The Portland Trail Blazers have been the busiest team in the NBA as the trade deadline approaches and it's hard to see what their end-game is. First, the Blazers traded Norman Powell (who they signed to a five-year contract just last summer) and Robert Covington to the Los Angeles Clippers for salary filler and Keon Johnson, the No. 21 pick in the 2021 NBA draft. The real blockbuster move came on Tuesday as the team moved on from C.J. McCollum, sending him and Larry Nance to the New Orleans Pelicans for Josh Hart, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, picks and salary filler.
The Powell trade was bizarre. He was playing out of position on the Blazers, often tasked with defending small forwards despite being a guard. But he was a very useful player, the kind of glue guy every contending team needs on a reasonable deal for the foreseeable future. They traded him to one of the few teams who didn't have a first-round pick to offer until the latter half of the decade. Taking a flier on Johnson is fine, but Portland moved a reliable role player in exchange for a player who might reach the same heights as Powell. Eventually.
The McCollum deal makes more sense, to an extent. The breakout season of young Anfernee Simmons made him expendable. McCollum just entered the first year of a three-year, $100 million extension, so he was expensive, too. Expensive and expendable is usually a combination that leads to a trade. Getting Josh Hart, a somewhat worse but cheaper version of Powell, and a young guard in Nickeil Alexander-Walker is a decent return. Sending out Nance stings, though. He's played exactly like the kind of two-way, versatile defender the Blazers have tried to find for years.
But none of these moves are win-now moves. They don't even vaguely resemble win-now moves. They were decisions made to make the roster cheaper and basically punt on this season. Just looking at Portland's record, it's a logical move. They're 21-33 on the year and only a half-game back of the Pelicans for the 10th seed in the West but miles behind everybody else. If there were ever a year to bow out and shoot for a good draft pick, it's this one.
It all makes sense-- except for the fact that Damian Lillard is still on the roster. Lillard's absence is the primary reason the Blazers are this bad and why they can justify blowing up the roster in this manner. He had a brutal start to the year due to an abdominal injury that eventually forced him to shut down for a few months and surgery appears likely. If he does return this season, it won't be for a while yet.
Accepting this year as a lost season because the team's superstar is hurt and aiming for a high-end talent in the draft is a tried-and-true strategy for teams trying to rebuild on the fly. But all of Portland's moves here do not really seem like "rebuilding on the fly" moves. They're "blow it all up" moves. The Blazers traded four starting-caliber players for two young talents with years left on their developmental timeline and a rotation-caliber player in Hart. These trades set up the Blazers to possibly be good in a few years, not when Lillard returns healthy next season.
Which begs the question-- is Lillard next? He can't be happy watching all this unfold. Portland unloaded teammates who could help him win for unproven options and the primary motivation appears to be shedding as much salary as possible. That can't feel good for a guy who has stuck with his team through thick and thin. Lillard has earned the right to have his team do what they can to build around him, and instead the Blazers are trying to save money.
He'll be 32 years-old when next season begins. He doesn't have time to wait for his teammates to come into their own if he still wants to win a championship in Portland. There is a chance this is all part of a grand plan, that the Blazers want to tank this year as badly as possible to acquire a high lottery pick and will then turn around and use all these new assets to build an entirely new team around their star. But nothing about the franchise's deadline strategy suggests that. It only suggests they want to save money above all else-- in which case keeping an already-expensive Lillard, who is eligible for a gigantic contract extension this summer, makes no sense at all.
All this may be signifying an ignominious end to the Lillard era in Portland. They probably will not trade him unless he asks; the PR hit of sending out the most beloved player in franchise history with no notice would be absolutely brutal. But what motivation is there for Lillard to stay? If all is as it seems, Lillard has no reason to believe the Blazers are motivated or capable of building a championship team, especially in the current timeframe they have to do so.
Lillard loves Portland. He's said it time and time again. He wants to win a championship there. But the new direction the team is taking is not conducive to that goal. It may finally be time for the Lillard era to end in the Pacific Northwest.