The Portland Trail Blazers are taking a torch to the NBA’s longest active playoff streak.
Injured Blazers superstar Damian Lillard has seen three of Portland’s starters traded since Friday, and a fourth might be on the move by Thursday’s deadline, all of which fuels further speculation about his status.
Blazers owner Jody Allen, whose own future with the team is uncertain, has given interim general manager Joe Cronin the green light to blow up a roster that has made the playoffs every season since 2014, peaking with a 2019 Western Conference finals appearance. Cronin was promoted to the position in December, when longtime GM Neil Olshey was fired following an investigation into allegations of front-office toxicity.
Cronin has since laid waste to the roster.
He traded starters Norman Powell and Robert Covington to the Los Angeles Clippers for Eric Bledsoe, Justise Winslow, Keon Johnson and a 2025 second-round pick from the Detroit Pistons on Friday. It was a cost-cutting move that was widely panned for sacrificing the two best players in the deal for little in return.
Cronin shipped Lillard’s longtime running mate, CJ McCollum, along with Larry Nance Jr. and Tony Snell, to the New Orleans Pelicans for Josh Hart, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Tomas Satoransky, Didi Louzada, a protected first-round pick (conveys this year if it falls between 5-14) and two future second-round picks on Tuesday. Nance and Hart are proven role players, but McCollum is the prize. As president of the players’ union, the gifted scorer also brings leadership to a Pelicans team that needs it around Zion Williamson.
Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic‘s $12 million expiring salary could be next on Portland’s docket.
Tuesday’s deal ends years of speculation about splitting Portland’s undersized backcourt. McCollum has averaged 20 points per game for seven years running, performing just shy of All-Star level in a crowded Western Conference at his best. As recently as October, he was the centerpiece of trade offers for three-time All-Star Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons, so Tuesday’s haul qualifies as underwhelming.
The deal generates a $20.8 million trade exception and could also clear significant cap space for the Blazers this summer, pending decisions on Nurkic, Hart’s $13 million non-guaranteed contract for next season and the restricted free agency of Anfernee Simons. The San Antonio Spurs, Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic were previously the only teams expected to approach maximum cap space in July, when All-Stars James Harden, Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine could be among the top targets in free agency.
There should be real concern about Portland’s ability to sign another superstar, since it has never happened in the franchise’s 52-year history. Lillard is an All-NBA mainstay and a serious draw when healthy, but he struggled with an abdominal injury to start the season and ultimately underwent surgery in mid-January.
Cronin has been steadfast in his desire to continue building around Lillard since taking over in December and last week told NBA.com’s Mark Medina, “I don’t think we have the appetite to tear it all the way down. We have too many good players and too many ways to get better without taking too big of a step back.”
The Blazers are currently 21-33, a half-game out of the Western Conference’s final play-in tournament spot, and trending in the wrong direction. There is a real chance Lillard does not return this season. Portland’s own lottery pick might be its best asset besides the superstar come June, even after trading three starters.
Cronin does have multiple draft picks and cap space now to facilitate a deal without matching salaries in return, but his two recent trades are a real gamble on his ability to find another star, because it is hard to believe Lillard will wait around for a 19-year-old to develop into one before he requests a trade of his own.
Olshey spent years tinkering around the edges of a roster centered on Lillard and McCollum, and within two months, Cronin made clear why his predecessor was so reluctant to swing big: He never saw the right pitch. Cronin took two rips anyway, and the Blazers only have more draft and free-agency promises to show for it.
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