Commentary: Portland Trail Blazers stuck between past, future, must commit to rebuild

Illustration of Steph Curry spraying fire extinguisher on Dame.
Sofia Reeves / The Mossy Log

Even though Damian Lillard, the usual cause of watch checking in the Moda Center, only played 29 games last season, Portland Trail Blazers fans found themselves looking for the time even more after his sidelining. The Trail Blazers once again failed to choose between rebuilding and contending and as a result will wind up with a play-in or first round exit and poor draft position. The latter is the more poignant problem as they ultimately should be rebuilding.

Lillard is now 32 years old and officially injury prone. He missed the majority of last season with an abdominal injury, which he played through in the 2021 Olympic Games. This decision worsened the injury and made him unavailable for the team that employs him. 

Additionally, Lillard signed a $122 million max extension before he could reach free agency, making him one of the highest earners in National Basketball Association (NBA) history. Throughout his career, Lillard has been praised for his loyalty, but it is often forgotten that loyalty in the NBA makes one eligible for large contracts. This is not an attack on Lillard’s character, just a reminder that his presence ails the team fiscally in addition to in their draft position. The guard’s talent is undeniable, but at this point he is no longer the best player on a championship team, if he ever was, and even if he remains healthy he stays healthy he would fail to make the Blazers contenders. 

Still, Lillard is not the chronic problem with this franchise. It is that Lillard has not played with an all-star since LaMarcus Aldridge left for the San Antonio Spurs. Anfernee Simons, the best thing about last year for Blazers fans, is just another one-way guard. He is certainly talented, and has said he wants to make the all-star team this season, but he will not be sufficient on defense, much less voted an all-star, in a conference featuring Luka Doncíc, Steph Curry, Devin Booker, Klay Thompson, Anthony Edwards and Chris Paul in guard positions. Lillard might not even make the all-star team. 

This off-season, the Blazers did make several notable moves through free agency, trade and the draft to obtain Gary Payton II, Jerami Grant and Shaedon Sharpe. 

Payton was excellent for the Golden State Warriors last year, despite getting injured in the playoffs, providing excellent defense and being an explosive finisher. While he is certainly a good player and a step in the right direction for the Portland backcourt rotation which has consistently lacked defense throughout Lillard’s career, his impact, particularly without an elite facilitator, will be minimal.

Grant has been a consistent asset for the Detroit Pistons, but failed to bring the team to the playoffs a single year of his time there. He is a two-way talent at the wing position, a top tier role-player, but generously a championship third option. 

When traded from the Denver Nuggets to Detroit, Grant went from a fourth or fifth option to a number one or number two option, and successfully filled the role. Detroit decided to part with Grant for four draft picks because he was not on their timeline, with the rise of Cade Cunningham and the promising young talent around him. The Pistons moved on from Grant because he is a win-now player and they were not winning, The Blazers should have done the same with Lillard.

The last notable pick-up, Sharpe, is by far the most fascinating. He was the seventh overall pick from the 2022 NBA draft. Sharpe was a fantastic high school player — as the number one shooting guard and top five overall — and enrolled at the University of Kentucky midway through the 2021-22 season instead of finishing his schooling. He did not play a single game for Kentucky after talking with Coach John Calipari, and the two agreed that was the best decision for him. Sharpe very well could be the best player in the draft, but he has not played on a stage bigger than a high school gym. Additionally, he is very far from Lillard’s timeline, further indication that the Blazers should have focused on the future.

While Portland has improved their defense and formed a trio of Simons, Lillard and Grant, they have not done nearly enough to contend in the Western Conference. Additionally, they have traded away several valuable picks in favor of winning now, but not their lottery pick for this season, injuring the impending rebuild that they partially committed to. The Trail Blazers not only failed to decide between the future and the present, they are not prepared for either. This season, when it is getting late in the fourth quarter and Lillard has the ball, when someone inevitably yells out “what time is it?” The overwhelming response should be “time to move on.”

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