Damian Lillard made the tough decision on January 13th to go under the knife and finally bring his years-long struggle with abdominal tendinopathy to a close. While the surgery should bring Lillard back to full strength, it comes at a hefty price. The Trail Blazers are mired in their worst start to a season in years. At 18-26, they’re closer to having a top-five pick than a guaranteed playoff spot, and with Lillard out for at least a month and a half, will very likely slide even farther out of contention.
Similar to the Golden State Warriors strategy in 2019-20, it appears to be in the best interest of the Trail Blazers to shut down their star player for the season and move assets in a way that will ensure a high draft pick this season, while maintaining relevance upon Lillard’s return. It will be a tough strategy for General Manager Joe Cronin to implement, but one that could pay off in spades if done correctly. That being said, here are some key players, teams, and storylines to watch in the coming weeks as the Trail Blazers presumably look to retool for next season.
The Usual Suspects: Ben Simmons, Myles Turner, and Jerami Grant
It’s no secret that the trio of Ben Simmons, Myles Turner, and Jerami Grant have been at the forefront of the vast majority of Trail Blazers trade rumors. After all, they’re probably the three best players who they have a reasonable chance of acquiring without trading Dame (depending on your thoughts on Toronto’s willingness to trade Pascal Siakam). It’s not worth diving in too deep into any of the three considering the glut of trade content already centered around them, but here’s a quick summary of each player’s theoretical value for the Blazers and potential packages to acquire them.
If there’s one singular player capable of saving the Blazers defense, it’s Ben Simmons. He’s one of the few players in the NBA who is indisputably capable of guarding any position on the court. That, combined with his dazzling playmaking skills and supreme talent in transition, makes him an ideal star pairing with Damian Lillard. Simmons has some very well-known and public flaws. He’s less of a poor shooter and more of a completely unwilling one, his free throw percentage is reminiscent of prime Shaquille O’Neal, and his mentality has been questioned by many in Philadelphia. Despite that, Simmons’s positives have always far outweighed his negatives, and on a team like Portland with plenty of shooting and spacing, he has the potential to thrive like never before.
With 76ers President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey seemingly committed to holding out for a king’s ransom, the price for Simmons will be hefty. CJ McCollum and picks probably aren’t going to cut it, and the Trail Blazers would probably have to be okay with losing one of Anfernee Simons or Nassir Little plus multiple first-round picks. Even then that honestly might not be enough given Simmons’ apparent price tag. For now, it seems like calls for the Blazers to acquire Simmons have cooled down because of the hefty cost, but expect them to heat back up again if Morey lowers his asking price.
Myles Turner is arguably the best rim protector in the league and is almost certainly getting traded ahead of this year’s deadline as the Indiana Pacers appear primed to enter rebuild mode. He’s one of the best defensive centers around which, combined with his ability as a decent three-point shooter, makes him an incredibly valuable player who would fit in with almost any roster in the league.
Turner’s value is high, although not on the level of Simmons. A trade for Turner would most likely consist of salary filler in the form of Robert Covington’s expiring deal along with another small contract plus two first-round picks or a young asset and a first-round pick. Another angle they could look to pursue is potentially flipping CJ McCollum first and using some of the assets acquired in that trade to then go after Turner.
Jerami Grant is more of a prototypical player than either Turner or Simmons but fills a valuable niche that the Blazers desperately need as a reliable forward who is above-average on both ends of the court. While he might not score over 20 points per game as he does in Detroit, Grant has proven himself as a valuable role player in the past for teams like the Denver Nuggets and the Oklahoma City Thunder. With McCollum presumably out the door, Grant could fit right in at the starting small forward spot, moving Norman Powell to his natural position at the 2.
Grant’s perceived value around the league is similar to Turners. Both are above-average starters making around $18-$20 million respectively, so expect Portland to cough up similar assets for either player.
The Pelicans and CJ McCollum
According to Bleacher Report journalist Jake L Fischer in a recent article, the New Orleans Pelicans are looking to make significant upgrades before this season’s deadline, presumably in a bid to build a quality roster around disgruntled franchise star Zion Williamson as soon as possible. In need of more quality guards, two names Fischer mentioned as potential targets for the Pelicans are CJ McCollum and Norman Powell, with McCollum, in his opinion, making the most sense as a trade option.
That isn’t to discount Norman Powell as a trade option for the Pelicans. In fact, his contract fits nicely into a $17 million trade exception created after flipping Steven Adams to Memphis last summer. Powell would bring some much-needed defense to the Pelicans guard rotation while also being their best scorer from the perimeter. Because of the trade exception, this could be a potential opportunity for the Blazers to acquire assets while maneuvering themselves under the luxury tax line. The Pelicans have multiple young assets they may be willing to flip including Herb Jones, Trey Murphy III, and Naji Marshall. Murphy probably makes the most sense in this scenario since he plays sparingly for New Orleans. And as a young defensive wing, he is the type of player the Blazers are looking for to round out their roster. The Pelicans also have a glut of first-round picks from the Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday trades and would most likely be willing to use a couple of them to get a guard like Powell on the roster.
As for McCollum, the Pelicans don’t have any one player to match in a one-for-one trade, but they can offer a couple of solid players and some draft capital. Josh Hart would most likely serve as the centerpiece of any McCollum trade. The 27-year-old Hart is one of the more valuable role players in the league thanks to his multi-positional play, his very affordable 3-year $38 million contract, and his solid defensive acumen. At a stocky 6’5” with a long wingspan, he is more than capable of guarding the two through four and would be invaluable to a team like the Blazers in desperate need of more defense on the wings. Hart is also a budding playmaker. At 4.4 assists per game, he is nearly doubling his previous season-high and ranks 12th among NBA forwards in that category.
Another player on the Pelicans roster who the Blazers should take a look at in a potential McCollum trade is Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Alexander-Walker was a prospect coveted by the Pelicans entering this season after a strong sophomore campaign but has struggled in his starting role so far in 2021-22. His main problem has been his shooting. He’s hitting a career-low 30.8% of his shots from beyond the arc and has struggled with consistency from anywhere that is not right at the rim. However, not all is bad for Alexander-Walker. He proved last season that he’s capable of being a positive NBA defender, even though that hasn’t necessarily shined through thanks to the Pelicans overall poor team defense, and he’s signed through next season at a very manageable $5 million. At the very least, he could serve as a decent backup and solid backcourt partner off the bench next to Anfernee Simons.
Rounding out the trade would require the Trail Blazers to take on a bit more salary, most likely to be Tomas Satoransky’s $10 million expiring contract and some extra draft capital. The Lakers 2024 first-round pick from the Anthony Davis trade has some value in it as their roster ages, and one of the Bucks first-rounders from the Jrue Holiday trade in 2024 or 2026 could top it off.
An interesting alternative option would be to combine this trade into a three-teamer with the Pistons or Pacers. In this case, Alexander-Walker and the two firsts would be on the move to Detroit or Indiana along with Robert Covington’s expiring, with the Blazers receiving Jerami Grant/Myles Turner, Hart, and Satoransky.
Dorian Finney-Smith, a More Versatile RoCo Replacement?
The Dallas Mavericks have gotten themselves in a bit of a financial bind.
With a large chunk of their salary wrapped up in the trio of Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr., the Mavericks have to decide if re-signing two key role players, Jalen Brunson and Dorian Finney-Smith, this offseason is worth going deep into the tax over. Brunson is having a career year and appears to have a long-term future as the Maverick’s sixth man, leaving Finney-Smith as the odd man out with no money left to re-sign him. Rumors are swirling that he is likely to be traded ahead of the deadline, as opposed to the Mavericks letting him go for nothing in free agency this summer.
Enter, the Trail Blazers. With Robert Covington almost certainly out the door either via a trade or when his contract runs out this June, they need another versatile 3-and-D forward, and Finney-Smith fills that role more than adequately. As a long-range shooter, he has been one of the most reliable at his position. Over the past two seasons, Finney-Smith is in the top third in three-point percentage among all players who average more than five attempts from deep per game at nearly 39%. He has also cemented himself this season as one of the best corner shooters in the league, knocking down nearly 49% of his 80 corner attempts. Finney-Smith’s skill set would fit right into the Blazers offense, which has the potential to generate a solid amount of open looks from deep thanks to Lillard’s drive and kick ability.
On defense, Finney-Smith has the size and length to handle many of the same assignments as Covington. He might not bring the same level of expertise as a help defender, but he makes up for it with slightly better lateral quickness that makes him more effective at guarding faster players. Finney-Smith is holding guards to 39% shooting as a primary defender, much better than Covingtons 47%.
Finney-Smith will most likely command slightly less money this offseason than Covington is currently making, with estimates ranging from $10-14 million, and inking him to something like a 4-year, $50 million contract would be a good piece of business for a valuable role player.
Because of his low salary at the moment, Finney-Smith could ideally be acquired as an add-on in a larger trade, with draft compensation or a player on a team-friendly contract moving from a third team to Dallas.
A Magic Firesale and the Status of Mo Bamba
The Orlando Magic were the most active team at last year’s trade deadline, which saw Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, and Evan Fournier all shipped out the door for prospects and draft compensation, and rumor has it they’re angling to be just as active in 2022. With the worst record in basketball at 8-38, they’re fully committed to building for the future and should be in line to trade many of their remaining veterans for draft picks. Terrance Ross is the most talented of these veterans and could warrant a first-round pick from a contending team who needs an extra scorer off the bench at a reasonable salary. Gary Harris has played well during his short stint in Orlando, and the Magic may look to use his expiring $20.5 million contract as a salary match for other teams to get a longer-term bad contract off the books in exchange for a pick or two.
But easily the most intriguing of the players who might be on the block is Mo Bamba. At first glance, the idea of the Magic moving on from Bamba might be a bit of a head-scratcher. He’s just 24 years old, a former top-ten pick, and is putting up the best numbers of his young career at over 10 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game. It starts to make a bit more sense when looking at the players around him and his upcoming contract situation. With Wendell Carter Jr. and Johnathan Isaac both locked into long-term deals, the Magic already appear to have their future starting front court locked up, and may want to use their cap space elsewhere or keep the money open if an opportunity to sign an impact player at a greater position of need arises. And with Bamba set to enter restricted free agency this offseason, Orlando may not want to take the risk that a team offers him a contract outside of their price range and rather trade him now to net some sort of return.
For the Trail Blazers, Bamba could be a money-saving option at starting center with room to grow. He’s already one of the best shot blockers in the NBA, ranking in the top ten league-wide in total blocks, blocks per game, and block percentage. As a seven-footer with an even longer wingspan, he has always been a plus rebounder, averaging nearly 12 boards per 36 minutes for his career. He still has plenty of work to do to improve his game though, especially on the offensive end. While Bamba shoots nearly 70% within three feet, he isn’t as active in the paint as one would like, taking only 30% of his shots at the rim. He does have some potential as a floor-spacer and is shooting 33% from deep this season, a respectable clip for a young center.
If Jusuf Nurkic ends up being moved in another trade, Portland would be wise to take a look at bringing in Bamba. His price would likely be no more than a first-round pick, which would be more than fair if he continues to improve. And while the Blazers would have to re-sign him, Bamba should command far less than Nurkic this offseason and may allow them to free up money for the team to shore up other positions.