The Golden State Warriors have been the class of the conference for half a decade, but that could change next season.
They’re guaranteed to be without Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson for most, if not all of the 2019-20 campaign. Barring a near-miraculous recovery, Durant (torn achilles) probably won’t return until 2020-21. Thompson (torn ACL) is an ironman, but it would behoove the Warriors to also be cautious with his recovery.
That, of course, assumes both players will actually be on the roster. Remember, both will technically be on the market this summer. Durant has been linked to the New York Knicks for quite a bit, though that’s since been expanded to the Brooklyn Nets as well. Thompson has been linked to both LA teams, though the Clippers may have the edge there.
The other top tier teams in the West have taken notice, and are acting accordingly. The Utah Jazz traded for All-Star caliber guard Mike Conley. Jimmy Butler is pinging on the Houston Rockets’ radar. The Denver Nuggets reportedly sniffed around the Anthony Davis Sweepstakes; heck, the Lakers gave up the farm (and then some) for Davis.
The Portland Trail Blazers are predictably being discarded in these discussions. You would think the team that just faced the sky-is-falling Warriors would be where the conversation starts, but it’s a testament to the rest of the conference. It’s just that deep.
Still, even though the Blazers were swept by the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, they were up double digits for large chunks of that series. With better health, they should be primed for a deep playoff run.
And with a few savvy roster moves, there’s potential for more.
WhERE THEY STAND
The Blazers have already laid down their foundation. Everything starts with Damian Lillard, one of the NBA’s three best point guards.
He’s flanked by CJ McCollum, an elite three-level scorer that can effectively run the offense when Lillard sits. Big man Jusuf Nurkic emerged as one of the best centers in the league last season. He’s a great roll threat with passing chops, as well as a reliable rim protector in Portland’s “Drop” scheme.
It’s clear the Blazers want to surround those three with wings that can shoot and defend. That isn’t easy to do—everyone in the league treasures that archetype—but the Blazers are doing their homework early.
UNC enigma Nassir Little fell to them at 25. He projects as a good on-ball defender, and with his 7’1 wingspan, there’s hope he could develop into a versatile stopper. He shot a little worse than expected last season (26.9 percent from deep) but possesses plus-touch and has an encouraging shooting form.
On Tuesday, the Blazers made a cap-neutral deal with the Atlanta Hawks. Evan Turner will be getting some secondary ball-handling reps for the Hawks, while Kent Bazemore will be spotting up around the Lillard-McCollum combo.
Bazemore is a modest three-point shooter overall (career 35.2 percent) but is especially efficient from the corners (career 39.9 percent). He projects to slot in well as a release valve in Portland’s flare screen-heavy offensive attack, especially as an additional cutting threat. There isn’t much playmaking value, but he is a good enough driver to attack bent defenses or wild close-outs.
Here’s who the Blazers still have under contract:
Guards: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Gary Trent Jr., Anfernee Simons
Wings: Kent Bazemore, Nassir Little
Forwards: Mo Harkless, Jake Layman
Bigs: Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins, Meyers Leonard, Skal Labissiere
Enes Kanter, Rodney Hood, Al-Farouq Aminu and Seth Curry are set to hit the market. The Blazers could agree to an extension with Aminu worth up to four-years, $48 million. It’s doubtful that will happen, but Portland is equipped with his Bird Rights to go over the cap and bring him back.
The status of the Curry-Hood-Kanter trio will mostly depend on what their markets will be. The Bazemore trade is as much protection as it is an improvement in the event that Hood goes elsewhere. Hood thrived as a spacer and secondary creator during the postseason. His ability to knock down pull-ups and occasionally post up smaller players proved to be important half-court counters.
Still, he’s been maddeningly inconsistent throughout his career, and Bazemore’s arrival either means additional depth as an insurance policy or a steadier replacement.
The Blazers will miss Curry’s shooting and secondary playmaking if he too prices out of Portland’s range. They would then have to bank on Trent Jr. cracking the rotation or finding a cheap option in free agency.
Kanter held down the fort for Nurkic after his injury. He provided the Blazers with interior scoring and plus-rebounding on both ends. His battles with Nikola Jokic during their second-round series was productive, aside from Kanter grimacing after every possession because of his shoulder issue. If his price tag is low, I’d imagine the Blazers would love to have him return. If nothing else, that would make it easier to part with youngsters Zach Collins or Meyers Leonard in a trade.
Speaking of which …
what they need
One thing that hurt the Blazers during the Western Conference Finals was the lack of a frontcourt playmaker. They felt the absence of Nurkic more than ever because the Warriors forced their less-skilled bigs to make short-roll plays.
Kanter is an okay passer, but it’s not his forte. Collins looked mostly uncomfortable making those split-second decisions. Leonard didn’t profile as a passer, as that’s never really been his game.
The Blazers need to add a(nother) short-roll threat in their front-court to really complement their backcourt. Nurkic will help, but you can never have too many sound decision-makers.
If they want to take a big swing, Portland should call up the Cleveland Cavaliers to inquire about former All-Star forward Kevin Love’s availability.
There’s reason to pause about his contract (four-years, $120 million), but he would be a perfect fit for the Blazers offensively. He’s a fantastic passer from the high post or in short-roll situations. He can score on the block, or knock down shots as a pick-and-pop or spot-up threat.
The 30-year-old Oregon native is at the point in his career where playing third wheel probably best suits his remaining athleticism and persistent injury concerns. Plus, Cleveland should theoretically be looking to move him for younger prospects. The Blazers have no fewer than six of those currently sitting on their roster.
Ideally, the Blazers would land him without giving up any of their three core players (Lillard, McCollum, Nurkic). They have enough mid-sized contracts and draft capital—owning each of their first-round picks through 2026—to throw together a solid package, though they almost assuredly need Leonard’s larger deal as cap ballast.
If that’s too steep, there are cheaper options available. Most notably, Miami Heat forward James Johnson could fit the bill. He’s no longer the Swiss army knife that shocked the league during the Heat’s 30-11 run in 2016-17, yet he can still make plays in short-roll, finish at a high level and provide versatility defensively.
Adding another threat up front while keeping an adequate level of perimeter shooters would put the Blazers in fantastic shape to make a run. This is about finishing touches not a full remake.
If the last couple of weeks serve as any indication, the West is there for the taking.
Nekias Duncan is an avid NBA watcher with an appreciation for angled screens, Spain pick-and-rolls, and anything Khris Middleton does on the court. When he isn’t writing about or watching basketball, he’s dropping the best puns the east coast has to offer. Follow him on Twitter at @NekiasNBA.