The 2018-19 season is going to be a defining one for the Portland Trail Blazers’ organization and their relevance in a competitive Western Conference.
Portland won 49 games and finished as the No. 3 seed out west last season, only to get swept out of the first round by the New Orleans Pelicans. It was a mighty blow for head coach Terry Stotts and Co.
With two All-NBA caliber performers in that of C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard in the backcourt, there’s no reason this team should be dealing with premature playoff exits. Sure GM Neil Olshey has overpaid for a lackluster supporting cast, but the onus is on these two to help their team take that next step.
Should that not happen this season, things will undoubtedly be mixed up a bit. In fact, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor suggests that one of the two could actually be traded in-season.
“There have always been whispers in league circles that Portland should break up the Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum duo, but there has been no indication it will,” the insider noted. “Portland is a playoff bubble team, though, and has few other avenues to make noteworthy changes.”
The issue here is that Portland has very few alternatives when it comes to changing up its roster midstream. That’s a product of Olshey handing out a combined $183 million in contracts to Maurice Harkless, Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard and Al-Farouq Aminu. The four are set to count a combined $46-plus million against the cap in 2018-19, $4-plus million more than Lillard and McCollum.
With the exception of Aminu, the other three are under contract through the 2019-20 campaign.
Olshey and Co. also need to look at who between McCollum and Lillard will want to stay in the Pacific Northwest beyond their current contracts, both of which expire following the 2020-21 campaign.
O’Connor notes that Lillard remains the face of the franchise, which means McCollum is the one likely to be moved. Then again, Lillard might not want to remain in a small market and has shown signs that he could bolt after his current contract expires.
All of this could be quieted if the Blazers somehow win 50-plus regular season games and make a deep run into the playoffs. But if there are signs that this isn’t going to happen, dealing one of these players in February could make a ton offense.
In a Western Conference that now features the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors, a pretty studly Houston Rockets team and the LeBron James-led Lakers, Portland remains second-class citizens. Short of that changing, breaking up its backcourt could be the next feasible move.