7 Reasons Blazers’ ‘blow it up’ supporters need to pump the brakes

Jerami Grant (left), Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
Jerami Grant (left), Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images) /

The Portland Trail Blazers are expected to make one of two drastic roster decisions this summer: trade most, or all, of their future assets for another superstar to help Damian Lillard chase a title or send Lillard to a contender and hit the reset button.

Each has their pros and cons. After the incredible loyalty Dame has shown to the franchise, it only seems fair for the organization to give him every chance at playing for a championship in Portland.

On the flip side (and taking emotion out of the equation), letting Lillard go and rebuilding around young cornerstones like Anfernee Simons and Shaedon Sharpe, along with what would presumably become a boatload of picks, might be the logical decision.

What if, though, the Blazers didn’t need to do either?

Evidence proves the Trail Blazers could mostly run it back

Seven pieces of evidence show a Simons-Sharpe-lottery pick package to bring back someone like Jaylen Brown or Pascal Siakam isn’t the way the offseason needs to shake out.

1. 10-4 start

It’s almost impossible to remember now given how the rest of the season played out, but the Blazers were one of the best teams in the NBA through last year’s first month.

Portland won its first four games – all against eventual playoff teams – and started the season 10-4. The Blazers were one of only four teams to hit double digits in wins between Oct. 19 and Nov. 15.

All this despite being 23rd in the league in scoring.

Portland was third in the NBA in free-throw attempts, something that didn’t carry through the rest of the regular season, as well as 24th in 3-point attempts. It wasn’t an iso-ball, launch-threes kind of offense; it was closer to how head coach Chauncey Billups wants to run a team.

Defensively is where the Blazers got things done in October and November. They were seventh in the NBA in defensive rating and eighth in rebounding percentage. They played at a slower pace – 28th in the league – but were efficient with the NBA’s seventh-best effective field-goal and true-shooting percentages.

Portland finished the year 28th in defensive rating, 26th in rebounding percentage, 14th in effective field-goal percentage and 10th in true-shooting.

2. Health

The natural transition from being one of the NBA’s best teams during the first month of the season to finishing it with the fifth-best lottery odds is health. The Blazers had awful injury luck.

Jusuf Nurkic, Justise Winslow, Simons, Josh Hart, Nassir Little, Sharpe, and Jerami Grant all played at least 11 of the team’s first 14 games, and Lillard played nine.

The trio of Lillard, Simons, and Grant led the offense as they did all season until they were shut down, but Portland got significant contributions from players who eventually dealt with injuries for the remainder of the year.

Nurkic averaged a double-double with 12.6 points and 10.6 rebounds while also staying out of foul trouble. Winslow played almost 27 minutes a night and averaged 7.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.8 steals as one of the team’s best defenders and facilitators.

Their health had a trickle-down effect.

Drew Eubanks only played 18.6 minutes a night and only took 3.4 shots during that span. Little shot 52.4 percent from the field and 43.3 percent from three in 15.2 minutes per game. Hart only took 7 shots per 36 minutes and could concentrate solely on defense and rebounding.

Winslow only played 18 more games the rest of the year. Nurkic played a total of 52 games as he dealt with calf injuries for most of the year and also missed time due to illness before a knee injury finally ended his season.

Little only played 54 total games. Hart was traded. Offseason acquisition Gary Payton II, who was signed in free agency to be the team’s best defender, played 15 games and then was traded.

The injuries also had a trickle-down effect, as Eubanks, Sharpe and Trendon Watford – and then Matisse Thybulle and Cam Reddish after the trade deadline – played more significant roles than they should have/were good enough to.

Even with all this, the Blazers were a top-8 seed on Jan. 1 and were still alive in the play-in race until the final month of the regular season when they essentially chose not to be.

3. Internal improvement

The positive part of having your key players banged up or out for most of the season is that others get a chance to step in and play significant minutes.

That was true in the case of players like Watford and Eubanks, but 2022-23 also saw significant improvement from Simons and Sharpe.

Simons had a breakout NBA season as the Blazers’ second-leading scorer. He averaged career highs in games played, starts, minutes, shot attempts, free-throw attempts, points, assists, and steals. He shot 37.7 percent from three on more than nine attempts per game.

Sharpe developed much faster than almost anyone could have anticipated as a 19-year-old rookie. With every player of significance shut down as Portland went full tank-mode at the end of the year, he got three weeks of experience as a team’s No. 1 offensive option and passed that test with flying colors.

Eubanks was an afterthought at the start of the year and turned into a legitimate rotational big by the end of it. Billups couldn’t have imagined Watford would be an important part of his plans, but he showed he deserves a real shot to crack the rotation in 2023-24.

One starter became a possible All-Star (Simons), a rookie became a potential starter as soon as this upcoming season (Sharpe), and two end-of-bench players earned themselves a chance to play legitimate minutes because of the way a disappointing 2022-23 campaign played out.

4. Shaedon Sharpe

Sharpe deserves his own section, even if it’s brief and has already been covered.

His strong finish to the season and the improvements he made across the first 82 games of his career (he played the most contests of anyone on the roster, only missing two) have him vying for a real shot at starting as a 20-year-old. Even with Simons’ breakout campaign, Sharpe earned a shot to at least compete for the starting two-guard spot.

If no major shake-ups are made this summer, he’ll return following an offseason of improvements as either a starter or as one of the best sixth men in the NBA.

5. Jerami Grant

Grant also deserves his own bullet point.

The 28-year-old showed he’s a legitimate No. 2 or 3 option offensively while remaining an important, versatile defender.

He shot a career-high 40.1 percent from three, establishing himself as a true three-and-D wing and one of the best in the league at that archetype.

Grant is an unrestricted free agent this offseason, but if the Blazers are going to contend in 23-24, he’ll almost certainly be back in the same role he just thrived in.

6. Trade deadline moves

Thybulle and Reddish were brought in at the deadline as Hart and Payton II exited, and although they didn’t blow the roof off and become impact starters, both showed enough to be rotation wings, and ones that likely won’t cost a ton to re-sign, if Portland so chooses.

Thybulle, not known for any sort of impact offensive skill, shot 38.8 percent from three on almost 4 attempts a game after arriving from Philadelphia. Reddish still hasn’t hit his high theoretical ceiling, but he was productive enough to earn a roster spot as an eighth- or ninth-man.

Neither made a big enough impact to affect the final quarter of the season, but both deadline acquisitions proved they’re good enough to play a role without costing a capped-out Portland franchise a significant sum of money.

7. Draft assets

When Cronin sent Hart to New York, he got Reddish and a first-round pick that will be 23rd overall in June. The top-notch tank job Billups did also earned the Blazers that potential top-5 pick. If it lands anywhere other than No. 1, it’s going to be trade bait unless Cronin decides to deal Lillard and start over.

Depending on how the lottery shakes out, that pick will be an extremely valuable trade asset. A top-five pick by itself is worth at least an above-average NBA starter in any potential move.

Paired with Nurkic’s salary, it should be enough to land Lauri Markkanen from the Utah Jazz, for example, or Myles Turner from the Indiana Pacers.

By dealing a draft pick they’d prefer to trade anyway and adding an injury-prone, slow-footed center’s salary into the move, Billups could be working with a starting five of Lillard, Simons, Grant, Markkanen, and a center rotation the team could piece together through free agency.

With Turner involved, that lineup becomes Lillard, Simons, Wing Player X (perhaps Sharpe?), Grant, and Turner.

Replace Nurk with Simons, and that package becomes even more enticing for other teams and would net an even more valuable player(s) and avoid creating a gaping hole at center.

Portland showed last season that, when healthy, it’s good enough to compete for a top 4 or 5 seed in the West; they did it for the first month of the season before crucial players began dropping like flies.

Staying healthy in 23-24 would certainly help, but it’s never a guarantee. There’s better depth on the roster now, though, with the leaps Simons and Sharpe made and the important roles players like Watford and Eubanks were forced into.

There’s no reason a starting lineup of Dame, Simons, Sharpe, Grant, and Nurkic can’t compete in the West. Add another high-level player Portland should be able to acquire by trading a potential top-five pick; re-sign Thybulle and Reddish, perhaps even Winslow, to low-risk contracts; add in Watford and Eubanks and their improvements; use the 23rd pick on a prospect who could contribute right away; and use the non-taxpayer mid-level exception ($12.2 million), and/or the bi-annual exception ($4.4 million) if Portland qualifies, and there’s a rotation that can go 12-13 deep.

Next. An old NBA blockbuster shows the value of the Blazers' potential top-five pick. dark

Essentially, going all-in to bring in another All-NBA superstar isn’t necessary. Running it back with a similar roster should be enough to get the Blazers into the playoffs, where anything can happen, especially when it becomes Dame Time.