Do Zach LaVine and the Portland Trail Blazers Really Make Sense?

Sean HighkinFeatured Columnist IIIMay 10, 2022

PORTLAND, OREGON - JANUARY 05: Zach LaVine #8 of the Chicago Bulls and Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers react after the 111-108 victory at Moda Center on January 05, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
Steph Chambers/Getty Images

In an offseason relatively light on big-name free agents, Zach LaVine's future will be a major focus. The safe assumption has been that the Chicago Bulls, who can offer him a five-year, $213 million deal to stay, would get a deal done to keep the two-time All-Star.

They could continue to build around their core of LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Nikola Vucevic, which just helped the franchise return to the playoffs for the first time since 2017.

LaVine's comments at last month's exit interview, though, were non-committal. And ESPN's Brian Windhorst suggested on Tuesday's edition of The Hoop Collective podcast that executives around the league think there's an increased chance LaVine could leave Chicago and that the Portland Trail Blazers could be a potential destination.

The Blazers—which removed Joe Cronin's interim tag and named him the full-time general manager on Tuesday—are the kind of team that, on paper, would find LaVine attractive.

Cronin has made it clear that after shutting down Damian Lillard to address an abdominal injury and trading CJ McCollum to New Orleans at the deadline, he's eager to get Portland back into the playoffs this year and not embark on a multi-year rebuild. He wants to maximize the rest of Lillard's prime rather than trading the superstar point guard to start over.

At 6'5", LaVine has more size than McCollum or Anfernee Simons, the latter of whom emerged as a capable scoring guard this year and got a handful of Most Improved Player votes. At 27, LaVine is closer in age to Lillard (31) than the 22-year-old Simons, making it more likely he hits his peak years while Lillard is still one of the league's top point guards.

And Lillard and LaVine played together last summer at the Tokyo Olympics, winning a gold medal for Team USA.

There’s Smoke, But Is There Fire?

PORTLAND, OR - JANUARY 9: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers plays defense against during the game against Zach LaVine #8 of the Chicago Bulls on January 9, 2019 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

In short, the Blazers are exactly the type of team you'd expect LaVine's powerful and influential agency, Klutch Sports Group, to float as a potential threat to sign him if Chicago doesn't pony up for the full five-year max.

From Portland's end, a serious pursuit of LaVine is extremely unlikely and bordering on completely unrealistic.

Since the Blazers' flurry of deadline moves to unload McCollum, Norman Powell and Robert Covington, a figure of $60 million in cap space has become a talking point around their offseason plans, but that's not their reality.

The most space they could open up is closer to $48 million. To do that, they'd have to let their two key free agents, Simons and starting center Jusuf Nurkic (also a Klutch client, for what it's worth), walk for nothing and waive all of their non-guaranteed salary, including Josh Hart, the centerpiece of the McCollum trade.

They could come up with enough money to fit the $36.6 starting salary of a four-year, $157 million max deal for LaVine if they really wanted to, but it would involve a level of gutting the team that simply doesn't add up with the greater plan for the rest of Lillard's peak.

In fact, it's much more likely the Blazers don't go into the offseason with any cap space at all. They have a $20.9 million trade exception from the McCollum trade that they'd have to renounce if they went under the cap.

They also have the partially guaranteed $19.3 million contract of veteran guard Eric Bledsoe, who didn't get bought out after the trade deadline due to his ability to be used in trades closer to the draft. Their plan, which Lillard is fully on board with and has discussed in detail, appears to be using these exceptions to make roster upgrades, along with re-signing Simons and Nurkic.

The types of players they could land to fill their needs could include the likes of Detroit's Jerami Grant (widely rumored to be their top target at the deadline), Indiana's Myles Turner, Toronto's OG Anunoby or Atlanta's John Collins.

In other words, starting-quality frontcourt or perimeter players making salaries in the $18-24 million per year range—not big names like LaVine, who would command max-level free-agent money.

Portland's lottery fate will also go a long way in determining what they do this offseason. Its ability to make moves this summer took a hit when New Orleans made the playoffs after trading for McCollum, costing them the second lottery pick they had banked on.

The Trail Blazers' own selection has the sixth-best odds to be No. 1 overall, and they have a 37.2 chance of drafting within the top four, per Tankathon.com.

If that happens and they're in a position to take one of the top prospects in the draft like Gonzaga's Chet Holmgren, Duke's Paolo Banchero and Auburn's Jabari Smith, they will have an infusion of young talent to stay competitive beyond Lillard's years.

If they don't move up or, in a worst-case scenario, move down, it becomes easier to picture them trading the pick for some higher-end veteran talent.

The Blazers roster will look a lot different next year than it did in one of the most tumultuous seasons in recent franchise history, but don't expect LaVine to be a part of it.