Time to get philosophical: Is a rebuild truly a rebuild if you never actually bottom out?
After parting ways with franchise icon Damian Lillard, the Portland Trail Blazers are now supposed to lurch into a grueling, multi-year, Process-like journey through the obscure, arid sands of the NBA lottery, hoping to one day reach the oasis of a postseason berth.
Hold up. Don't get the tanks out just yet.
By flipping Jrue Holiday to the Boston Celtics on Sunday, the sum total of the Lillard trade beautifully positions the Blazers not only for the future, but also for the present. All in all, here's what general manager Joe Cronin was able to fetch for Lillard, who -- lest we forget -- did his best to compromise the franchise's leverage by telling everyone who would listen that he was dead set on going to Miami:
- Deandre Ayton
- Robert Williams III
- Malcolm Brogdon
- Toumani Camara
- 2024 Warriors first-round pick (top-four protected)
- 2028 Bucks pick swap
- 2029 Bucks unprotected first-round pick
- 2029 Celtics unprotected first-round pick
- 2030 Bucks pick swap
Let's put aside the fact that those Bucks picks six and seven years from now could become extremely valuable if Giannis Antetokounmpo elects to take his talents to another city -- and let's stash away the possibility of Cronin flipping Brogdon for even more assets.
Let's talk about the Blazers right now.
Cronin didn't take fliers on a handful of young players who are two years away from being two years way, or acquire matching salary that would eventually result in a buyout, providing zero value to the team. Instead he acquired a former No. 1 overall pick and potential franchise cornerstone in Ayton, a 25-year-old athletic freak with Defensive Player of the Year chops in Williams, and a rock-solid, sharpshooting locker room leader in Brogdon, who also happens to be the reigning Sixth Man of the Year.
"We want to have Malcolm come here and be a part of this," Cronin said on media day. "He can bring some good on-court intangibles for us and also as a veteran, which is something we're going to need. We have a very young roster. I want to make sure there's enough veteran leadership around these guys."
If the Blazers don't make another move this offseason, here's what an opening night rotation could look like:
- PG: Malcolm Brogdon, Scoot Henderson
- SG: Anfernee Simons, Shaedon Sharpe
- SF: Jerami Grant, Matisse Thybulle
- PF: Robert Williams, Kris Murray/Jabari Walker
- C: Deandre Ayton (Williams plays C with second unit)
That doesn't exactly have the look of a rebuilding tank factory (something Portland fans are more than familiar with after the way the last two seasons ended).
Of course there are a lot of ifs, as with any roster. Brogdon and Williams need to stay healthy. Henderson and Sharpe need to develop quickly. Ayton needs to buy in on the defensive end.
If it all comes together, however, it's not a reach to say this team could be fighting for a play-in spot come April.
We need not look too far into the past to see a similar blueprint. The Utah Jazz had a fire sale last offseason, trading away All-NBA talents in Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert to kick off what was perceived to be a textbook teardown. But instead of trading Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson and Jarred Vanderbilt before the season, as many expected, head decision-maker Danny Ainge held onto them, as they joined Collin Sexton and breakout All-Star Lauri Markkanen to lead Utah to a shocking 12-8 start.
The Jazz remained around .500 for most of the year, eventually trading Conley and Vanderbilt for assets. Even after the trades, Utah continued to flirt with a play-in spot until the franchise elected to opt for the lottery, losing nine of its last 11 games to ensure another high pick.
With the emergence of Walker Kessler and Ochai Agbaji -- who came over in the Gobert and Mitchell deals, respectively -- plus the addition of three more first-round picks (Taylor Hendricks, Keyonte George, Brice Sensabaugh), not to mention the absolute treasure trove of future draft capital they possess, the Jazz look to be in perfect position to compete for a playoff spot while continuing to build for the future.
The Blazers could absolutely emulate that path.
With career averages of 17 points and 10 rebounds on 60% shooting, Ayton has the talent to be a breakout star this season, just like Markkanen was last year. And he certainly appears grateful for the fresh start.
"This is so wonderful," Ayton said as he toured the Blazers facility. "I feel like I just got drafted."
Assuming Portland hangs onto Brogdon, he and Williams should immediately improve a defense that finished 28th in efficiency last season. Meanwhile, without Lillard, head coach Chauncey Billups will likely give more offensive freedom to Simons -- who finished in the 83rd percentile last season in pick-and-roll efficiency including passes, per Synergy Sports -- and Grant, who quietly averaged over 20 points last season on impressive 48/40/81 shooting splits.
If things aren't working or the franchise simply thinks Henderson and Sharpe are ready to run the show, Brogdon, Grant and even Simons should be attractive trade targets for contenders, potentially netting further draft picks and/or players for the Blazers' repository.
Cronin is alreadyout of a contentious Lillard situation, and the applause will only grow louder if the Blazers are more competitive than expected this season.