Illustration by Faith Gallegos

Blazers face hardship as season comes to end

This year has marked a turning point for the Portland Trail Blazers, and not in a good way. With their entire starting lineup this season either traded or injured, the team is purposefully tanking for the first time since 2011, the year before they drafted Damian Lillard with the sixth pick in the NBA draft. Having already announced that Lillard will miss the rest of the season due to abdominal surgery, the Blazers seem likely to continue their descent down the Western Conference standings.

What makes matters worse for their fanbase is the departure of Lillard’s longtime teammate CJ McCollum, who was traded in a blockbuster deal to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for several players and three draft picks. The move, while not unexpected, has struck a chord with the Portland community and members of the organization, who have become accustomed to seeing McCollum on the court after nine seasons. Most notably, it signals an end to the successful partnership of McCollum and Lillard, who were perennial playoff contenders and disruptors throughout their eight full seasons together.

In a letter to The Players Tribune, McCollum described what it was like to receive news of the trade, and shared several memories from his time with the organization.

“This connection we have runs so deep,” McCollum wrote. “It’s more than words. It’s more than the W’s … For me, it’s nine years of laughter and pain and heartbreak and joy and spiritual growth. It’s everything.”

Lillard also released a statement on social media wishing McCollum well as a new member of the New Orleans Pelicans.

“We knew this day would come but it doesn’t make it any easier,” Lillard said. “Hurt my heart to know (everything) won’t be the same but the love gone always remain C! You know what time it is with me always. All the best going forward my brother.”

Less than a week prior to trading McCollum, the Blazers traded away forwards Norman Powell and Robert Covington to the Los Angeles Clippers. The deal netted them three role players and a second round draft pick, while also allowing them to continue the development of their young players.

According to NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski, in an interview with ESPN, these moves were primarily designed to give Portland more cap space to trade with or sign free agents over the summer. Just by dealing McCollum and Powell, the Blazers erased more than 140 million in future salary obligations, leaving them with plenty of roster space moving forward.

In a press conference on Feb. 10, General Manager Joe Cronin doubled down on the trades, saying “we have numerous ways to acquire high level talent.” Cronin made it clear that he intends to make good use of the newfound financial flexibility as soon as the offseason begins, where the team will likely pursue high profile free agent players.

Currently, the team is 27-45, 12th in the Western Conference. Injuries to point guard Anfernee Simons and center Jusuf Nurkić — who were leading the team in scoring with Lillard out — have kept the team’s tank going, of which the ultimate goal is a coveted top draft pick in June. It remains to be seen what moves the team will make in the offseason, but they seem intent on surrounding Lillard with the talent to compete for a championship.

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