NBA Daily: Portland Trail Blazers Face Several Challenges This Offseason

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With the NBA Finals having come to a quick end and the Golden State Warriors parade behind us, most NBA fans have already moved on to contemplating how their favorite teams can improve this summer (with some dreaming of the possibility of adding LeBron James).

However, James has been linked to a handful of teams, which does not seemingly include the Portland Trail Blazers. With the Trail Blazers presumably removed from the James free agency drama, the franchise arguably has its best chance to improve its long-term outlook with the upcoming 2018 NBA Draft. It is easy to forget due to the length and drama of the NBA’s postseason but the Trail Blazers were the third seed in the NBA’s Western Conference with hopes of making a deep run. Of course, the Trail Blazers found themselves surprised and outmatched by an aggressive New Orleans Pelicans team, which led to a 0-4 sweep.

This disappointing loss and the repeat success of the Golden State Warriors demonstrated the need for, among other things, more talent at the wing position. The Trail Blazers go into the draft possessing their own pick (24th overall) and the need for some combination of shooting, shot creation and defense from the wing. The most promising wing prospect, Michael Porter Jr., will certainly be off the board, yet there are plenty of other prospects the team should have an eye on. The Blazers recently held pre-draft workouts, which included Oregon forward Troy Brown, USC guard De’Anthony Melton and Georgia Tech guard Josh Okogie among others. Other wing prospects in the Trail Blazers’ range might include Boise State shooting guard Chandler Hutchison, Creighton shooting guard Khyri Thomas and Cincinnati small forward Jacob Evans.

Any wing that would be selected, assuming he could contribute rather quickly, would help bolster a rotation that includes forwards Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless and Evan Turner, each of whom had varying levels of success throughout the year. With the cap issues mentioned below, it is foreseeable that backup rotation guard Shabazz Napier will not return, making the need for a productive rookie out of this class increasingly necessary.

The biggest obstacle for the Blazers, aside from determining who they might choose in the draft, is that they are well over the salary cap for the foreseeable future. As it stands, the team’s two most productive players are also its top salary earners — Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, respectively. To date, the franchise has resisted breaking up its star backcourt duo. Assuming no drastic move is made, the team would do well to select one of the more defensively capable wings that the team is often linked to (such as Okogie, Evans, Thomas and Melton) in order to add more defensive impact alongside the team’s star guards.

With little cap flexibility and a stated desire to bring back restricted free agent Jusuf Nurkic, the team finds itself in a crunch. After the team’s playoff elimination, Nurkic publicly stated that he wanted to return but that he also wants to be paid what he believes he is worth. Recent reports state that the team is going to allow Nurkic to test the open market as a restricted free agent and will elect to match any offered salary. In essence, the team will allow the market to dictate Nurkic’s salary, which is virtually guaranteed to be less than a full max offer. Count big man Ed Davis (unrestricted free agent) as another productive player the team would like to bring back on a reasonable contract.

If Nurkic doesn’t like any potential offers, he could gamble and opt to take the team’s qualifying offer and hope that further improvement would likely result in better offers next offseason. Assuming Nurkic returns with a new contract at a much higher rate (he made just under $3 million last season), the team may be forced to unload salary to stay under the luxury tax. Likely candidates include forward Evan Turner (around $18 million guaranteed each of the next two seasons) and center Meyers Leonard (roughly $11 million in each of the next two seasons). Each player has flashed the ability to be positive contributors, but too often Turner and Leonard are unable to provide enough production to justify their respective annual salaries.

Unloading an undesirable contract usually comes at a cost. Depending on how unfavorable a contract is, the cost for a team to take on an overly burdensome contract is often a first-round pick. For reference, the Los Angeles Lakers were forced to part ways with the former second overall pick D’Angelo Russell in order to entice the Brooklyn Nets to take center Timofey Mozgov and his contract.

Finally, there remains the more remote possibility that the team would quietly engage in discussion around one of its two stars. A recent rumor involves a trade that would be built around the exchange of McCollum and Cavaliers big man Kevin Love. The supposed purpose of such an exchange would be a bid to entice James to return to the Cavaliers. However, whatever Portland opts to do this offseason, it will face a series of challenges that could have significant consequences next season and beyond. One obvious need is on the wing, which they can seek to address on draft night. But there is more work to do beyond that, which the front office is well aware of.