PORTLAND, Ore. — Following one of the most memorable Trail Blazers seasons in franchise history, the upcoming offseason offers some intriguing storylines.
Will Portland be able to re-sign fan favorites like Enes Kanter and Rodney Hood? Will Al-Farouq Aminu sign another multi-year contract to stay in Portland? Will Neil Olshey make any big trades to upgrade the roster?
The NBA draft, which officially marks the start of the NBA offseason, is just three weeks away, and free agency begins July 1.
On this episode of the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast, we grade the Blazers' 2018-19 season and recap some of our favorite moments; we debate how close to championship contention the Blazers are; and we make a bunch of offseason predictions, from the draft to free agency to trades and more!
Listen to the most recent episode of KGW's 3-on-3 Blazers podcast!
1. Looking back
What grade would you give this season? Aside from Dame’s shot to eliminate the Thunder, one of the best playoff moments in NBA history, what will be your most lasting memory of this season and this team?
Jared: I’ll give the Blazers an A. They exceeded everyone’s expectations, both in the regular season and in the playoffs, and gave Blazers fans so many incredible memories they’ll never forget. It didn’t end in a championship, but Portland was one of the final four teams standing. That hasn’t happened around here in nearly two decades. That merits an A in my book. My most lasting memory of this season was more of a personal moment. It was after Game 3 of the Western Conference finals. The Blazers had blown a double-digit lead for the second game in a row, all but sealing a series defeat against the Warriors. The team was saying all the right things in the postgame interviews with the media, but you could feel it. This was the end. I was sitting in one of the media rooms the Blazers had set up in the Moda Center, working on an article about the game, when the news broke that Damian Lillard, who hadn’t looked right in the first three games against the Warriors, was playing through separated ribs. I don’t know what it was about that report, but it triggered an overwhelming feeling of appreciation and respect for this team, and the heart and grit it had demonstrated this season while playing through every conceivable obstacle. I thought about Paul Allen’s death, and CJ McCollum’s knee injury, and Jusuf Nurkic's broken leg, and Coach Yim's car crash. And then to find out that Lillard was playing through a painful injury — one he hadn’t told anyone about and refused to use as an excuse — I just felt all of it, right there in that moment. It was a very meaningful, personal moment with this team that I’ll always remember.
Orlando: Oh, come on! How are you going to take the most memorable moment out of this?! Besides "The Bad Shot," the 2018-2019 season will be remembered for its success despite facing adversity. This team was counted out from the jump. Before the season started, many national publications had the Blazers taking a step back and missing the playoffs. This team exceeded expectations and found different ways to win. It felt like every player had a moment throughout the year that helped produce the most successful season in 19 years — even down to what was supposed to be a "meaningless" game against the Kings to wrap up the regular season. It was a ride. This team deserves an "A." Anything less and you’re just hating.
Nate: I’d give the Blazers an A-. The only thing keeping them from an A is they didn’t win the championship. But the Blazers pretty much accomplished everything else this season, and that’s what I’ll remember. They were resilient. They were tough. They inspired and re-instilled hope and belief into a fan base that had become, at least in some part, jaded. Think about what we would be talking about if the Blazers faltered after the injury to Nurkic. We’d be talking about another first-round exit, how this team isn’t close to becoming a contender in the Western Conference, should the front office finally split Dame and CJ, and perhaps the team would have a new coach. But instead, we’ve seen that the Blazers, if Nurkic comes back healthy, are within reach of becoming a true contender during Lillard’s prime, there’s no more legitimate talk of splitting up the backcourt, and Terry Stotts and general manager Neil Olshey both have extensions. This Blazers team changed the trajectory and energy of the franchise.
2. Looking ahead
How close is this team? Without upgrades, do you see this team returning to the conference finals next season? How close are they to taking the next step, and becoming a legitimate championship contender?
Orlando: This team still has a long way to go to be a championship contender if the current Warriors are still around. That said, this team still has a shot to be in the conference finals again, especially if Jusuf Nurkic returns to form by the end of the season. Similar to this year, matchups and playoff seeding matter (avoiding Golden State). It will play a factor in how far they advance through the postseason with the current roster. One of the most underrated parts about this team is its stability, leadership and chemistry in the locker room. The problem is, there’s a clear gap in talent between the Blazers and the defending champs. It’s not a shot at the Blazers, but a challenge most of the league faces against Golden State. They need another consistent scoring threat in the Blazers' starting lineup.
Nate: If Nurkic can come back healthy and return to the level of play he was at before the injury, I think the Blazers are once again in the conversation for the second-best team in the Western Conference. But that’s a big if, especially for next season. Without upgrades, this team’s ceiling is the Western Conference finals. And I don’t see the Blazers making major upgrades this offseason. I think that time could come around the trade deadline when the expiring contracts of Evan Turner, Maurice Harkless and Meyers Leonard will probably have their greatest value. Right now, I see the Blazers taking a step back next season, but it may be a necessary one as the team waits for Nurkic to return to form, and perhaps gets financial flexibility during the summer of 2020. With a healthy Nurkic, I think the Blazers are a playmaking forward away from being a team that could de-throne the Warriors.
Jared: If this team doesn’t make any upgrades, and loses free agents like Enes Kanter, Rodney Hood and Seth Curry, I think it will be difficult for them to return to the conference finals next season. Without knowing how long it will take for Jusuf Nurkic to return, it’s hard to predict with any level of confidence how far this team could advance next season. I think they’ll be good, and challenge for a top four seed in the West again, and I won’t rule out another conference finals run. But if this team doesn’t upgrade its roster, I wouldn’t expect it to happen. As far as championship contention, I think they’re one major piece away. I think if the Blazers are able to acquire an All-Star caliber player at either of the forward positions, I think that makes them a legitimate championship contender. I don’t think the Blazers will be able to pull off a move like that this offseason, but I do expect it to happen sometime in the next year, either at the February 2020 trade deadline, or during the 2020 offseason. I don’t know if this team will win a championship, but I do believe they’ll be a title contender during Damian Lillard’s prime.
3. Prediction time!
A. Which of the five Blazers free agents – Al-Farouq Aminu, Enes Kanter, Rodney Hood, Seth Curry, and Jake Layman – will still be with the team next season?
- Nate: Aminu, Hood and Layman return to the Blazers. Kanter gets himself a deal the Blazers can’t offer and Curry moves on after a redemption season in Portland.
- Jared: I think the Blazers will let Al-Farouq Aminu walk this offseason, just like they did with Ed Davis last year. I don’t think Portland will be able to afford Enes Kanter. Even if they move under the luxury tax threshold and open up the full $9.2 mid-level exception, I believe Kanter will get more than that from another team. I think Hood’s market won’t be as active as he’d like, and he’ll return to Portland on a one-year deal for $5.7 million (the full tax payer MLE), and try his hand at free agency again in 2020. Curry is going to seek out a larger role and more money elsewhere, so I don’t see him returning. And I think the Blazers will offer Jake Layman the one-year, $1.9 million qualifying offer, he’ll accept it, and end up playing the following season on that offer, becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2020.
- Orlando: This is the biggest question over the next month or so. I think Al-Farouq Aminu will be back with the team next season. They own his Bird rights so they can sign him while going over the cap. I think Seth Curry will be gone. There should be a demand on the market for a guy shooting 45% from long range. There will be a lot of pressure on the Blazers to keep Kanter because he’s quickly become one of Rip City’s favorite Blazers, but I wonder if they’ll be able to afford him and if they’ll prioritize him ahead of a player who fills a definitive position of need like Rodney Hood does. The Blazers have just $5.7 million to play with and that may not be enough to attain either of them without another move involved. The market likely dictates who comes back. I’m predicting the Blazers find a way to bring back Hood, while Kanter gets a better deal somewhere else.
B. Will the Blazers use their first-round draft pick (No. 25) this season, or trade it?
- Nate: This is a tough one. But I’m going to predict there’s not a lot of trade options for Portland and they use the pick.
- Jared: I expect the Blazers to make their pick available, but I don't think they'll get any offers that have the return value they’re looking for, so they’ll end up using the pick.
- Orlando: They'll use the 25th pick.
C. Will the Blazers make any other trades this offseason, and if so, will the trade(s) be minor or major?
- Nate: I think Neil Olshey will be very active in trying to acquire a real difference-maker. But I don’t think the Blazers will have the assets this summer to make it happen. Minor deals.
- Jared: I think the Blazers will be active this offseason, and may make a minor trade, but I don’t expect anything major. Portland’s large expiring contracts — Evan Turner ($18.6 million), Maurice Harkless ($11.5 million), and Meyers Leonard ($11.3 million) — will have more value at the 2020 trade deadline. I believe Neil Olshey will try to use those, plus other assets like future draft picks or some of the Blazers’ young talent, to acquire a fourth star. That’s more likely to happen at the trade deadline next season than during the offseason. If Olshey strikes out at the deadline, the Blazers can carve out around between $20 and $22 million of cap space to try and sign a fourth star during the 2020 offseason. I don’t see Olshey jeopardizing that potential cap space in 2020 for anything less than the acquisition of a fourth star, which is why I think the Blazers will let Aminu walk, and won’t make any free-agent signings or trades, either during this offseason or at next season’s deadline, for players with contracts that extend beyond the 2019-20 season, unless that player is a star.
- Orlando: The Blazers won't make any trades this offseason.
D. Will the Blazers make a significant free-agent signing this offseason? By significant, let’s set the parameters as a player who would be projected to average 25 minutes or more for the Blazers next season?
- Nate: I’m going to say they don’t. Only four players averaged 25 minutes or more for the Blazers last season (Lillard, McCollum, Nurkic and Aminu). I don’t see the Blazers signing anyone who gets that many minutes.
- Jared: No. See my answer to question C above.
- Orlando: The Blazers won't make a significant signing this offseason.
E. Where will the following top free agents (plus one non-free agent who's surely on the move) be playing next season?
- Nate: Knicks
- Jared: Knicks
- Orlando: Warriors
- Nate: Clippers
- Jared: Clippers
- Orlando: Raptors
- Nate: Lakers
- Jared: Celtics
- Orlando: Lakers
- Nate: Pacers
- Jared: Knicks
- Orlando: Hornets
- Nate: Warriors
- Jared: Warriors
- Orlando: Warriors
- Nate: Lakers
- Jared: Celtics
- Orlando: Celtics
MEET THE 3-ON-3 BLAZERS TEAM
Jared Cowley is a digital media producer who writes about the Blazers and other topics for KGW.com. Jared has written about the Jazz and Warriors as a sports editor at two daily newspapers.
Nate Hanson is a digital producer who contributes to KGW.com’s coverage of the Blazers, Ducks, Beavers and high school sports.
Orlando Sanchez is the sports anchor and reporter for KGW News, Sports Sunday and Friday Night Flights. Orlando has covered multiple NBA Finals, NCAA Basketball Tournaments and World Series.