Despite accomplishing individual feats in Game 5 and setting a playoff series record in Game 6, Damian Lillard finds himself out of the postseason too early.
The Portland Trail Blazers were bounced in the first round for the fifth time in Lillard’s career, this time at the hands of the Denver Nuggets. The early exit already has Lillard’s name in trade conversations with the New York Knicks, but plenty of teams will be interested in the point guard.
Update: The Blazer parted ways with head coach Terry Stotts and now it appears the team is poised to bring in Jason Kidd to replace him, a direct request from Dame, per Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes.
Before diving into Lillard’s future with the Blazers, let’s take a step back. It’s 2013-14 and Portland has a strong starting group centered around LaMarcus Aldridge and a rising Lillard. The Trail Blazers win their first-round series against the Rockets on Lillard’s heroics in Game 6 before losing to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs in the second round. They didn’t have the best talent, but the Blazers had reason to believe they could challenge for a championship soon. The addition of CJ McCollum in the draft only added to that excitement.
The following season, the Trail Blazers won the franchise’s first division title. However, they couldn’t parlay that into playoff success after injuries took their toll in a 4-1 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. Aldridge bounced to the Spurs in free agency and Portland was forced to retool around Lillard after blowing up the rest of the roster.
There was plenty of encouragement around the Lillard-McCollum pairing. The Trail Blazers reached the Western Conference Finals in 2018-19, but were quickly dispatched by the Golden State Warriors. Two seasons later, they’ll have to find a way to maximize the rest of Lillard’s career or risk losing the star.
Lillard has three more years on his deal with a player option of $54 million in 2024-25, something he’s likely to opt into. The pandemic has stifled some of the NBA’s projected salary cap figures in the future and Lillard would not pass on that pay day. At 30, Lillard is entering the later stages of his career and will want to see significant roster turnover.
The problem for Portland is the salary cap. Lillard, McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic account for a massive chunk of that money and McCollum is on a long-term deal like Lillard. Portland isn’t exactly a free agent destination, so the Blazers have to keep running it back with a majority of the same roster.
Portland doesn’t have a first-round pick this year, but has all its future picks intact. The Blazers have missed out on some notable players with lottery picks, but have a young group in Zach Collins, Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little capable of improving. Nurkic has slipped defensively, but is only 26. There’s no reason to think Lillard and McCollum are going to significantly decline.
In 2021-22, the Trail Blazers don’t have many options. Without a first-round pick, they can’t add a low-cost player with upside. They have to make decisions about bringing back Norman Powell and Derrick Jones Jr., both of whom have player options. Collins is a restricted free agent, but shouldn’t command too much money due to injury concerns. Portland’s best bet for next season is to run it back and hope one of its young players improves. Portland’s cap situation improves significantly in 2022-23 and they can retool the roster based on the results from next season.
Alternatively, the Blazers can look into dealing Lillard and McCollum and blowing the whole thing up again. Portland fans might riot if Lillard gets dealt given what he’s meant to the team and how he’s conducted himself as a franchise player, but moving McCollum is definitely on the table. If Bradley Beal becomes available, the teams that miss out on him can look at McCollum as a viable backup option. Depending on how the Blazers feel about Simons, they can still have a strong backcourt while getting back draft assets and salary cap space in a McCollum trade.
This can all change if Lillard wants out, but there’s been no indication of that happening. He’s stayed with the franchise through some rough moments and signed a big extension. He’s idolized in Portland and has spoken out against forming “super teams”, so don’t expect him to make that move. The 2018-19 playoff run gives Portland some optimism about this group, but another disappointing season in 2021-22 will lead to big changes.