The Portland Trail Blazers cannot be accused of pinching pennies over the past few seasons, as they have the NBA’s fifth-highest payroll in 2017-18 at just over $122 million. While the Blazers have spent money, you can question whether they’ve done so wisely, inking role players that likely maxed out their abilities during an incredible, surprising season to major, long-term money.
Their backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are both on max deals through 2021, locking up at least $50 million in cap space through then (going to $60 million in 2020-21). Evan Turner was handed a deal that pays him between $17 and $18 million through 2020 and Maurice Harkless and Meyers Leonard combine for over $20 million, and this was after they dumped Allen Crabbe’s $20-plus million deal on the Nets over the summer.
The problem Portland finds itself in is making any improvements to the roster with their cap situation, which leaves them vulnerable to their top star being frustrated with their status as a slightly above .500 basketball team. Lillard has been with the Blazers since the start of his career and has always been loyal to Portland, but he did recently have some questions for owner Paul Allen about the direction of the team and their commitment to going for a title.
According to ESPN’s Chris Haynes, the two met in secret last Thursday, without anyone else from the organization being aware of the meeting, with Lillard “reaffirming” his commitment to the franchise, but asking tough questions about the Blazers approach and looking for reassurance that they were planning on heading in the right direction. The good news for Portland is that Allen’s fear that the meeting was going to end with a Lillard trade request did not end up being the case.
Lillard, who turns 28 on July 15, requested the meeting in part to reaffirm his commitment to the only professional franchise he has ever suited up for, but also to gain assurances that the organization was just as devoted to expeditiously crafting a title-contending team, sources said.
In the weeks leading up to the meeting, Allen feared Lillard would request a trade, sources said, but a trade request was not made. The two-time All-Star made it clear, though, that he has championship aspirations and wanted to fulfill those lofty goals during the remaining years of his prime window.
Among the things Lillard apparently brought up was how he was upset with the Blazers’ 2015 trade of Will Barton, and how Barton was the kind of complimentary piece the Blazers need on the wing as a shooter and floor spacer. It’s important to note that Barton, who has become a solid three-point shooter in Denver, shot 19.8 percent from three in his time in Portland, never finishing a season above 30.3 percent from deep.
Along with questions about past moves, Lillard and Allen discussed players the Blazers should target on the trade market, and while Haynes doesn’t provide specifics there, reports of Portland’s pursuit of DeAndre Jordan came out just days after this meeting took place. Lillard also gave coach Terry Stotts a vote of confidence.
The question is what the Blazers can actually do to improve their roster as Lillard wants and land any of the targets he desires. Turner, Harkless and Leonard are not great trade chips, which means the only way the Blazers can really acquire an impactful star would be to break up their backcourt duo and ship out C.J. McCollum to someone in need of guard help desperately.