Portland’s bubble has been bursted. What now?

The Greatest of All Talk (GOAT) podcast of Ben Golliver and Andrew Sharpe is is my all-time favorite basketball podcast, and for a while now, Golliver’s been preaching this term called cute story. This is his term to describe some teams who are playing pretty well, are fun to watch, and get some people to irrationally believe they could do something crazy like win a title.

Or in the case of the Portland Trail Blazers this season, upset LeBron James and the Lakers in Round One. That wasn’t ever going to happen. But the Blazers are still one of bubble basketball’s cutest stories after a 6-2 run in the seeding games which saw them jump from 9th to 8th. Damian Lillard hit some of the most memorable shots of the season so much so that he has built up a case to challenge Steph Curry next season in the best point guard in the league conversation. And, of course, the Blazers also had the Game 1 upset of the Lakers to amplify the belief of the Charles Barkleys of the world. (Even I had this tiny fire inside me that thought Lillard would average 40 and will the Blazers to a win.)

But after the Lakers’ gentleman’s sweep, it’s time for Blazers believers to face reality. By reality, I mean that the make-up and botox that got them to be so cute in the back half of 2020 have worn off, and a quick look in the mirror will reveal to them again their team’s actual state: stuck. Yes, the Blazers have one of the league’s best, most marketable, and likeable stars, but he’s also now on the wrong side of 30. The team’s got a thin roster, a tight cap situation, and an uninspiring track record, at least if the goal is a championship.

Can the Blazers still actually do something to catapult Lillard to a title which I think we all believe he deserves to be at least realistically competing for? Let me break it down.

Photo from Getty Images

Dame deserved better

The Blazers have been really good for a long time. While their playoff opponents from LA were back in the Playoffs for the first time in seven years, the Blazers extended their playoff streak to seven years. This Playoff stretch by Portland is sometimes compared to the 10-year playoff streak of the Atlanta Hawks which ended just two seasons ago. 

And those comps are reasonable, at least looking at how each of them fared in their respective conferences. Both teams were usually eliminated in the first round, capping out at with a Conference Finals appearance in which they were swept. 

The difference between the two teams lies with their No. 1 guy. Joe Johnson was the star on the Hawks for five of those 10 Playoff appearances. He made six All-Star games in seven total years with the Hawks. But in all those years with Atlanta, Iso Joe never had a PER above 20. This shows that for as good as he was, Joe was never really a superstar that could lead a team to a title. The second version of that team which featured Horford, Millsap, Korver, and Jeff Teague, was clearly a true star short of making any real noise.

As for the current Blazers, Dame has grown from good to great to superstar level in his eight-year career. His PER has been above 20 in five of his seven seasons in the NBA, including 26.9 this season which puts him in the top five, ahead of LeBron James. Having a guy like Lillard should put the Blazers head and shoulders above those Hawks, but other than having more iconic moments, that just isn’t that case.

Part of it is because the Blazers have played in the Western Conference. They’ve had three 50-win seasons, yet have never placed higher than the third-seed during this stretch. Also worth noting that despite the two monumental series walk-offs, Dame’s playoff performances have been suspect at times. His career playoff FG% is just 40.6%, and has been below 44% in every single Playoff run.

Yet I believe that has a lot less to do with his skill than it does with how the team’s been built around him. And while I generally back up my claims with stats, I don’t need that for this one. Just remember that Mario Hezonja was in the Blazers rotation this year. I have yet to see him do anything positive on the court since the bubble started. 

And even beyond Hezonja, remember that last year, the Blazers team that made the Conference Finals started Mo Harkless. While he seems like a really nice guy, he was also traded by the Clippers for Marcus Morris. That was kind of like the Clippers telling Mo that they knew he wasn’t a good enough piece in the Playoffs.

Those types have generally been the pieces that have surrounded Lillard. The competent ones are oft-injured, or left the Blazers in 2015 free agency.

It’s a shame because Dame is a special talent that I believe can be the number one piece on a title team. At the very least, a 1B. But because of some poor contract decisions, and maybe by virtue of being in Portland as well, that just hasn’t been the case.

Lillard is still under contract with Portland. He’s signed to a well-deserved supermax deal that’s going to keep him around until 2025, or for the remainder of his prime years. The question now is whether the Blazers can create a team around him to have that realistic title shot, and I have to say that’s looking a bit tough right now.

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The Blazers are stuck

The Blazers have been following the same formula for the last few off-seasons: Build around Lillard and CJ McCollum by signing some wing players, develop their young mid to late first rounders, and hope and pray someone comes out that can help their star duo. But it doesn’t take a scientist to tell you that the same formula will likely yield the same results.

But say the Blazers go for that plan and bring back basically the same team from this year. I mean, their wing depth isn’t actually so bad: They missed Rodney Hood all year and Trevor Ariza wasn’t around in the bubble. Those two wings should bolster their terrible defense when they return next season. Carmelo Anthony was a revelation that they could find a way to keep this offseason, Gary Trent Jr. is awesome, and Anfernee Simons can continue getting better. With a full year of Nurkic, and hopefully a healthy Zach Collins, the Blazers can trot out the same roster next year and…

Win 45-51 games, get lower seed, and get knocked out in the first or second round by LA again. We all know it’s true, and that’s if everything goes right.

So if the Blazers are serious about chasing titles with Lillard, they’re going to need to change the formula somehow. The only way they can do that is through free agency or trades. The problem with the former is that the Blazers cap outlook is looking pretty bleak, and that doesn’t even take into account what will likely be a lower cap ceiling or whatever other financial implications the coronavirus will deal to the NBA and its teams.

But the Blazers are capped out this offseason, and that’s already considering Hassan Whiteside’s contract — which was worth $27M this season — will be off the books. They could choose to keep Whiteside since they have his bird rights, but I don’t know if he’s going to want to play behind Nurkic long-term. Regardless of that, the Blazers will only have the mid-level exception in order to make additions, which they can use on some more 3&D wings who can play-up into the four spot. Guys like Marcus Morris or Jae Crowder would be available, but will they really move the needle? And will they justify losing Melo in the process? Portland looks like they’re lean more towards no for both questions.

From Basketball Reference

The Blazers also can’t expect to sign new players in future years, considering Lillard and McCollum already take up most of the cap, while guys like Zach Collins and Gary Trent Jr. should be expecting contract extensions.

Now again, that’s all good if the Blazers are okay with maintaining their status as the Hawks of the West. But if they want to jump up into contender status, they’re going to have to make a change and take risks. The only way they can do that is by making a trade.

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How can the Blazers swing for the fences?

CJ McCollum is really good. He’s averaged at least 20 points for five consecutive seasons,  and he’s also been pretty durable. In other words, he’s been an excellent sidekick to Dame. (Side note: He’s also a pretty good podcaster, and one of my favorite players to listen to during interviews and the like.)

But he’s also the only player who can bring in a significant return on a trade, despite his massive contract. He signed a three-year, $100M extension last offseason, which keeps him under contract until 2024 when he’d still only be 32-years old. 

While Lillard and McCollum have what appears to be a great relationship off the court, it seems like they’ve hit their ceiling on the court. At least, given the team’s current cap situation. 

However, if the Blazers are going to trade CJ, it’ll only make sense if they can get a better player or one or more players with a similar skill level to him, but could potentially fit better with Lillard and help him compete for a title right away. And that’s where another problem lies — there just aren’t that many options around the league right now that are available and would make sense for both parties.

Looking at the potential trade scenarios, even taking multiple teams into play, honestly, very few made sense. Many teams would love to have McCollum; From bad teams like the Pistons, to up and coming teams that could use a secondary ball-handler like the Grizzlies or maybe the Mavericks, to even contenders like the Lakers. But for those teams and many others, they either have nothing to give up, can’t make the cap work, or too little to exchange for it to make sense.

Some of the rumored available names on the market also don’t make a lot of sense. For instance, the Wizards could fetch a much better package for Beal than one the Blazers could offer. The Nuggets have a lot of tradeable pieces, but CJ doesn’t solve their problem on the defensive end. Myles Turner might be available, but Jusuf Nurkic is a better fit over Turner, who is actually just two years younger than the Bosnian Beast. 

The most radical scenario possible was throwing a package of CJ, Nurk, and some wing pieces to the Sixers for either Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons. Both would easily be major talent upgrades for the Blazers, and while fit and health concerns would persist, it may be a risk worth taking for the Blazers simply because they would finally pair Dame with another All-Star again. The problem is more on the side of Philly. Would they really be willing to give up one of their major pieces for what is essentially another high paid borderline-but-never-been All-Star? Maybe not.

Another scenario was to trade McCollum and Ariza to the Pelicans for Jrue Holiday and JJ Redick. Holiday is an All-NBA defender and that both Dame and CJ are familiar with. While this may seem like a lateral move, the idea behind this is that the Blazers get a player with the same amount of talent as McCollum, but may be able to address a hole that raises their ceiling. This can seem though as more of a move for the sake of making a move.

And speaking of that rhetoric, there’s the much-talked about Aaron Gordon trade. To make the salary work, Portland will also reunite with Al-Farouq Aminu. The rationale behind this move is that Gordon’s skills will likely be maximized on a team with better spacing and him at the 4, but it’s not the sexiest of ideas. Gordon will be entering his seventh year in the NBA, and he looked like he may have even regressed a bit this year. If this trade was going to happen, the Blazers probably should’ve already done it a few years ago.

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So… what now?

It’s tough, because the Blazers can’t really do much in free agency, and there aren’t very many enticing trade scenarios out there either. There’s always the option of trading McCollum for the potential to have more cap space, but that risks wasting a year of Lillard’s prime, which could upset him. At the end of the day, shaking things up might be the only way to potentially compete for a title, but the risk of getting worse looms large. So honestly, there’s no cler-cut scenario for Portland moving forward.

One thing is for sure — the Blazers are not letting go of Lillard. Not only is he already signed on long term, but the dude wants to be there through thick and thin; He seems like the most loyal dude in the league. 

As long as Dame is there, the Blazers should be a good team. Whether they can elevate to exceptional will depend on how they’re able to manage the limited flexibility that they put themselves in.