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Is It Time to Break Up the Blazers?

To get better, Portland may have to deal one member of its prized backcourt duo

Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Portland Trail Blazers look about as convincing as a contender as Steve Buscemi did as a high school student. Behind a stout defense led by Jrue Holiday and a brilliant game plan from coach Alvin Gentry, the New Orleans Pelicans have dominated their first-round playoff series against Portland, going up 3-0, and in the process have made the Blazers look like phonies. The series isn’t over yet, but early exits are a trend for Portland. It’s shaping up to be the team’s third first-round loss in four seasons, and the 23rd one-and-done over 34 playoff appearances in team history.

The franchise hasn’t won an NBA title since the 1976-77 season, a drought that will almost certainly continue. It won’t get any easier moving forward. In January, Damian Lillard met with Blazers owner Paul Allen to seek assurance that ownership “was devoted to expeditiously crafting a title-contending team,” per ESPN. One big problem with regard to the expeditiousness of the endeavor: The Blazers are about to enter cap hell. They already have $110.5 million in guaranteed salary next season, with Lillard and McCollum combining for $53.7 million, and that’s before factoring in the cap hold for their 2018 first-round pick ($1.5 million for the 24th selection) and potential contract extensions for their four rotation regulars who will be free agents: Jusuf Nurkic, Ed Davis, Shabazz Napier, and Pat Connaughton.

Dealing Noah Vonleh at this February’s deadline allowed the Blazers to delay the start of the repeater tax (since it got them under the luxury tax), but they’re almost assuredly going to surpass it this offseason. Portland is effectively locked into its roster due to a lack of cap space and a lack of appealing trade assets because, in 2016, Blazers general manager Neil Olshey committed the sin of contract gluttony by signing Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, and Moe Harkless to inflated deals. The Blazers have two trade exceptions—worth $13 million and $3.5 million—that could allow them to take on salary without giving up anything back, but doing so would only further increase any potential tax burden.

That’d be fine if they were title contenders, but, as the Pelicans have made abundantly clear, they are not. Holiday, Anthony Davis, and any number of New Orleans defenders are aggressively trapping pick-and-rolls involving Lillard and McCollum, with the intention of forcing the ball out of their hands. Lillard explained after Game 3 that when defenses trap or “blitz” pick-and-rolls, the big man usually falls back eventually. But the Pelicans are applying waves of pressure throughout the entire action, which is something Lillard said he doesn’t recall seeing before.

Lillard has more turnovers than assists and as many shot attempts as he does points scored, and McCollum has been neutralized. It’s not the first time this has happened, as the Clippers used a similar coverage against Lillard during the 2016 playoffs. The Blazers ended up beating the Clippers in six games, but that’s largely because both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin missed the final two games due to injury.

Portland should resist running pick-and-rolls as frequently as it is since they only entice New Orleans to double-team Lillard, and instead roll with isolations using four-out lineups, or five-out with Al-Farouq Aminu at center. The Pelicans sometimes don’t even defend Aminu in the half court (he’s a career 33.6 percent 3-point shooter) and instead allow Anthony Davis to roam the paint. Maybe the solution would be to put Aminu at the 5, with a Lillard-McCollum backcourt, plus Harkless and Connaughton at the other spots. But when you’re talking about Connaughton as part of a lineup worth trying in a must-win playoff game, you know the team lacks significant depth, and, even then, Aminu defending Davis for any extended period of time could be trouble.

The Blazers have some solid role players like Aminu, and rookie center Zach Collins is blossoming. But the role players lack firepower, and they collectively aren’t coming through when the ball is being forced away from Lillard. The Blazers are shooting only 6-for-31 when Lillard passes out of the pick-and-roll, per Synergy. All parties are at fault. Collins and Nurkic are too often forcing contested shots on the roll, shooters are flat-out bricking shots, and Lillard must do a better job of making accurate passes. But the issue isn’t just offense. It’s defense. Lillard and McCollum both still offer the resistance of a wet tissue.

The Blazers had the eighth-ranked defense this season, but it hasn’t translated to the playoffs. They’re allowing the Pelicans to score 97.4 points per 100 possessions in the half court, per Synergy, which would’ve ranked sixth worst during the regular season—about the equivalent of the Mavs, Hawks, and Nets. Holiday and Rajon Rondo are both bigger and stronger than Portland’s backcourt; they’re not only scoring but also creating open shots for Nikola Mirotic, Ian Clark, and, of course, the Brow. It’s hard enough to hide a single poor defender in today’s NBA, with the way teams attempt to seek and destroy mismatches, but the Blazers have two weak links that have to be on the floor due to their offense.

Portland was getting stronger contributions from its secondary players during the regular season, and that group has struggled in the playoffs. Lillard is getting attacked on defense and pressured on offense, and McCollum isn’t picking up the slack. Even the most optimistic Blazers fans have to admit that the roster needs some help. The same could’ve been said for the Raptors entering this season—after four straight playoff defeats—but the difference is that Portland already overhauled its defensive system this season and it lacks the developing youth that Toronto has on its bench. The story of Portland’s demise is eerily similar to past seasons. But aside from hitting jackpot in the draft (or LeBron James signing with them for the veteran minimum), there isn’t a realistic way to “expeditiously” craft a championship-caliber roster.

It would be foolish to say that the Blazers need to blow up their entire roster. There is, indeed, talent on the team. But what they do need is a shake-up to create better roster balance and add stronger wing defenders who can shoot. Since they lack assets and high draft picks, the best way to get much better is to risk getting worse by making a big move.

In February, Olshey called it a “false narrative” created by the media that the Lillard-McCollum backcourt should be broken up. “They’re one of the most explosive backcourts in the league. They’re both high-character guys. They play off each other well. They’re best friends off the floor. They’re in their prime or entering their prime,” Olshey said, which is all true. That’s what makes the conversation so hard. It’s been reported that Olshey has previously rejected offers for Lillard and McCollum. But that doesn’t mean the phones will stop buzzing. Even before this series, league executives had assumed that Olshey would break up the duo if they failed again. We’ll find out in due time, but the idea should be entertained.

One of the best moves Golden State made this decade was breaking up the Steph Curry–Monta Ellis backcourt by flipping Ellis for Andrew Bogut. If Olshey pulls the right strings, perhaps he can find a deal that similarly elevates his roster to avoid further letdowns. The trouble is finding one that makes sense. But should Lillard or McCollum be dealt?

McCollum is a more efficient scorer and a better shooter, and has been more durable over the past three seasons. In the 20 games Lillard has missed and McCollum has played over the past three seasons, McCollum averages 26.9 points and 5.3 assists. But his scoring efficiency dips without his backcourt partner. Lillard is also a proven star with a heavy workload over a full season, something McCollum hasn’t been saddled with.

NBA executives I’ve texted with in the past don’t expect Lillard to be dealt anyway, so, for the sake of conversation, we’re going to assume Lillard is off the chopping block since he’s the face of the franchise. Any theoretical trades will involve McCollum. But choices are limited. We can forget about teams that don’t need a guard (the Rockets), that are tanking (the Hawks), or don’t have the right mixture of assets (the Bucks). If I were Olshey, I would aim to acquire a lockdown defensive wing or forward who can shoot 3s, a complementary scoring guard or wing to replace McCollum, and a lottery pick. If he’s able to dump a salary (Turner’s or Leonard’s), even better. It’s a lot to ask for, but McCollum is signed through the 2020-21 season, so the Blazers are operating from a position of leverage; they don’t need to make a deal.

Here are five trade ideas that are worth pondering as Portland’s playoff run nears its end and the offseason approaches. Please don’t take these “offers” literally; they are merely foundations to build on for a deal and meant to promote brainstorming for other viable deals.

Mavericks: Harrison Barnes for McCollum and Leonard

Barnes would provide the Blazers with a 25-year-old player who can defend at an elite level across multiple positions and shoot 3s; plus, he’s developed as a scorer with the ball in his hands in Dallas. Dumping Leonard would also provide salary relief for the Blazers. I don’t think I’d do the deal if I were the Mavs—a McCollum–Dennis Smith Jr. backcourt would be plagued by the same issues that Lillard-McCollum is—but the Mavs have a ton of cap space in the coming years, and McCollum is more of a draw to free agents than Barnes is.

Knicks: Frank Ntilikina and Their First-Round Pick (Projected No. 9) for McCollum

Ntilikina is already one of the NBA’s best defensive point guards; he’d ease the pressure on Lillard and thus the rest of the defense, since he’d prevent easy penetration. The Knicks’ first -rounder is in range to grab a number of versatile wings like Mikal Bridges, Zhaire Smith, and Miles Bridges. As for New York, I’d view this deal as an opportunity to accelerate the rebuild around Kristaps Porzingis and increase the team’s appeal to free agents, rather than waiting for Ntilikina to develop.

Hornets: Malik Monk, Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Their First-Round Pick (Projected No. 11) for McCollum

This deal doesn’t feel like enough for the Blazers, but it’s intriguing. Monk’s skill set is comparable to McCollum’s, so he could develop into a similar role at a far lower cost. Kidd-Gilchrist still can’t shoot, but I’ll be intrigued at least until I see him in a winning situation. Acquiring Zeller would encourage Portland to let the inconsistent Nurkic walk. At no. 11, the franchise would also get a look at some versatile prospects. As for the Hornets, the move would reek of desperation to keep Kemba Walker happy. But maybe an East Coast version of the Blazers would be enough for him to stay in Charlotte.

Clippers: DeAndre Jordan, Patrick Beverley, and Their First-Round Pick (Projected No. 13) for McCollum

The Blazers pursued Jordan before the deadline, but the price was too steep for him alone. Maybe the way to make the deal worth it is to expand it by adding a point guard in Beverley, who would balance Portland’s backcourt, and receiving a pick. The deal would be reasonable for the Clippers if they think McCollum can reach a higher level, and if they want nothing to do with Jordan if he opts into his $24.1 million contract for the 2018-19 season.

Cavaliers: Kevin Love, Cedi Osman, and the Nets’ First (Projected No. 8) for McCollum

Different versions of this deal have been tossed around for two years now. Love would hurt Portland’s defense, but he could improve offensive spacing and provide a secondary source of playmaking. I’ve never been a fan of Love for Portland, but the Nets pick changes the equation, since the Blazers would be in range for an instant-impact rookie wing like Mikal Bridges or a potential franchise-changer like Michael Porter Jr. or Marvin Bagley III. This deal might strike the best balance for the Blazers, while the Cavs would be incentivized to bolster their backcourt to appeal to LeBron James.

Lillard spoke to Allen because he wants to compete for championships, but right now the Blazers aren’t as close as a 3-seed should feel. Drastic steps must be taken to close the gap. Olshey said in February that the 2017-18 season is only the third year of a “three-to-five year rebuild.” If he’s genuine about that timeline, there’s no shame in taking one step back now to take one big leap forward next year and beyond.