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Trail Blazers go forward in quest to win with Damian Lillard

Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard and Robert Covington

Orlando, FL - AUGUST 4: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers handles the ball against the Houston Rockets on August 4, 2020 at The Arena at ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Florida. 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 2020 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

NBAE via Getty Images

NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Damian Lillard is the model franchise player.

He leads. He works hard to improve. And he plays basketball very well.

But despite Lillard having another awesome season – making the All-NBA second team and carrying the Trail Blazers down the stretch – Portland finished just 35-39. Making the playoffs in a historically weak Western Conference shouldn’t mask that team’s deficiencies.

The Trail Blazers appeared to be in danger of wasting Lillard’s remaining prime.

Since 1994, 158 players have made an All-NBA first or second team in their age-26-or-older season. Just four of those players played for teams with losing records:

  • Mitch Richmond on the Kings in 1994
  • Mitch Richmond on the Kings in 1995
  • Mitch Richmond on the Kings in 1997
  • Damian Lillard on the Trail Blazers in 2020

Portland didn’t want to go down like Sacramento with Richmond.

That meant plugging holes around Lillard – mainly at forward.

The Trail Blazers traded the No. 16 pick, a lottery-protected future first-rounder and Trevor Ariza’s expiring contract for Robert Covington. Not just a good player, Covington is locked in for the next two seasons for just $12,138,345 and $12,975,471 – important salary control for an expensive team. Covington is a superb help defender and good 3-point shooter, making him such an easy fit. However, he’s a weaker on-ball defender, which still leaves Portland vulnerable in a desired deep-playoff matchup against Lakers star LeBron James or Clippers star Kawhi Leonard.

Derrick Jones (1+1, non-taxpayer mid-level exception) slots into the other forward slot. The 23-year-old is a phenomenal athlete and active defender and cutter. However, he might give Trail Blazers fans flashbacks to Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu struggling from beyond the arc and limiting Portland’s offensive upside.

Rodney Hood (two years, $21 million) somehow got a big raise from his declined-player-option salary despite coming off a torn Achilles. Likewise, Carmelo Anthony (one year, minimum) can easily be dropped if he chafes at his role on this improved team. Ideally, though, both will help off the bench.

Taking Enes Kanter ($5,005,350 expiring contract) was a reasonable way to get a quality backup center, especially because the Trail Blazers already know Kanter fits into their system. Harry Giles is an intriguing flier behind him.

With limited ability to upgrade, the Trail Blazers did practically as well as they could. But that still leaves them in a roughly similar position as recent years. Portland could win a playoff series – maybe even two with the right matchups. Missing the playoffs entirely is also possible in a loaded West.

There is no downside, though. Every meaningful game Lillard plays is a reward onto itself. The Trail Blazers are now more likely to advance further.

Offseason grade: B