The Portland Trail Blazers, for the second consecutive season, have given up towards the end of the campaign, choosing instead to “develop” their young talents with a playoff push looking more and more unattainable with each passing day. As a result, the Blazers will be heading into the 2023 offseason with much to ponder, especially with their superstar Damian Lillard not getting any younger, his nightly elite performances notwithstanding.
It’s not like the Blazers have refused to make any moves to bolster their supporting cast around Lillard. This past offseason, the Blazers acquired Jerami Grant from the Detroit Pistons, an astute acquisition given the 6’8 forward’s two-way skillset. And the Blazers began the season on a strong note, with their starting unit of Lillard-Grant-Anfernee Simons-Josh Hart-Jusuf Nurkic looking like a playoff-caliber squad.
Alas, the Blazers fell into a rut in the middle of the season, with Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons missing a few games here and there, and their depth simply couldn’t hold the fort amid those two’s absences. Now, the Blazers appear stuck in no man’s land, as they straddle the fine line of mediocrity.
Of course, there’s a certain kind of admirability in trying to compete for a playoff spot year-in, year-out and hoping that a disgruntled star finds their way to the team. (The 2019 Toronto Raptors comes to mind.) But it’s clear that something has to give for the Blazers to wiggle away from the clutches of mediocrity.
Here is one player that the Blazers, as heartbreaking as it might be for them, must trade in the 2023 NBA offseason, for the long-term health of the franchise.
1 player Blazers must trade in the 2023 NBA offseason: Damian Lillard
It seems like it has all been downhill for Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers since they reached the Western Conference Finals in 2019. In 2020, the Blazers faced a plethora of injury woes as Lillard tried to put the Blazers on his back, losing to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers in the bubble. The following year, the Blazers gave the Denver Nuggets some hell during the 2021 playoffs, only for CJ McCollum to step out of bounds. And then in 2022, the Blazers essentially punted the season after Lillard suffered a season-ending abdominal injury.
Now, the Blazers saw a good start to the season go to waste, basically throwing away yet another prime year from arguably the greatest player in franchise history.
This is not to say that Damian Lillard has been the problem. In fact, he is the last thing that comes to mind when it comes to what has hamstrung the Blazers’ contending ambitions these past few years. But sometimes, as soul-crushing as it may be, going onto separate ways is what’s best for both parties — Lillard and the Blazers, included.
For starters, a potential trade should benefit Lillard more. After all, the gunslinging floor general is getting up there in age (he’ll be 33 at the start of the 2023-24 NBA season), and his team is going nowhere fast.
Sure, a championship may not be the be-all, end-all of an NBA player’s career. A lot of pundits unfairly judge the “legacy” players leave behind based on the number of championships they win. But even Lillard, the ever-loyal floor general, won’t deny how important it would be for him to win the biggest trophy in the sport before he hangs up his playing shoes, especially knowing how competitive he is.
The tougher sell would be for the Blazers to relinquish one of the franchise’s all-time greats. The Blazers aren’t exactly a hot free agent destination. The Blazers have always built contending teams through the draft, with the likes of Dame, CJ McCollum, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Anfernee Simons the product of their shrewd drafting. (Imagine if they took Kevin Durant in 2007.)
And with Simons still in town and Shaedon Sharpe coming into his own, the Blazers could very well talk themselves into reloading once again around Dame, especially if they manage to re-sign Jerami Grant. With a few more solid free agent additions here and there, Portland could find itself in the thick of the playoff hunt next season if everything goes according to plan.
But the Blazers need to break the cycle of mediocrity – and trading away Lillard will give them plenty of pieces as they try to start over again, similar to when the Oklahoma City Thunder blew up their Paul George-Russell Westbrook-led core.
A team such as the Nuggets would be an incredible fit for Dame; imagine just how fruitful a partnership between Lillard and Nikola Jokic would be. Denver may have few draft assets to dangle, but Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. loom as major trade pieces the Blazers can target in such a scenario.
Of course, if the Blazers can find a way to swing a major trade for a game-changing presence without giving up Lillard, then they should choose that route. But when push comes to shove, the Blazers front office may have no choice but to proceed with the most difficult yet most logical choice.