down in the Western Conference standings and maximize their allotment of ping pong balls come lottery night.
But someone forgot to tell the players, holdovers and newcomers alike. Portland is 2-0 since sending McCollum, Nance, and Snell to New Orleans, with balanced and beautiful wins over the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks.
Jusuf Nurkic had 31 points and 32 rebounds in the two games, continuing his dominant stretch since returning from a three-game COVID absence in late December. Nurkic may be the only human on earth to return stronger after being exposed to the virus, averaging more than three points and two and a half rebounds more per game since his time out.
Winslow has been excellent in each of his three games for the Blazers, bringing a level of defensive prowess that hasn’t been seen on the Moda Center hardwood in many years, and Josh Hart staked his claim on some of the Blazers’ available cap space with a 23 point effort in his Portland debut.
The comeback from 23 points down against the Knicks was probably the highlight of the Blazers’ season, and came at what should have been its lowest point. But Hart, Winslow, Greg Brown, and even Elijah Hughes have brought some energy and a free-wheeling style; a style made necessary by unfamiliarity, but welcome nonetheless.
It’s doubtful that two wins will inspire the Blazers to attempt a playoff run with a roster that frankly will require some off-season tweaking to become legitimate title contenders. But each win devalues their own first round pick this year, and should they miraculously make the main playoff draw the pick will go to Chicago as part of a deal for assets long squandered.
So they will be treading the wire between intentional failure and pretending to compete for the season’s final 25 games, while Joe Cronin and his staff try and determine what part each of their newly acquired assets may play in a Blazer future.
But to liberally and badly paraphrase Robert Burns, “the best laid schemes of mice, men, and Joe Cronin often go awry.” Fortunately for Blazer fans, “awry” in this case may mean inspiring and entertaining.