The Portland Trail Blazers made a surprising run to the Western Conference Finals last season, beating the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games and then the Denver Nuggets in seven. With most of their key contributors back, and some better health, Portland could be a dark horse to win the West in 2020.
The Blazers have the second-most returning players on guaranteed contracts of any team in the NBA with 10. That group includes four of five starters, but only one of the team’s main reserves. Portland has also already been busy this offseason, adding wing Kent Bazemore in a trade with the Atlanta Hawks about a week before free agency opens.
Because of the large quantity of players already signed for next season, the Blazers sit just $1.7 million under the luxury tax line. If they are to retain any of their free agents, Portland will be back over the tax line. Given that the free agent group includes starting power forward Al-Farouq Aminu, and four key bench players in Seth Curry, Rodney Hood, Enes Kanter and Jake Layman, the Blazers are very likely to be back over the tax once again next season.
Adding to the complexities of this summer, Portland doesn’t have an exact timetable on when starting center Jusuf Nurkic will return. Nurkic broke his left leg in late-March in a gruesomely awkward landing after attempting a put-back. While it’s expected he’ll eventually make a full recovery, it’s unknown when he’ll return to the court. And if recent returns to play for Paul George and Gordon Hayward are any indicator, it will take at least a year of being back playing before Nurkic feels like himself again.
That means the Blazers have to fill several rotation holes with limited wiggle room under the tax. They’d like to bring back Aminu as they don’t have a built-in replacement for him on the roster. Maurice Harkless is more of a pure small forward, and the rest of the bigs are centers who could masquerade at the four at best. That’s good for depth behind Nurkic, but not at the power forward spot. Aminu is also one of Portland’s more versatile defenders and has become a passable shooter from distance.
In the backcourt, things are a lot more settled because of the presence of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Lillard turned in another All-NBA season and McCollum continues to be right on the cusp of All-Star status. Having those two makes everything easier on Neil Olshey to build the roster and Terry Stotts to coach the team. Portland does need to be on the lookout for backups as they traded Evan Turner, who more or less functioned as the backup point guard, and Seth Curry, who gave the team really good minutes as a designated shooter, is a free agent.
On the wing, Harkless returns and the pickup of Bazemore gives Portland a 3&D player that they haven’t had in a while. Rodney Hood is a free agent and may prove simply too pricey for the Blazers to re-sign. This is the spot where the team is hoping for some internal development from young players on the roster. Last year’s first round pick Anfernee Simons showed some promise in very limited action. At this year’s draft, Nassir Little fell further than anyone could have imagine and Portland was thrilled to pounce. Between the two, the Blazers believe they’ll have at least one rotation wing in the near future.
Developing those two, along with young big man Zach Collins, is going to be key for the Blazers keeping their tax bill under control. Lillard is now eligible for a supermax extension, and has indicated he will happily sign it to stay in Portland. McCollum will be due for a new contract in a couple of years. And Nurkic is on the books for at least three more seasons with a $4 million guarantee in the final year.
Having some of their cost-controlled young players develop into at least rotation pieces would be huge for Portland, both moving forward and this coming season. Beyond that, expect Olshey to do what he can to retain Aminu and restricted free agent forward Jake Layman. They might get priced out of Curry, Hood and last year’s post-Nurkic injury starter Kanter. Because of that, they’ll be bargain hunting to fill out the roster. The good news is that they should be able to find some undervalued players as cap space dries up around the league.
It’s long been thought that the Blazers needed to win, and win big, to keep Lillard in the Pacific Northwest or that he’d bolt for a bigger market. But Lillard has stayed true to his word and seems to want to stay with Portland. That synergistic relationship seems like it might finally be ready to bear fruit, as the Trail Blazers have as good a chance at any team at breaking through in the wide-open Western Conference.
Guaranteed Contracts (10): Kent Bazemore, Zach Collins, Maurice Harkless, Skal Labissiere, Meyers Leonard, Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic, Anfernee Simons, Gary Trent Jr.
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts (0): None
Potential Free Agents (5): Al-Farouq Aminu (UFA), Seth Curry (UFA), Rodney Hood (UFA), Enes Kanter (UFA), Jake Layman (RFA)
“Dead” Money on Cap ($5,091,108): Festus Ezeli, Andrew Nicholson, Anderson Varejao
First Round Draft Pick(s): Nassir Little
Maximum Cap Space: None. $20.2 million over
Projected Cap Space: None. $42.0 million over