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Where do the Blazers go From Here?

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Despite clinching a playoff birth against the Nets on Tuesday, the Blazers’ accomplishment was bittersweet, with much emphasis on the bitter. Jusuf Nurkic just suffered one of the more gruesome injuries in recent memory right in the midst of the best season of his career. He was averaging 15.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game along with elite defense that’s crucial to the team’s success.

Needless to say, the loss is huge for Portland, and it couldn’t come at a worse time. Star shooting guard C.J. McCollum is already out with a knee injury and with just nine games left in the regular season, the team might begin the playoffs without two of their three best players. For the time being, Nurkic is out indefinitely and it’s uncertain how much of next season he’ll be available for. It’s unlikely that the team will compete for a title this year, but what can they do to bolster their roster in the coming years?

2019 Salary Cap Situation

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It’s uncertain how next season will go for Portland with the Nurkic injury and their salary cap troubles this summer. Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

This summer’s free agent class is one of the deepest in recent memory with numerous superstars up for grabs. Unfortunately, Portland won’t be a major player this offseason. The salary cap for the 2019-20 season is $109 million and the Blazers have $126 million on the books for that season. To make matters worse, this number doesn’t include the expiring contracts of numerous key contributors. Al-Farouq Aminu, Seth Curry, Enes Kanter, Rodney Hood and Jake Layman have all been solid this year, and the Blazers will be hard-pressed to retain even a couple of them.

Portland will be extremely hampered by their salary cap situation this summer. Aside from their mid-level exception, they will need to look for players willing to sign for the league minimum. Even if they fill their roster with minimum-contract players, they will likely still exceed the luxury tax threshold of $132 million.

With Nurkic’s injury however, the team likely won’t be a true contender by the 2020 playoffs. Thus it would behoove the team to wait until the 2020 offseason to make any moves. At that time, the massive contracts of Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless finally come off the books.

The 2020 Salary Cap Situation

By the 2020 offseason, Portland will have six players on the payroll for $87 million. This gives them $31 million to build around Lillard, McCollum, Nurkic, Zach Collins, Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent. The 2020 market, however, isn’t remotely as saturated with talent as the 2019 one was. The biggest names in the free agent class that fill positions of need are Anthony Davis (assuming he isn’t traded this summer), Otto Porter Jr., Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, Eric Gordon and Danilo Gallinari. At each player’s current level of play, none of these names would elevate Portland to a surefire Finals contender save for Davis and possibly Green who could convert the Blazers roster into something of pre-KD Warriors-lite.

What Should Portland Do?

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McCollum is an excellent player, but Blazers’ management needs to decide if they’re committed to the core of Dame and CJ, or if it’s time to try something else. Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Given their inability to sign contributors in the free agent market both this offseason and next offseason, they really have two options.

Option 1

The first is to wait until the 2020 offseason and attempt to make moves with their improved cap situation. There are two risks here, however. Firstly, it’s no guarantee that Nurkic returns to form. Secondly, if they strike out in free agency, they’ll likely remain stuck in a limbo between a playoff team and true contender.

Option 2

Alternatively, the Blazers can deal CJ McCollum in the interest of their long term cap situation. McCollum is one of the better two-guards in the league, however, it’s uncertain how far a team led by Lillard, McCollum and a post-injury Nurkic can go. By trading him, they avoid paying out a max or near-max deal in 2021. Moreover, if they trade him this summer for expiring picks, they’ll have the cap room to make a play for several of the names on the 2020 and 2021 markets. While doing something of a mini-rebuild by trading a star for role players or picks isn’t what Portland fans want to hear, it could pay off in the long term.

Evidently, neither option is an exciting one for the 2019-20 season. The ideal situation for Portland is to keep their three stars and build off the 2020 free agent class. Nurkic is only 24 right now, and if he comes back healthy and continues to improve, Portland has a scary core that’s just a key piece and solid bench away from contending.

Stats courtesy of ESPN

Featured image courtesy of Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

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