PORTLAND, Ore. — There's been some good news for Blazers fans over the past few days, which is a nice change of pace during a difficult season.
First, the Blazers made a trade. The move, which was agreed to last weekend and finalized earlier this week, wasn't a big move to bring back a star player, but it was a trade, and that's always exciting for Blazers fans.
Then on Monday, fans at the Moda Center were treated to one of Damian Lillard's best individual performances of his career. He set career and franchise marks with 61 points in an entertaining overtime win against the Warriors.
But the best news broke Wednesday, when Lillard told the media that Jusuf Nurkic had returned to full practice with the team for the first time since he broke his leg last season. While it's still unclear when Nurkic will play his first game, the general feeling is it will be soon.
Portland (19-26) is still under .500 and in 10th place in the West. But they're also still within reach of the final playoff spot in the West, just two games back of the San Antonio Spurs. With Nurkic nearing his return and Damian Lillard hinting at one of his annual second-half takeovers, might things finally start to move in a positive direction for the Blazers?
On this week's episode of the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast, we talk about the Blazers trade with the Sacramento Kings, Damian Lillard's 61-point masterpiece, Jusuf Nurkic's return and make predictions for the next three games. We also answer your questions and play another rousing game of Rip It!
Have a question you'd like us to answer on next week's podcast? Email us here
1. The Blazers made their first trade of the season, sending Kent Bazemore, Anthony Tolliver and two second-round picks to the Sacramento Kings for veteran forward Trevor Ariza, Caleb Swanigan and Wenyen Gabriel. What are your thoughts on the trade?
Jared: In a vacuum, this trade is fine. Not good, not bad, just fine. The Blazers saved $12 million in luxury tax payments in a season where they're not competing for anything more than a first-round exit from the playoffs. And they did get better. Not by much, but Ariza is a slightly better player than Bazemore, and the other pieces are a push at worst. At the very least, the 6-foot-8 Ariza (with a 7-2 wingspan!) is a true small forward, unlike the 6-4 Bazemore, who was playing out of position at that spot. The trade also improves Portland's ability to make moves this offseason and even into next season. Looking at the big picture, though, this trade is a bit of a letdown considering what Blazers' fans expectations were with Bazemore's expiring contract. The thought was that Portland would use these big expiring contracts at the trade deadline this season to add another star to Portland's roster. Ariza is not a star. It's not really the Blazers' fault that Bazemore performed so poorly or that the value of expiring contracts took a nosedive this season. This is probably the best return Portland could get for Bazemore in this market. But considering expectations for what would happen at this trade deadline were so high, the trade is a little underwhelming.
Orlando: The trade makes a lot of sense for a team that had the highest payroll in the league and is near the bottom of the Western Conference standings. Shedding more than $12 million off the books and adding a player like Trevor Ariza, who is expected to give you similar production to what Bazemore was, seems like a decent deal for ownership. We're going to see if the latter is true real soon. This deal doesn't move the needle and likely doesn't make the team better, but it is saving ownership some money. There are still moves to make ahead of the trade deadline and I’m reserving judgment until Feb. 6. This first move felt more like a team becoming a seller and punting on the season. At least Rip City got to witness the Anthony Tolliver game to beat the Hornets. It's too bad Bazemore didn’t work out in Portland, he seemed like the right fit and would flourish in this roster. Sadly, I'm signing off from "Bazemore Island" for the final time this season.
Nate: It doesn't really move the needle for me, positively or negatively. Bazemore's value, mostly because of his poor play, was not as high as we expected when the Blazers traded for him in the offseason. To me, the biggest upside of this trade is perhaps the Blazers could get more value for trading Ariza next year than they could for trading Bazemore this season. At the very least, Ariza provides the Blazers more flexibility in terms of whether they see him as a fit on next year's roster or not. If they don't, they can cut him in the offseason with minimal financial penalties. If he plays well down the stretch and Portland decides to keep him next season, then they once again have a movable expiring contract and potentially a helpful role player. Portland also created a $7 million trade exception, but as we know from the past, that doesn't necessarily mean general manager Neil Olshey will use it.
2. Damian Lillard scored a franchise-record 61 points in Portland’s win against Golden State. Where does it rank on his list of career accomplishments?
Orlando: For one night, Rip City got to forget how bad this team has been this season. Damian Lillard's 61-point performance was one for the record books. All of the fans that made it out to the Moda Center that night were rewarded for their loyalty and can say they witnessed history. It was a lot of fun to watch Lillard make some difficult shots and carry this team to victory. I also thought it was a big deal to have that game played in front of a national audience and a reminder of how good Lillard is. It was a memorable regular season game that ranks at the top for this season, but I don't have to go back very far to find a better performance. Just ask the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Nate: Lillard was incredible Monday night, and I'm not trying to diminish his performance, but I wouldn't even put in the top-5. Obviously, it's not going to crack the top two. Nothing will until he hits another playoff series-ending shot at the buzzer. And as far career accomplishments, I'm going to say Lillard leading the Blazers to the Western Conference Finals ranks third, even though he didn't have his best series against Denver. And while he's not singularly responsible for this next accomplishment, I think his role in building a strong relationship with Jusuf Nurkic ranks fourth. If Lillard is going to win a championship in Portland, it's going to be in large part because he helped put Nurkic's career on the right path. And I'll wrap up my top five with a regular season performance: his 59-point game against Utah at the end of the 2017 regular season. It was the second-to-last game of the season and the Blazers were fighting for a playoff spot, so I'm going to put that performance ahead of this one.
Jared: In my opinion, it was the best regular-season performance of Lillard's career. I'll rank it fourth overall because playoff performances automatically rank higher than their regular-season counterparts. No. 1 on the list is Game 5 of last season's first-round series against the Thunder. The 37-footer over Paul George is what we all remember, but it was a masterful performance on every level. In that three-point victory, Lillard had 50 points, hit 10 3-pointers and sent Russell Westbrook and the Thunder home with a wave. Nothing else compares. Here are my Top 5:
1. Blazers 118, Thunder 115, first round, Game 5 (April 23, 2019): Lillard had 50 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, 1 block and shot 17 of 33 from the field, including 10 of 18 from 3. Memorable moment: The 37-footer, the "bad shot"
2. Blazers 99, Rockets 98, first round, Game 6 (May 2, 2014): Lillard had 25 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals, 1 block and shot 8 of 14 from the field and 6 of 10 from 3. Memorable moment: 0.8 seconds
3. Blazers 120, Warriors 108, second round, Game 3 (May 7, 2016): Lillard had 40 points, 10 assists, 5 rebounds and shot 14 of 27 from the field and 8 of 13 from 3. Memorable moment: After the series ended, Warriors star Klay Thompson praised the Blazers, saying, "that might be the closest five-game series of all time."
4. Blazers 129, Warriors 124, OT, regular season (Jan. 20, 2020): Lillard had 61 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists, 1 steal and shot 17 of 37 from the field and 11 of 20 from 3. Memorable moment: There haven't been a lot of bright spots this season, so when Blazers fans look back, they'll remember everything about this game.
5. Blazers 137, Warriors 105, regular season (February 19, 2016): Lillard had 51 points, 7 assists, 6 steals and shot 18 of 28 from the field and 9 of 12 from 3. Memorable moment: It was a heck of a way to come back from the All-Star break. Klay Thompson said the Blazers got lucky and called the result "a fluke." He was right, but it was still fun.
3. The Blazers play three games between now and our next podcast, all at home. They play the Mavericks (27-16) tonight, the Pacers (29-16) on Sunday and the Rockets (27-16) on Wednesday. Which games do the Blazers win and which do they lose?
Nate: I'm going to stick with the pick'em winning formula. These teams all have winning records, and despite all these games being at the Moda Center, I'm taking the road teams. An 0-3 week for the Blazers as they continue to scuffle in their hunt for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Jared: Can the Blazers beat any of these good teams at home? At the Moda Center, Portland is at least a .500 team with a positive net rating. The Mavericks are great on the road (14-5, +7.5 net rating), so give Doncic and Dallas the win. The Pacers and Rockets are both just OK on the road (12-11, +1.0 net rating for the Pacers; 12-9, +0.9 net rating for the Rockets), and Indiana will be playing the last game of a five-game road trip and Houston the last game of a four-game road trip when they come to Portland. So I'm going out on a limb here and giving the Blazers wins in both of those games. It's a 2-1 week for the Blazers.
Orlando: You know the rules by now. Until they can consistently beat teams with winning records, I have to pick against them. I can see Portland winning one of these games, but I'll stay the course and say this is an 0-3 week.
SEASON PREDICTIONS RECORDS
- Orlando: 29-13
- Jared: 28-14
- Nate: 27-15
Jared Cowley is a digital 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.