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PORTLAND, Ore. — The NBA trade deadline is three days away and the Portland Trail Blazers have some tough decisions to make.
The Blazers, despite a couple tough losses on a challenging road trip out East, are playing well. Portland (29-24) has won 13 of its past 21 games and currently occupies sixth place in the West, just a half-game behind the Oklahoma City Thunder for fifth place.
Yet the team still has areas of weakness that the front office should try to address. Pulling off trades to fix all of these problems is much easier said than done and fans should keep their expectations in check leading up to Thursday's deadline. But these are the issues the Blazers should look to address going forward.
Reduce salary: The Blazers' payroll of $122 million is too high for a team that, as currently constructed, isn't likely to challenge for a championship this season. Portland has several players with expensive contracts that don't match their level of production, but trading players like Evan Turner (owed $36 million over the next two seasons) and Meyers Leonard (owed $22 million over the next two seasons) will be challenging. Most likely, teams will require a first-round pick to take on the salaries of either of those players. A first-round pick might be too steep a price to pay for the Blazers' front office. Maurice Harkless is still owed about $22 million the next two seasons, but considering the demand for wings by nearly every team in the NBA, he may have more value than assumed. The Blazers could possibly move Harkless with a second-round pick, though they wouldn't get back much of value in return. At the very least, Portland should look to get under the luxury tax threshold, which could be accomplished by trading Noah Vonleh to a team that can absorb his salary.
Upgrade at the wing: The Blazers need better production at small forward. Portland's two main options on the wing, Turner and Harkless, have ranked among the worst at their position this season. Harkless is ranked 80th among 85 small forwards by ESPN's real plus-minus. Though he's categorized as a shooting guard by ESPN, Turner would rank 76th among small forwards. The Blazers are 6.6 points better per 100 possessions when Turner is on the bench and 9.4 points better when Harkless is on the bench. Neither player stretches the floor consistently and both have been disappointments on defense. That's a lot of negative production coming from two players earning a combined $27 million this season. The problem for the Blazers is nearly every team in the NBA is looking for an upgrade at the wing. Elite players at that position aren't on the market and mediocre wing players who are available, like DeMarre Carroll and Rodney Hood, will demand a price not commensurate with their production. It's probably unrealistic to expect the Blazers to upgrade at the wing this week.
Acquire a third star: With Jusuf Nurkic's inconsistent production this season, the search for a third star to pair with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum is back on. This is probably the impetus behind the team reaching out to inquire about Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, according to multiple reports. It's hard to say if Jordan still qualifies as a star, and any team that acquires him would need to determine if paying the 29-year-old big man going forward is the best option for their team. Jordan has a player option for about $24 million next season. If he's traded and opts out of his contract this offseason, he would be eligible for a max contract that pays him $175 million over four years. He probably won't get that much money in the current NBA market, but that's where he and his agent will begin contract negotiations. Even if his price tag comes down, he won't be cheap. Is he worth $25 to $30 million over the next several seasons? The price to acquire him, according to reports, is also steep. The Clippers want financial flexibility (expiring contracts and young talent) and a first-round pick. All of this may be why the Blazers have backed off Jordan for now, as ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski said Monday on The Lowe Post podcast.
Outside shooting: The Blazers are a good 3-point shooting team. They rank third in the NBA at 38.2 percent. But they don't shoot enough 3-pointers, ranking 24th with 26.5 attempts per game. More than 50 percent of the Blazers' 3-point attempts come from two players (Lillard and McCollum). The Blazers have effective 3-point shooting from their guards and power forwards. Lillard, McCollum, Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton shoot a combined 39.3 percent on 19.6 attempts per game. And Al-Farouq Aminu and Zach Collins shoot a combined 39 percent on 6.4 attempts per game. That's excellent. But Portland gets very little 3-point shooting from their small forwards or centers. The Blazers' two small forwards, Harkless and Turner, shoot 34 percent on just 3.2 combined attempts per game. And the Blazers' two centers, Jusuf Nurkic and Ed Davis, are a combined 0 for 7 on 3-pointers this season (all of those attempts are by Nurkic). In today's NBA, the most effective teams have 3-point shooting from at least four and often all five positions on the floor. This is another case of supply and demand. Good 3-point shooters at the small forward and center positions are valuable commodities. This may be an area where the Blazers can upgrade, but it won't be cheap.
It will be interesting to follow the headlines the next few days and see what the Blazers roster looks like after the deadline passes at noon PST on Thursday. We'll keep you up to date with the latest rumors and reports at KGW.com and on our Facebook and Twitter pages. Stay tuned!
Here's a look at where the Blazers rank in the latest batch of NBA power rankings.
RANKINGS PUBLISHED MONDAY
CBS Sports: Blazers rank No. 5 (up 2)
Previous ranking: 7
Portland's neighbors: Indiana Pacers at 6; Boston Celtics at 4
What they wrote: The Trail Blazers were in much more need of a trade a few weeks ago than they are at the moment. However, there's still concern that they've hit their ceiling. A shakeup could be what they need to shatter that ceiling.
NBA.com: Blazers rank No. 6 (up 5)
Previous ranking: 11
Portland's neighbors: Indiana Pacers at 7, Minnesota Timberwolves at 5
What they wrote: The Blazers have taken care of business against lesser competition. They improved to 17-5 against the 13 teams that are currently under .500 when C.J. McCollum dropped 50 in just three quarters in Chicago on Wednesday. But they're 3-13 against the top nine teams in the league after allowing the Raptors to score 130 points on Friday and blowing a 16-point lead in Boston on Sunday. Defensive slippage (they rank 26th on that end of the floor since Christmas) has come on the perimeter, where they allowed the Bulls, Raptors and Celtics to make a combined 47 threes last week. This week's four opponents are all under .500, though Detroit, Charlotte and Utah are all playing better right now.
ESPN: Blazers rank No. 10 (down 1)
Previous ranking: 9
Portland's neighbors: Cleveland Cavaliers at 11, Milwaukee Bucks at 9
What they wrote: CJ McCollum scored 50 points on Wednesday against the Bulls and didn't even play the fourth quarter! According to the Elias Sports Bureau, McCollum joined Klay Thompson as the only players in NBA history to score 50 or more points and play fewer than 30 minutes in a game. He scored 28 points in the first quarter, a franchise record for any quarter.
RANKINGS PUBLISHED TUESDAY
USA Today: Blazers rank No. 13 (down 2)
Previous ranking: 11
Portland's neighbors: Miami Heat at 14; Indiana Pacers at 12
What they wrote: As soon as the Blazers got a run going (they won seven of eight games to close out January) they suffered another three-game losing streak. Monday's loss to Detroit marked their fourth time this season losing three or more consecutive games.
RANKINGS PUBLISHED WEDNESDAY
NBC Sports: Blazers rank No. 13 (no change)
Previous ranking: 13
Portland's neighbors: L.A. Clippers at 14, Denver Nuggets at 12
What they wrote: Losers of three in a row (all though games on the road against some of the best of the East), and the concern remains the defensive slippage — they are 24th in the NBA over the last 15 games — which is holding back a team finally finding its offensive groove. Portland has talked to a lot of teams heading into the trade deadline and may make a “win now” kind of move, but they have shot down everyone who has called asking for C.J. McCollum. Portland is not breaking up its backcourt.
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