The Utah Jazz and Portland Trailblazers are not much different from each other. Both franchises have rode eras built on stars and achieved remarkable success. One key difference: the Jazz embraced the next era and the Blazers have yet to.
Watching Damian Lillard lead an abysmal Portland Trailblazers to victory over the Utah Jazz, I couldn’t help but imagine “Dame Time” on the same team as Lauri Markkanen, Walker Kessler, and Ochai Agbaji.
It’s nothing new, frankly. Fans have dreamt of his addition to the franchise ever since he became a star after amazing collegiate years at Weber State University. It seemed even less of a pipe dream nearly six years ago when Damian said he’d welcome a reunion in Utah were things to go sour in Portland.
If blazers said they didn't want me... Utah Jazz or Lakers https://t.co/jep3V9qRsS— Damian Lillard (@Dame_Lillard) June 14, 2017
This past All-Star break brought some real nostalgia as Lillard suited up in a Weber State jersey as he put on a masterclass to win Saturday night’s 3P competition. He even sat down to speak glowingly about Jazz fans and their continual support over the years:
“They give me major love when I go back. When I’m named in the starting lineup, the Jazz fans cheer for me like they cheer for their team. I view it as another home,” @WeberStateMBB legend @Dame_Lillard about returning to Utah for #NBAAllStar2023 https://t.co/dNOJGPCZVm #nba…— Marc J. Spears (@MarcJSpears) February 17, 2023
Perhaps Utah could be his home once more. Lillard has been vocal about his commitment to Portland but has also been insistent on the team’s need to commit to him. Talks of “shutting him down” or “mailing in the rest of the season” have rubbed him the wrong way:
Damian Lillard says he’s not interested in rebuilding— NBACentral (@TheNBACentral) March 21, 2023
“That's not what I'm interested in. That's what the frustrating part of it is. Talking about what's gonna happen next season. And us 'building'. That's not what I'm here to do especially at this stage pic.twitter.com/tVUNXcxMl5…
Portland finds themselves 32-42, ranking 13th in the Western Conference. This after a season where he sat due to injury and the team received the #7 pick in the draft which became Shaedon Sharpe, and multiple offseason and trade deadline deals were struck. Still, the team is dwindling.
I argue this offseason the Portland Trailblazers are vulnerable to a trade offer and the Utah Jazz are uniquely positioned to entice them with a package that would reluctantly usher in the next era of Blazers basketball.
Let’s break it down.
The Portland Trailblazers have continually looked to pivot around Damian Lillard but have routinely come up empty. This is largely due to their worrisome cap sheet (how much money they’ve committed and how much they have left to spend).
The Blazers have $112M guaranteed for the 2023-24 season (next year) but its comprised of just a small portion of their roster. The majority of that is Damian Lillard, owed $45M next year, $48M in ‘24-25, $58M in ‘25-’26, and a whopping $63M player option in ‘26-’27 when Lillard is 36.
Portland has cap holds (think of money set aside) on new acquisitions Jerami Grant, Cam Reddish, and Matisse Thybulle. They gave up picks and good players for these pieces so surely they’d like to bring them back, though doing so pushes them ever close to the luxury tax. They’ll also have two, first round, rookie contracts to consider.
Portland is strapped for picks. They cannot trade one of their own picks until 2029 due to a heavily protected first they sent to the Chicago Bulls. The only other pick available is the 2023 first from the New York Knicks, lottery protected.
Pivoting again around Lillard is likely to be an encore of the last couple seasons: a disappointing crush of initial hope.
Exploring the Value
Enter the Utah Jazz, who have found themselves with far more talent than the initial Mitchell/Gobert trade returns indicated. Lauri Markkanen’s ascension to All-Star level, Walker Kessler’s development into an average starting center, and a multitude of impressing rotational pieces indicates an urgency to maximize this configuration.
Why go in now, you ask? Well, our two best players (Lauri and Walker) account for just 13% of the cap and they make up far more than just 13% of the team’s production. This provides a unique opportunity to leverage the rest of the cap sheet.
Furthermore, as argued in previous pieces on SLC Dunk, the Jazz have little incentive to be bad going forward.
With a minimum of $35M in cap space next year and reasonable ability to get to $49M, the Jazz are poised unlike any other in the league to absorb a large contract should it peak their interest.
I anticipate point guard being a position of priority in the offseason https://t.co/c49QnCbe2n— Tony Jones (@Tjonesonthenba) March 22, 2023
One glaring need is at the starting guard position, a void left from the Mike Conley trade to the Minnesota Timberwolves at the trade deadline. Damian Lillard’s production and leadership make a seamless fit with this Utah Jazz team.
But Utah must reconcile the jaw-dropping contract commitment relative to the production in a trade offer. Looking back at some recent trades involving big star salaries may give an idea of a worthy package:
James Harden | BKN -> PHI | 2021-22
32 years old, 1 yr - $44M left on his contract. Posted +5.6 RAPTOR the prior season. Was coming off some recent hamstring injuries.
What it cost PHI: 1 unprotected first, 1 protected first, and 3 players
B. Simmons, S. Curry, A. Drummond: 28.7 average age, 2.7 avg yrs - $173M salary left
James Harden | HOU -> BKN | 2020-21
31 years old, 2 yrs - $85M left on his contract. Posted +10.5 RAPTOR the prior season. No notable, recent injuries.
What it cost BKN: 4 unprotected firsts, 4 first round swaps, and 3 players
V. Oladipo, D. Exum, R. Kurucs: 26 average age, 1 avg yrs - $32M salary left
Chris Paul | OKC -> PHX | 2020-21
35 years old, 1 yr - $42M left on his contract. Posted +3.6 RAPTOR the prior season. Lingering concern over the hamstring.
What it cost PHX: 1 unprotected firsts and 4 players
T. Jerome, K. Oubre, R. Rubio, J. Lecque: 25.3 average age, 1.5 avg yrs - $54M salary left
Chris Paul | HOU -> OKC | 2019-20
34 years old, 2 yrs - $80M left on his contract. Posted +4.6 RAPTOR the prior season. The trade was prompted, in part, due to concerns over the injured hamstring.
What it cost OKC: 1 players (OKC acquired 2 protected firsts and 2 seconds)
R. Westbrook: 31 average age, 4 avg yrs - $171M salary left
Mike Conley | MEM -> UTA | 2019-20
32 years old, 2 yrs - $67M left on his contract. Posted +6.3 RAPTOR the prior season. Conley had played a full season injury free the prior year.
What it cost UTA: 1 unprotected firsts, 1 protected pick and 3 players
K. Korver, J. Crowder, G. Allen: 31.3 average age, 1.7 avg yrs - $19M salary left
CJ McCollum | POR -> NOP | 2021-22
32 years old, 3 yrs - $100M left on his contract. Posted +3.7 RAPTOR the prior season. No notable, recent injuries.
What it cost NOP: 1 protected pick, 2 second round picks, and 4 players (returned 2)
Traded: J. Hart, T. Satoransky, N. Alexander-Walker, D. Louzada
Received: T. Snell, L. Nance Jr.
So what do we learn? Early 30s guards with injury history and an expensive salary aren’t commanding a high price UNLESS you’re still perceived as elite. The truth was Conley and McCollum were never seen as elite and Paul was understood to have major injury concerns before heading to OKC.
Damian Lillard, on the other hand, is 100% still elite and would command a price tag ranging near the two James Harden trades and the second Chris Paul trade.
If we look at those packages, we come to an average of 2 unprotected firsts and either 1 protected or 2 swaps. Most of those trades saw a ton of outgoing salary but this is where UTA can swerve.
Come this offseason, the Utah Jazz should approach the Portland Trailblazers with the following offer (technically negotiated during the draft process but finalized thereafter):
2023 UTA 1st, 2025 CLE 1st, and 2027 LAL 1st protected 1-4
Utah can either massage their cap sheet to create the necessary room to bring Lillard fully into their space or can send a small, short salary like Damian Jones (1-yr $2.5M), Simone Fontecchio (1-yr $3M), or Rudy Gay (1-yr $6.5M).
Are there others who can beat a deal? While the Lakers have continual interest in Dame and the Warriors represent his hometown, neither can offer what the Jazz can: a fresh start with flexible assets. Most other teams aren’t in a position to absorb such a contract while trying to win.
Why would the Blazers agree to this trade?
The simple answer is to make a transitionary move like the Jazz did last offseason. They completely clean up their cap sheet, allowing them to resign Jerami Grant and keep other players of interest.
Portland also clears the way for Anfernee Simmons and Shaedon Sharpe to dominate the backcourt. Furthermore, they’d add a rookie with their own 2023 pick (currently projected in the top 7), a late lottery pick from Utah, and a late first from New York.
They have the chance to do as UTA did: perform similarly next season as they did this past but with the utmost flexibility in the short and long term. While difficult to move on from the greatest player in franchise history, the writing appears to be on the wall.
Why would the Jazz agree to this trade?
As previously stated, the Jazz turned out to be better, sooner than ever thought possible. Will Hardy and the crew deserve to maximize this group to wins. In addition, our pick and cap situation don’t really incentivize future losing.
The Jazz will still draft two rookies, assuming no other offseason deals involving the picks. They could select high upside plays like GG Jackson or Sidy Cissoko or Jett Howard. They would also possess 6 more unprotected picks, 1 protected, and 2 rights to swap in the future with only a single pick owed.
Salaries like Colin Sexton ($17M) and Kelly Olynyk ($12M partially guaranteed) could be used in additional trades with picks. Furthermore, player options for Talen Horton-Tucker ($11M) and Rudy Gay ($6M) could further allow the Jazz flexibility.
Damian Lillard is a top 10-15 player with one of the best clutch resumes of all time. Pairing him with elite finishers in Lauri and Walker, with a well-rounded roster helmed by Will Hardy is an exciting proposition.
The Jazz should make an offer for Damian Lillard this offseason. But that’s not an “all or nothing play”. They should also make offers for Luka Doncic, Jaylen Brown, and LaMelo Ball.
Some of those are pipe dreams while others would command twice the package proposed for Dame. The point is to leverage our current position to immediate success that would optimize our current ratio of talent and flexibility.
One of the traits that makes Damian Lillard such an amazing person is his loyalty and ability to maintain perspective. He spoke on both subjects recently and how the league has fostered the opposite culture during his career.
Lillard will not be demanding a trade. He will not be giving up on Portland. Only if the Blazers decide to move on will he accept the end and bring his commitment to the next franchise. It’s just how he’s wired and why we all love him.
But the decision may just be up to the organization and Utah could give them the push they need to pull the trigger.