“Starry but stagnant.”
That’s how NBA insider Marc Stein of the New York Times described the Portland Trail Blazers’ backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in his July 31 newsletter, which can be read here.
Stein listed the Blazers’ backcourt situation as one worth monitoring in the coming months. Would the Blazers actually breakup their dynamic duo in the backcourt? And, if so, which player should they hypothetically move?
Lillard is a superstar — a three-time NBA All-Star who would bring back the most value in a trade. But trading Lillard would be a drastic step, one that, depending on the return, would signal a full-blown rebuild. In theory, the Blazers could trade McCollum and re-shape the team around Lillard under the guise of remaining competitive.
But since Lillard holds so much value, he could net the Blazers a combination of picks and/or young players in a trade. And, although the Blazers have made the playoffs in five consecutive seasons, could Portland’s disappointing showing in the 2018 playoffs eventually lead to wholesale changes?
Moving Lillard would be a tough pill for the Blazers to swallow, as he is the heart and soul of the team. Lillard will play the 2018-19 season at age 28, so even with as good as he has been in the past, he should be entering his prime now. In a perfect world, these are the years that the Blazers had been building toward when they drafted Lillard sixth overall in 2012.
But let’s briefly go back to Stein’s assessment. “Stagnant.” Yes, the Blazers have a five-year postseason streak intact. But only twice in that span have the Blazers advanced past the first round — 2013-14 and 2015-16.
It’s no secret that the Western Conference is loaded. The Golden State Warriors angered the other 29 teams by adding DeMarcus Cousins. The Houston Rockets retained Chris Paul and seem poised to add Carmelo Anthony while taking another shot at the Warriors after falling in seven games in the Western Conference Finals. The Oklahoma City Thunder, to the initial surprise of many, re-signed Paul George. And, of course, in the most notable move of the offseason, LeBron James has come West to join the Los Angeles Lakers.
So where does that leave the Blazers?
Certainly, the Blazers can keep the band together and give Lillard, McCollum and company another chance in 2018-19 — which seems like the plan for now.
But here’s where trading Lillard becomes a delicate issue. If Portland does entertain trading Lillard, the franchise cornerstone, GM Neil Olshey and the front office cannot afford to miss on the return. If Portland is blown away by an offer — say, multiple first round picks or young, controllable players, the Blazers would have to think about the future and the direction of the franchise.
Lillard is under contract through the 2020-2021 season, so it’s not as if there is an impending free agency situation in a year that will force the Blazers to make a decision. Due to this, the Blazers obviously cannot and should not just give Lillard away for the sake of shaking up the roster.
In 73 games last season, Lillard averaged 26.9 points per game, with 6.6 assists and 4.5 rebounds. Lillard shot 44 percent from the field as a whole, and 36 percent from beyond the arc. He also had a true shooting percentage of 59 percent, the highest mark of his career thus far.
Losing a player of Lillard’s caliber, even in a trade, leaves a lot of production that would need to be replaced. However, Lillard did have some interesting thoughts on free agency, when he expressed dismay at the departure of former Blazer Ed Davis, who signed a one-year deal with the Brooklyn Nets.
Lillard then insisted that he was “not unhappy” in Portland, which left some fans to ponder his future with the franchise despite his assurances.
Ultimately, Lillard is the face of the Blazers’ franchise. He has developed into the type of player that teams covet but typically cannot attain, especially in the prime of a career. Trading Lillard would not be a wise move unless one of two things (or both) occurs: If a team is willing to overpay for Lillard via trade — perhaps in the form of a deal where the Boston Celtics benefitted from the Brooklyn Nets’ slew of draft picks for years — the Blazers may have to consider it.
Or, if Lillard publicly or privately expresses that he wants out of Portland, the Blazers eventually would be forced to act, similarly to how the San Antonio Spurs had to trade Kawhi Leonard to Toronto this offseason.
But for anything short of those two scenarios, the Blazers should keep Lillard for now. There is always the possibility that Lillard could leave as a free agent in 2021, and he would have no shortage of suitors. But seeing as Lillard is under team control for three more full seasons, the Blazers still have time to try to build a winner around him, before reassessing their options at the 2019 trade deadline, or in the 2019 offseason.