After months of speculation about Damian Lillard’s future, the Portland Trail Blazers have made their biggest move of the offseason. The three-team trade that sent Derrick Jones Jr. and a protected first-round pick to the Chicago Bulls does not bring another star to Portland, nor does it mark the beginning of a teardown. Larry Nance Jr. does, however, make the team materially better.
Nance is the type of acquisition that former Blazers coach Terry Stotts must have been praying for over the past few seasons, a high-end role player who makes his money on defense. Portland desperately needed a defensive upgrade, and it specifically needed this infusion of versatility. Unlike Stotts, new coach Chauncey Billups will have the personnel to go small and experiment with different coverages without getting torched. In today’s NBA, flexibility is virtually a requirement.
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This is still a team built around Lillard and CJ McCollum, but it’s starting to look more like the type of team that you’d want to build around Lillard and McCollum. Norman Powell, acquired at the trade deadline and extended this offseason, gives the Blazers another reliable source of scoring. Robert Covington, acquired before last season, is a top-tier help defender and another quick-release shooter. Nance gives them some of the frontcourt passing they get from Jusuf Nurkic, mixed with the athleticism and switchability that attracted them to Jones. Portland’s offense cratered with Jones on the court last season, though, and its defense was horrendous when Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter checked in off the bench.
Nance doesn’t live on the perimeter, but he has made 36.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s over the past three seasons. He can screen for Lillard, he can space the floor and he’s a threat in the dunker spot. Billups doesn’t have to break up the starting five (Lillard-McCollum-Powell-Covington-Nurkic) that outscored opponents by 14.2 points per 100 possessions last season, according to Cleaning The Glass, but Nance can slide right in if any of the starters is hurt. Based on the Blazers’ offseason, in which they have also replaced Kanter and Anthony with Cody Zeller, Tony Snell and Ben McLemore, the front office is hoping that, with a strong starting five, and a more balanced, injury-resistant roster, they can show Lillard that they’re not that far from contention.
If nothing else, the plan is now clear. In the absence of an all-in move that would have cost the franchise years of draft picks, Portland made a win-now move that cost one draft pick. Rather than going with an entirely new strategy this offseason, they tried to execute it better. Rather than bulldozing the roster, they’ve once again tweaked it.
In a basketball sense, the risk is that, even if Nance has an All-Defense-caliber season, adding him (and subtracting Kanter and Anthony) might not be enough to turn the 29th-ranked defense into a competent one. In a bigger-picture sense, the risk is that, as well as Nance appears to fit, Lillard might ask out anyway. Year after year, Portland has gone the incremental-improvement route, betting on the foundation that it has put in place. The stakes are higher this time.