Make no mistake, the Portland Trail Blazers are a very good basketball team and have been for a very long time. Recent seasons have been littered with memorable moments, mostly involving Damian Lillard, as the franchise has seen an extended run of success that it hadn’t experienced in over a decade.
But, while Portland has had a lot of success with their current core, based around Lillard and CJ McCollum, they have been unable to convert that into a title or even an NBA Finals appearance, coming closest in the 2019 postseason when they were swept by the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Now, for the second season in a row, the 11-9 Trail Blazers would seem to be the furthest thing from an NBA title threat as they’ve done everything in their power just to crack the top-eight in the conference.
Likewise, that core is getting older; Lillard has been and should continue to be one of the NBA’s best, but he’s set to turn 31 this season. By next season, McCollum will be 30, while core pieces Carmelo Anthony and Robert Covington will 37 and 31, respectively. Jusuf Nurkić is just 26-years-old, but he the big has struggled to stay on the court and has dealt with multiple severe injuries throughout his career — who’s to say he’ll be able to stay on the court in the future?
That group, with the players around them, certainly has something left in the tank, but both Lillard and McCollum may soon see their collective peak come to an end. And that would spell the end for Portland’s current group.
With that in mind, the Trail Blazers must commit to a direction going forward. And, if that direction is toward the Larry O’Brien trophy, the team must do whatever they can to acquire the star that, alongside Lillard and McCollum, can get them there. They started the 2020-21 season on the right track, as they acquired Covington, a reliable veteran that would shore up their depth and bring a bit of power on the defensive end, from the Houston Rockets. But, they need to do more..
Covington has struggled mightily to start the year, as he’s averaged just 6.5 points per game, shot a woeful 30.9 percent from the field and an even harder to stomach 27.6 percent from three. While he has looked as advertised on defense, his issues on offense have sometimes made it hard to keep him on the floor. Covington’s individual defense has also done little to boost Portland’s defense as a team, as they hold the league’s third-worst defensive rating, per NBA.com.
Even if Covington can bounce back, he alone won’t be enough to get the Trail Blazers over the hump, or even into the conversation, for that matter. But what can Portland do, exactly? What could they trade and, if they do decide it’s time to make a move, which players should they target?
The first name that would come to mind would be the Washington Wizards’ star, Bradley Beal. Beal, who has averaged 35 points per game, is the NBA’s leading scorer at the season’s quarter mark. But Washington has gone nowhere fast; Beal alone has been unable to drag them out of the league’s basement, as the 4-13 team has managed the league’s worst record thus far. While neither the Wizards nor Beal seem particularly interested in a deal at the moment, it might be the best for everyone if Beal were allowed to flourish elsewhere while Washington could truly start to rebuild.
A Beal-Lillard-McCollum trio would certainly be a treat to watch as they torch opposing defenses, but is his addition realistic? Is he what the Trail Blazers need?
If you have the opportunity to acquire a star like Beal, you take it and don’t look back. But Portland, the league’s fifth highest-scoring offense, isn’t exactly scrounging for points. Likewise, Beal, a good-not-great defender, doesn’t exactly address the team’s most glaring issue. And, again, neither Beal nor the team seem too keen on any sort of departure at the moment, so it’s hard to imagine the Trail Blazers taking this route, even if they wanted to.
Beyond Beal, there aren’t any star players that are obviously on the market. James Harden, the biggest available fish to start the season, has since made himself at home in Brooklyn. Portland could make a run at Ben Simmons, who the Philadelphia 76ers discussed with the Rockets before Harden was moved to the Brooklyn Nets. Simmons might be the perfect fit for Portland, as he would prove a massive upgrade defensively and would create countless opportunities for Lillard and McCollum on offense, rather than siphon them away.
Unfortunately, the 15-6, first in the Eastern Conference 76ers are unlikely to part with Simmons unless they can return a serious piece that might better fit their Joel Embiid-centric roster, such as McCollum himself. If they can’t find the player to push them over the top some other way, it may behoove Portland to consider such a drastic move.
Regardless of what they do in the end, the Trail Blazers need to do something. And they need to do it soon. Yes, they could wait for the return of both McCollum and Nurkić from injury, but that won’t be enough to push them into the Western Conference elite. Were the team to stand pat, only for one or both to sustain further injuries, it would likely be the death knell for their season.
There may be some inherent risks, but it’s about time Portland throw caution to the wind, open their proverbial wallet and truly commit to winning with this team 101 percent while they still can.
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