Friday, January 27

If the Blazers want to sell Damian Lillard in contention, trading Norman Powell for nothing was a bad start.

Norman Powell is a very good player, and the Portland Trail Blazers traded him to the Los Angeles Clippers, essentially, to save money. The move allowed the Blazers to skirt the luxury tax line while bringing back Keon Johnson, Eric Bledsoe and Justise Winslow, the latter two of whom came off the books in the summer of 2023, while Powell is in the first year of five. -year, $90 million contract that runs through 2026.

If you want, you can flip this thing about Portland trying to create more financial flexibility to continue to build around Damian Lillard, but I think that story is hard to take. Even if the Blazers give up everyone except Anfernee Simons, they’ll be over the salary cap this summer. They could trade CJ McCollum for a bunch of expiring deals to try to carve out some space in 2023, but Lillard will be 33 by then.

So now Powell, McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic are gone. Since when has Portland, even with a tiny cap space, become a hotbed of free agents that will attract a group of great players to serve not just as replacements for McCollum, Powell and Nurkic, but as real upgrades?

It’s not going to happen.

This is the beginning of a rebuild, plain and simple.

Now, if Lillard is okay with spearheading a rebuild, fine. But let’s not dwell on this, as the Blazers are going to be better in six months or even a year than they could have been this season with a completely healthy roster. It got worse when they traded Powell, and it will get worse again every time McCollum is traded, which feels inevitable.

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And by the way, they didn’t even recover anything of value to Powell. There isn’t a team in the world that wants anything to do with Bledsoe or Winslow or the 2025 second-round pick that was included in the deal. So the Blazers aren’t going to be in the business of diverting these “assets” into real good players. Newsflash: They’re not going to get much more for McCollum, who isn’t an All-Star on the wrong side of 30 and is set to make nearly $70 million over the next two seasons.

There was talk that the Blazers were offered Ben Simmons for a McCollum-centric deal. If that’s true, and they had any real intentions of reshuffling Lillard, they should have pulled the trigger. There’s no chance that whoever McCollum ends up trading is a better player than Simmons.

So again, they’re going to get worse.

No short-term route to improvement.

The Blazers can last the rest of this season and maybe end up with a top six or seven picks, but how is that pick, even if used as a trade asset, going to turn into two better players than McCollum and Powell? He could pack him with Simons, but now that’s four core players he’s trying to replace with upgrades.

How does all this add up to Lillard staying in Portland to spend the rest of his prime on a bad team? When Powell was charged for nothing, that was the first domino. McCollum will be the second. After that, let’s connect the dots. There’s a more than good chance Lillard won’t play in Portland next season.

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In a way, I hate to say that. I love Lillard and I love him with the Blazers. I do not take lightly the idea that he is not betting on a super team. I think that’s amazing. But that’s not what he would be doing here. At this point, Lillard is the only play the Blazers have to get back real assets that can fuel a true rebuild.

It’s the same deal with Bradley Beal in Washington. The Wizards have tried to sell us on the idea that they’re going to build around Beal. How’s that going? Beal is, and has been for a long time, the only Wizards asset that anyone cares enough to return real value. Washington is deluding itself into thinking that a true championship contender is possible by moving some peripheral parts around Beal.

It makes me laugh when I hear Domantas Sabonis as a potential Wizards trade target. Beal made it to the second round once with top John Wall, but now Beal and Sabonis are going to compete for a title? Stop delaying the inevitable.

Let’s call it a spade: The Blazers’ window of contending for a title with Lillard, if it was ever really open in the first place, has slammed shut. First-year head coach Chauncey Billups was never going to get them out of a rut. Bledsoe and Winslow surely aren’t going to do that. And whoever they get for McCollum isn’t either. Lillard’s time in Portland, if he wants an honest shot at a title, is over.

The fact is, even if Lillard doesn’t want to leave, the Blazers should trade him anyway. We always look at these superstar offers as if the player has to ask out before a move can be considered. That is not true. The Blazers can, and should, be proactive in using the only real asset they have to fuel what is an inevitable rebuild. It seems to me that they know. I can’t think of any other scenario where Lillard could be sold on a Powell trade to save money. That was a revealing domino that fell, and I’d be surprised if there aren’t some bigger ones to come.

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