Turning a critical eye to a team’s moves in hindsight is always a difficult endeavor. While it may seem obvious after more than a half-decade, judging the mistakes that a team made in the past is often unfair given the reality they faced.
Even still, the way that the Portland Trail Blazers handled the 2017 NBA Draft not only hurt their future, but kept them from becoming a real contender.
By taking a trip with a time machine, we can observe where the Blazers were back in 2016-2017. The team was in the middle of the Terry Stotts era, having built its roster around soon-to-be first team All-NBA star Damian Lillard, as well as CJ McCollum and deadline addition Jusuf Nurkic. That roster didn’t lead to playoff success, as the team had only ranked 25th in defensive rating, which contributed to their 41-41 record.
Knowing that the team needed to make changes to contend, which was especially important with Dame entering his athletic prime, former general manager Neil Olshey made a monumental move in the 2017 draft.
He traded the 15th and 20th pick, the latter of which was acquired in the Nurkic trade, and packaged them to move up to the 10th pick.
Armed with both the 10th and 26th picks, the Blazers tried to make up for past roster mistakes to become contenders, but instead did the opposite. Although they made the Western Conference finals a few years later, the missteps in the 2017 draft kept the Blazers from ever becoming true contenders for the NBA title.
Draft Mistake #1: Drafting Zach Collins
Entering the 2017 NBA Draft, the Blazers had a few positions figured out already in their team concept. They were centered around Lillard, who’d been snubbed from all-star teams but was still an elite scorer and point guard.
He had a co-star in McCollum, who was averaging a career-high in points per game.
Finally, the team had traded for Nurkic, who’d been pushed out of the Denver Nuggets’ future for a little-known second-round player named Nikola Jokic.
What was left was the need for game-changing forwards. The team had tried to fix those gaps by bringing in Evan Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Noah Vonleh, but none of these three players had panned out in the way the team had hoped.
To shore up their position of need, Portland selected Zach Collins out of Gonzaga. He became an NBA draft darling after a dominant defensive display in the NCAA tournament, and by the draft he was safely projected in the top 15 of the draft by pundits.
While obviously the mistake was selecting Collins, it isn’t completely – he was a poor player for the team. Most of that can be blamed on tough leg injuries that made him a shell of his college self.
Instead, the error that the Blazers made was trying to fit their last, best chance at a lottery star on a position of need.
Had the Blazers taken the best player available, depending on their board, they might have ended up with either Donovan Mitchell or Bam Adebayo. Both were also locks for the top 15 and were available at No. 10, but due to the presence of McCollum and Nurkic, the team passed on both.
While it’s impossible to know how either Mitchell or Adebayo would have developed in a Portland jersey, the decision to go with positional need over star potential cheated the team out of a chance to add another all-star to the roster.