Damian Lillard wants to win big right now. The Portland Trail
Blazers know what’s at stake during the 2021-22 season for their
future organizational structure. With Lillard and his camp
frustrated about the Blazers’ stagnation, it’s of the upmost
importance to figure things out quickly in the Pacific
However, how can Portland realistically jump back to the top of
a vaunted Western Conference?
During their magical run in the 2019 playoffs, when Portland
ultimately reached the Western Conference Finals and got swept by
the Golden State Warriors, it felt like lightning in a bottle. Ever
since, Portland’s disappointing playoff track record has tried
Lillard’s patience. Portland’s superstar had to go supernova in the
Orlando Bubble for the Blazers to even make the postseason as the
No. 8 seed, only to be throttled by LeBron James and Los Angles
Lakers in five games. Then, this past season, Portland lost in the
first round once again to a shorthanded Denver Nuggets squad
missing Jamal Murray and Will Barton.
So far this offseason, Portland seems content on running it back
with their core. Re-signing Norman Powell to a five-year, $90
million extension had to happen after trading one of their top
young assets, Gary Trent Jr., to the Toronto Raptors in exchange
for Powell. In 27 games with the Blazers last season, Powell
averaged 17 points and 1.3 steals while shooting 36.1% on
three-pointers. Powell proved his worth as a long-term piece to the
Blazers’ puzzle as a snug fit alongside Lillard. Among two-man
lineup combinations featuring Lillard, Powell ranked second in net
rating behind only C.J. McCollum.
Although it was a disappointing conclusion to a season that
showed promise, Portland’s newfound starting lineup fared well in
advanced metrics. The five-man lineup of Lillard, McCollum, Powell,
Robert Covington and Jusuf Nurkic carried a +13.4 NetRtg in 370
minutes. This ranked No. 2 in the league for starting lineups in
net rating, trailing only the Philadelphia 76ers' starters;
Portland’s well-balanced attack was 12-9 in the regular season
Outside of re-signing Powell to his $90 million extension, the
Blazers have made some moves on the margins to improve their depth.
Cody Zeller, Ben McLemore and Tony Snell were all signed to
one-year deals. Zeller will provide competency behind Nurkic as a
backup center, while Snell and McLemore can adequately space the
floor and be versatile defenders.
Currently, here’s how the projected rotation looks for
Starters: Lillard, McCollum, Powell, Covington,
Second Unit: Anfernee Simons, McLemore, Snell, Nassir
Is that enough for Portland to break through the middle of the
pack in the West? Quite simply, no, it’s not — even with the
advanced metrics showing that their starting lineup was very
strong. Losing to Denver the way they did helped push Lillard near
his boiling point in terms of frustration, and those concerns are
valid on his end. Signing three role players to bolster their
second unit is nice, but it’s not what’s needed to really put
Portland back on the map as a real threat to make a deep postseason
Lillard’s longtime backcourt partner, McCollum, is the key to
how Portland can necessarily retool around their disgruntled
Portland’s dynamic score-first backcourt pairing has finally run
its course. Since Powell is more well-rounded, he's a better fit
next to Lillard — providing stronger defense, capable playmaking
and spot-up shooting. The super small-ball lineup between Lillard,
McCollum and Powell will not hold up in playoff-style basketball,
especially as teams out West continue to get larger. Portland now
must dangle McCollum out there on the trading block to add the
necessary size and versatility to keep Lillard content
What can the Blazers even get in return for McCollum, though?
That’s a tricky question, because it’s fair to say that McCollum’s
contract doesn't have a ton of value at the moment. With three
years, $100 million remaining on the deal, Portland will need to
package McCollum with a future first-round pick, high-upside
prospects or both to receive a difference-maker in return.
Two names stand out from the rest, in terms of fits in Portland:
Ben Simmons and Pascal Siakam.
Simmons and Philadelphia seemed destined for a breakup, but
Sixers GM Daryl Morey’s asking price is astronomical (four
first-round picks plus multiple players). If Portland were to flip
McCollum (and other assets) to Philadelphia, Simmons arrives and
helps take some pressure off of Lillard to create for others.
Lillard can focus on getting buckets, while Simmons sets everything
up and provides elite defense.
Although Simmons goes through terrifying moments on offense, his
special blend of playmaking and on-ball defense can make up for it
in the right situation. The 6-foot-10, 24-year-old point-forward
can make magic happen in transition thanks to his court vision and
elite athleticism. And on defense, Simmons just finished second in
Defensive Player of the Year honors behind Rudy Gobert. Offering
menacing perimeter defense, Simmons can freeze out top scoring
guards from finding a rhythm. Also, with his size, Simmons can
guard up to four positions. Simmons regaining his confidence and
finding his true untapped potential seems impossible now in
For Simmons and Portland, this could be the perfect marriage.
Imagine a lineup featuring Lillard, Powell, Covington, Simmons and
Nurkic. Although Simmons and Nurkic is a clunky fit in the
frontcourt, the floor is spaced out for the Australian product to
produce some damage around the rim while also helping Lillard
immensely on both ends. Portland's defense has been their biggest
weakness and he'd help a ton on that end of the floor too.
Portland's offer for Simmons would probably look something like
McCollum, Little or Simons, plus two first-round picks. Yes, that’s
a high price to pay, but one that could help smooth things over
with Lillard and give the Blazers a chance to make a leap up the
Western Conference standings. It remains to be seen if Morey will
budge from his asking price and accept an offer like this, but
Portland has to try.
Siakam offers similar defensive versatility as Simmons, but he
is more of a positive on the offensive end. The Raptors’ star would
slide right into the Blazers’ lineup at power forward, allowing the
Lillard-Powell backcourt to coalesce even further after promising
results last season. In 56 games during the 2020-21 campaign,
Siakam averaged 21.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.1
steals per game. A year prior, Siakam was a member of the All-NBA
team as he grew into the No. 1 role following Kawhi Leonard’s
After Toronto drafted Florida State’s Scottie Barnes with the
No. 4 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, rumors started to pick up
steam about Siakam potentially being shopped around to the highest
bidder. Add on the Raptors also receiving another promising
prospect in the Kyle Lowry sign-and-trade, Precious Achiuwa, and
the frontcourt's long-term vision starts to form. After Lowry’s
departure to South Beach, Toronto’s timeline is murky. They still
have Fred VanVleet, but everyone else is a strong member of their
young core led by ever-improving wing OG Anunoby. Siakam can
certainly still be part of Toronto’s long-term plans, but, similar
to Portland, would it be in their best interest to move off
Siakam’s contract, which has $106.4 million remaining through the
Similar to the Simmons trade idea, shipping McCollum to Toronto
for Siakam would be a steep price. Potentially having to include a
young player (Little or Simons) plus a future first-round pick
alongside McCollum would be a big step, but one that might have to
occur anyways with Lillard’s discontent.
Although the Blazers are still a strong playoff team with their
current roster construction, is another middle-of-the-pack finish
enough to keep Lillard long-term? Lillard has already answered that
“Where we are isn’t good enough,” Lillard said about Portland’s
roster during Team USA’s lead up to the Tokyo Olympics. "I just
think we’ve reached that point where it’s like, OK, but it’s not
enough. Do we actually want to win it all? Is that what we’re
shooting for? We’ve got to do things to show that. We’ve got to put
action behind that desire to win at that level...
"I think if you look at our team as it is going into next
season, I don’t see how you say, ‘All right, this is championship
team, you just need a new coach,’ when we lost in the first round
to a team that was hurt."
It’s time to make an aggressive push to keep Lillard happy, or
this could get ugly by this time next year (or sooner).