By Devin Zanskas
In the CJ McCollum trade, the Trail Blazers only received one first round pick back, and it didn’t even convey last season like it could’ve. According to ESPN’s Andrew Lopez, the Pelicans’ draft pick would only go to the Trail Blazers if it landed between picks five and 14. Since the New Orleans Pelicans made it into the playoffs after winning in the play-in tournament as a lower seed, they earned the 15th pick in the draft. Now instead, the Trail Blazers received a 2025 Milwaukee first round pick via the Jrue Holiday trade, that they later used to acquire Jerami Grant. In the end, only getting one first round pick in return for McCollum worked out for the Trail Blazers because that same pick was all that was needed to see a different look in the form of Grant. Although he expanded his game tremendously during his prior stint with the Detroit Pistons, Grant was known mostly as just a versatile defender before.
Despite being the kind of two-way player that Portland’s critics were asking them to replace McCollum with, adding Grant to their core didn’t afford the Trail Blazers a trip back to the playoffs. According to nba.com, the Trail Blazers still finished with the third worst defensive rating in the association, while only being ranked 18th in offensive rating. If one ignores last season when they finished with an even worse record, the Trail Blazers made the playoffs most recently in the 2020-2021 season, when they were second last in defensive rating. The difference is the Trail Blazers were second in offensive rating when they still had Lillard and McCollum together in the backcourt. If the Trail Blazers are going to fall to the middle of the pack on offense, relative to the rest of the league, then they need to at least climb out of the bottom three in defense. Therefore, acquiring two-way talent is paramount for a team like the Trail Blazers with limited avenues to build up the roster around Lillard, and a narrow window to help him reach heights he hasn’t seen. That’s why it’s so confounding to those from the outside looking in on the organization, who saw them trade Josh Hart for Matisse Thybulle, Cam Reddish, and Ryan Archidiacono.
There have been teams in recent history that attempted to execute two separate timelines at once, and only a select few have experienced success. The distinction between the successful squads and the others is that some of them had an embarrassment of riches in draft capital from blockbuster trades. Moving forward, Portland has all of their first-round picks, except for the next time their pick lands outside of the lottery, when it goes to Chicago. This season, the Trail Blazers will also have the Knicks’ first round pick from the Hart trade. If Portland feels that they owe it to maybe their best player in franchise history, Lillard, to provide him with a competitive supporting cast, then the Trail Blazers should use their young assets to win now. Otherwise, it’s not a winning move to trade someone that started five playoff games for a player that averaged 12 minutes played and someone who couldn’t get off the bench for 33 straight games.
Similar to Josh Hart, the Trail Blazers let go of Gary Payton II, a player that could’ve had a huge impact the defensive end of the court, at the trade deadline. They received Kevin Knox and five second round picks in return for Payton II. It’s not often that fans see five second round picks moved in a deal, and though they’re useful pieces of currency in future trades, second rounders rarely pan out for teams that end up making the selection. Per The Athletic’s Seth Partnow, “the probability of drafting a meaningful player decreases significantly as the draft carries on through the first round, then it falls off a cliff once the second round starts”. Meanwhile, the player they received back, Knox, fits the same archetype as Reddish, in that he’s a former lottery pick with great positional size, but he’s already on his third squad within five years. Since Portland will have two first rounders in this draft, they can plan as if they’ll navigate two timelines, and ignore that after this year, they have five picks in the next six drafts.
On the night of the draft lottery, the Trail Blazers had some incredible luck by moving up from having the fifth overall pick to the number three pick. This could be an ideal fit for them, as both The Athletic and Bleacher Report have the Trail Blazers landing Alabama’s Brandon Miller with the third pick in the draft. Obviously, Victor Wembanyama was just named “maybe the best prospect in the history of team sports” by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, and few fans even questioned it. If Scoot Henderson is selected as the second pick, Portland wouldn’t have to do roster gymnastics like they might if Scoot falls to the number three pick. In addition to having no fear of Scoot Henderson becoming the next Russell Westbrook, taking Brandon Miller at number three would provide them with more length on the perimeter. Portland could slide whoever they would’ve started at small forward, perhaps Sharpe, to shooting guard, and Simons could be one of the early candidates for sixth man of the year.
Then the Trail Blazers could roll out three wings between 6’6” and 6’9”, and Grant would have more assistance covering up the defensive foibles of his other teammates. Drafting Miller doesn’t mean that Grant would be suddenly disposable, unless the Trail Blazers decide to rebuild. Per Danny Leroux, the salary cap for next season is estimated to be $134 million. With nine years of experience, Grant’s maximum salary in the first season of his new contract would be 30% of the $134 million cap, or $40.2 million. The Trail Blazers could offer him up to 8% raises for five years, or a 5-year, $233.2 million contract. Grant probably won’t demand quite as much as a maximum contract, because only rebuilding teams might have enough cap space to sign him to that figure. After all, performing alongside a top 75 player in Lillard is really rewarding compared to tallying huge numbers on a rebuilding team, like Grant did on the Pistons. However, with everything that Grant brings to the table, the Trail Blazers are still going to have to offer up a pretty penny to maintain him, and keep Lillard happy.