Portland Trail Blazers: Now, On To Rebuilding

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports /

The Portland Trail Blazers are rebuilding again. After two seasons of 50-plus wins, Rip City has been left with no choice but to start from scratch and build around star point guard Damian Lillard.

As Zach Lowe of Grantland noted, the Blazers’ starting lineup was decimated over the course of three whirlwind days, losing five key contributors, the capstone being the loss of long-time franchise centerpiece LaMarcus Aldridge to the San Antonio Spurs. So where will Portland go from here? What can the fans expect?

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The answer is clear, the Blazers have nowhere to go but down and fans should expect that this new team will be at the bottom of the barrel out in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. That’s not to say that there isn’t hope for this team. There’s always hope when you’re headed to the draft lottery, right?

Last season in a final effort to push the team’s title contention hopes over the top, Neil Olshey dealt the franchise’s 2016 first-round pick to Denver in exchange for Arron Afflalo, who promptly left for the Big Apple this month.

However, the front office smartly protected the pick so that it would only be conveyed to Denver if it fell outside of the lottery and while missing the playoffs will be painful for a one-sport town, fans can take solace knowing that they’ll have a chance at drafting a big-time talent.

Cap flexibility is another valuable asset that this rebuilding team has at its disposal. Only a handful of players are guaranteed to be on the books over the coming years and no one other than Damian Lillard will be making more than $7.5 million a year, leaving the Blazers with nearly $30 million in payroll to work with.

While Portland has not been a historically attractive place for free agents to sign, there are a number of ways to skin that cat. Over the course of a season, impact talent inevitably become available in the trade market and teams with a clean cap sheet have an advantage in those events.

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  • However this season, Portland is more likely to use its cap flexibility to play the role of a salary dumping ground in return for draft picks or young players, similar to what Boston and Philadelphia have done when they took on players like Gerald Wallace and JaVale McGee.

    All this is not to say that the Blazers don’t have a good nucleus to build around currently. Damian Lillard is only 25 and is already an All-Star. During the playoffs, 23-year-old C.J. McCollum averaged 17 points and four rebounds in 33 minutes per game.

    His advanced numbers are all encouraging and without other veterans around to steal his minutes, McCollum should prove to be a potent contributor next season. I’ve covered what Mason Plumlee brings to the team in detail before and, at 25 years old, the big man fits well with Portland’s long-term plans.

    Meyers Leonard showed off his development last year shooting better than 40 percent from three-point range on an admittedly small sample size, but he projects to be a capable floor spacer as well as a serviceable rebounder. With more minutes and an increased role, there’s no reason the 7-footer can’t average 14-10.

    Similarly, Noah Vonleh is only 19 years old and was lauded as one of the most physically gifted and versatile big men in the 2014 draft.

    If Terry Stotts can nurture Vonleh’s offensive game and instill in him the confidence he needs to succeed, the pain of Aldridge’s departure could be more easily forgotten.

    With this nucleus in place the Blazers have a future that is every bit as bright as that of the Utah Jazz, which should be every rebuilding franchise’s goal right now.

    By drafting well, making smart trades, building a strong team culture, and catching a few lucky breaks the Jazz have become the rising stars of the Western Conference, with many observers wondering if they can make a playoff push this year.

    While the Blazers are nowhere near where Utah is in the rebuilding process, fans can expect the Blazers to adopt a similar blueprint to building a team that will eventually get back to the playoffs and contend for a title.

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