The Portland Trail Blazers are entering a crucial offseason hoping to get out of the mediocrity and build a contending team around the six-time All-Star Damian Lillard. The Blazers missed the playoffs last season and they did not make out of the first-round in the last two postseason appearances.
Last season, Portland made vital changes in the front office parting ways with GM Neil Olshey mid-season after conducting an independent investigation into “concerns around workplace environment by non-player personnel at the practice facility.” Olsey was replaced by Joe Cronin.
Prior to that, Portland fired Terry Stotts after the first-round exit vs the Denver Nuggets in the 2021 NBA playoffs. They replaced their former head coach, who stayed in Oregon for nine seasons, with Chancey Billups last summer. Billups led the Blazers to a 27-55 record in his first season with the team.
Following the personnel changes, the Blazers move on from Lillard’s fellow backcourt mate CJ McCollum shipping him to the New Orleans Pelicans last February. After being in the play-in conversation until February, Portland opt to target the 2022 NBA Draft and ruled Lillard out for the rest of the season.
With Joe Cronin, who was upgraded to full-time General Manager after taking the place of Olshey mid-season, the franchise will try to re-tool. The Blazers have the 7th pick of the 2022 NBA Draft and they are among teams with plenty of cap space entering the 2022 offseason. Portland is projected to have $21M in cap space this offseason, per Spotrac.
Cap Situation in Offseason
The Blazers have the ability to clear almost $37M in salary by offloading the contracts of Joe Ingles ($19.5M) and Jusuf Nurkic ($18M). Both players could be candidates to leave from the Blazers this offseason as several reports suggest the Blazers are among teams interested in Deandre Ayton and Jerami Grant.
Only 10 players will have guaranteed contracts next season with Eric Bledsoe having only $3.9M guaranteed for the last season of his current deal. Moreover, Josh Hart’s $12,960,000 are non-guaranteed and Portland can clear additional space. Portland’s breakout guard Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little are eligible for a rookie scale extension.
Simons could demand a contract around $17-18M a year, according to ESPN’s cap expert Bobby Marks. According to Marks, Little is also an extension candidate as both players can be part of a youth movement around Lillard next season. However, the Blazers are expected to be buyers this offseason.
Potential Free Agents, Trade Candidates
The Blazers are reportedly interested in Detroit’s forward Jerami Grant and have constantly been seen as the most likely team to trade for the versatile forward. According to The Athletic, Grant has a special bond with Damian Lillard with both players meeting each other in the Team USA Olympic camp last summer.
They played together, and they seem to want to meet again in Portland. Grant is owed $21 million next season and wants a hefty contract extension. The Pistons might be willing to offload Grant if the Blazers offer their lottery pick along with salary fillers. Another name placed in the Blazers’ wishlist might be Deandre Ayton. The Phoenix Suns’ bigman might be searching for a bigger role in offense and leave Phoenix.
Also, Ayton will be a restricted free agent this summer and the Suns seem to be unwilling to offer him a max deal. The Blazers are considered among the franchises who can offer that along with the OKC Thunder, Spurs, Pistons, Pacers and Magic. From those franchises, only Portland and Detroit seem to be willing to add more wins in their winning column next season.
Even if Portland is willing to match any offer for Anfernee Simons, the Blazers will have the chance to offer max salary to Ayton, If they cleared their cap from Nurkic and Ingles. If the Blazers add Ayton, Nurkic won’t return to Portland after playing in Oregon for five years. Ingles will also be out with a serious injury next season, so the Blazers are not expected to add him back in the roster.
The Blazers will have a tough time building a winning roster around Damian Lillard. The superstar guard has two years of contract worth $42M and $45M and one more ($47M) with an option to opt out and become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2024. The franchise will have to move quickly in order to become relevant in the West, as Lillard is already 32 and the urge of winning big is evident.
The Blazers will have limited choices this offseason, but they will need to re-tool the roster as Lillard is entering the late prime of his career. Being in the best health possible and coming out of surgery for an issue that bothered him for years, the six-time All-Star will probably have one of the best seasons of his career next year. Portland will have to cash-in Dame’s prime and win in the Western Conference, which expected to be better.
The Clippers will have Kawhi Leonard back alongside Paul George, the Nuggets will have Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. back healthy alongside back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic. Moreover, the Lakers will try to return to relevance with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, while the Suns and the Warriors are expected to be contending teams again. Portland’s time is limited and the road to create a contending team will be tough.