The Portland Trail Blazers have a franchise-altering decision to make this offseason. Trade Damian Lillard and begin a full-scale rebuild or sell off their other prized assets to acquire another superstar, quite possibly one of Dame’s choosing.
Presumably, this decision won’t be made anytime soon. Portland General Manager Joe Cronin should at least wait for the 2023 NBA Draft Lottery, when he’ll learn where his team’s high first-round pick will land.
And if at all possible, he should wait longer. Teams can begin meeting with free agents on June 30 – eight days after the draft. If the Blazers can hold out and get a partial idea of where the league’s biggest available stars may choose to sign, the entire offseason fog will clear quickly.
Some NBA stars don’t seem to follow any timeline whatsoever, though, which could be to Portland’s benefit. If one sought-after, unreliable, flaky player in particular makes his intentions known earlier, one of Cronin’s ideal Lillard landing spots would have an open hole it desperately needs to fill.
James Harden’s free agency decision could shape Portland’s Lillard choice
The Philadelphia 76ers are fresh off a sweep of the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the NBA playoffs. As a championship-or-bust team, however, the Sixers are already beginning to show the usual chinks in their armor.
Joel Embiid played the first three games of the Brooklyn series before missing Game 4 with a knee injury. His status for the first game of round two is in question, and the 280-pound center already has a lengthy injury history, both regular season and postseason, specifically on his knees.
Harden, meanwhile, is doing Harden things – showing his value on the court while creating uncertainty off it. Rumors are already swirling that The Beard might return to Houston at the conclusion of Philly’s season, regardless of when that comes.
It’s no surprise that a player who forced a trade from the Rockets to the Nets, then less than a year later decided he didn’t want to play in Brooklyn and pouted until he was traded to the Sixers, would cause a fuss about his future plans. Again.
There have been links between Harden and his former team in Houston all season, and those links seem to be getting more legitimate by the moment. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on The Woj Pod (h/t Bleacher Report) that the Rockets are “very much” a possible landing spot for the former MVP:
"“James Harden’s future is very unclear in Philadelphia. Houston is very much in play for him. And I think a lot may depend on, do they make a run and win and it’s easy to pay him long-term big money? Or he just wants to be back in Houston. Win or lose, he goes. Or it’s dependent on the team’s success.”"
If Harden does leave another franchise hanging, it would be to the benefit of the Blazers, because Philly is a very attractive landing spot for Lillard.
Another postseason flame-out would create a sense of desperation in the Sixers front office. A flame-out plus losing Harden would make for a demoralized franchise in need of a jolt and another superstar. If Philly doesn’t land someone like Lillard, it runs the risk of losing a frustrated Embiid to a trade demand, as well.
The 76ers have some attractive pieces who would fit a Blazers rebuild well, headlined by rising 22-year-old guard Tyrese Maxey. The former Kentucky Wildcat continues to blossom toward superstardom after averaging 20.3 points on 48/43/85 shooting splits in a mostly reserve role this season.
There have been plenty of nights this year when Maxey has been Philly’s go-to scoring option. He would fit snugly in Portland’s rebuild alongside 23-year-old Anfernee Simons and 19-year-old Shaedon Sharpe as fellow explosive shot makers.
As far as “salary filler” goes, the Blazers could do a lot worse than Tobias Harris. As opposed to someone like Ben Simmons, Harris can be a productive, versatile forward (who closed out the Nets in Game 4 with 25 points and 12 rebounds). His status as an overpaid player would come in handy for Cronin, in this instance.
Paul Reed is a 23-year-old center who’s flown under the radar as an increasingly productive big man deserving of more minutes. The Blazers have a need for size and depth at the center spot, and a rising young player on a rookie deal would certainly help fill that need.
Those three would make up the player part of a Lillard return, and Harris could relatively easily be moved to a contender to add more assets to Portland’s rebuild.
Acquiring Dame for a superstar-less trio, coupled with the potential desperation of the franchise, could force Philly to include a handful of first-round picks, too. If the Blazers choose to ask for selections further down the road, those could potentially become valuable as Lillard gets older and Embiid’s injury history comes further into play.
The pick package could include first-round selections in 2024, 2026, and 2029 with a swap in 2028.
Venturing into hypothetical Lillard trades is a trip into the unknown. But it’s not out of the realm of possibility Harden leaves the Sixers, Philadelphia becomes desperate for another star, and the Blazers can land a number of first-round picks in a package built around one of the league’s rising young stars in Maxey.
Just do you, James.