Are the Portland Trail Blazers destined for mediocrity?

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The Portland Trail Blazers stood pat during Thursday’s trade deadline. Well, mostly. The team decided to send project big man Noah Vonleh to the Chicago Bulls in exchange for … hold on, let me look it up. Milovan Rakovic. Or that is to say the team traded for the rights to the Serbian pro, although Blazers GM Neil Olshey says Rakovich won’t ever suit up for the team.

The move allowed the Trail Blazers to move under the luxury tax for this season and avoid their first strike toward the luxury repeater tax which looms large over NBA front offices. Important, but not exciting or the stuff that inspires passion from NBA fanbases.

Despite the hopes of many Blazers fans, Olshey’s role at the deadline was less deal-maker and more comptroller. Portland didn’t add any kind of talent to their roster, even after franchise cornerstone Damian Lillard spoke with team owner Paul Allen to get an assurance the team was looking to contend soon.

So the question is whether the Blazers have a plan to hoist themselves above their competition, or if they’ll simply remain in the middle of the pack out West before their wick burns to the tab?

Olshey himself tried to explain his strategy to NBC Sports Northwest as the team headed into the trade deadline this year. The Blazers GM outlined three main paths they wanted to follow: grab a temporary rental, add a big-time contributor, or cut below the luxury tax line. They weren’t able to do the first two, so they did the next best thing and saved Allen a significant chunk of change by offloading Vonleh.

Olshey lobbied hard for Portland’s decision to tread water, rightfully downplaying the idea that the team needed to make a change to the Lillard – CJ McCollum backcourt. That’s fine, but where Olshey sold the hardest was in the need for patience, telling NBCSNW, “This is Year 3 of what’s supposed to be a three to five year rebuild”.

That last part is a little harder to swallow, mostly because it rewrites the post-LaMarcus Aldridge history of the Blazers. In truth, Portland made the playoffs in spite of a slow start to the 2015-16 season, beat a decimated LA Clippers team in the first round, and greatly exceeded expectations. That shortened Olshey’s teardown around Lillard and McCollum.

The team then signed Evan Turner and inked Maurice Harkless and Meyers Leonard to new deals. The addition of Jusuf Nurkic at the deadline last year was supposed to be the last major piece to fall into place as the Blazers took around a season-and-a-half on a short rebuild. Even if they planned on spending all of 2018 shoring up their chemistry, Olshey’s supposed five-year plan was tossed out the window after they beat LA in 2016 and was further accelerated by nabbing Nurkic.

But things soured as 2017-18 began. Harkless wasn’t playing much, although he’s improved recently. Leonard is a bench fixture. Nurkic has been wildly uneven, and Turner’s fit with the team is tenuous at best. All that and a heavy cap burden hasn’t left room for improvements as Blazers fans wring their hands and Olshey plays the role of zen master publicly.

Olshey told NBCSNW that you can’t force trades that aren’t there, and that’s true. It’s also harder to get anyone to pick up the phone when the pieces you have aren’t of any interest to your contemporaries, a position Olshey finds himself in now.

So where does Portland go from here, at the bottom of the playoff seedings and with a palpable-if-deniable urgency surrounding the team? Lillard and those around the Blazers downplayed his talk with Allen, but it was a reminder that the clock is ticking for him (Lillard is 27 and turns 28 in July) and this rebuild. Portland needs to get better under a salary crunch and that’s without even considering Nurkic’s contract situation this summer, or the fact that they’re also slated to lose one of their most productive big men in Ed Davis because they just can’t afford him.

Turner’s contract is an albatross and escalates to a whopping $18.6 million during the 2019-20 season. It’s near impossible for Olshey to move him as Turner doesn’t shoot the 3-pointer well, he drives but doesn’t draw that many fouls, and when he does drive it’s often in a weaving, horizontal fashion that allows help defenders to dig down and then recover on Portland’s shooters, hurting the Blazers’ chances to fire away from deep.

The answer is for Olshey to find the kind of trade he’s yet to pull off in Portland: a big one.

The Trail Blazers GM has been efficient, his transaction roster filled with guys like Robin Lopez, Aminu, and Davis. But Portland could very well be headed for long-term mediocrity if Olshey isn’t able to find his way out of Turner’s contract, or come up with a big trade that moves multiple pieces. That could mean biting the bullet and offering up useful players — Aminu or Nurkic come to mind — or parting with more draft picks than they like.

Lillard has remained steadfast in his dedication to the team, but the summer of 2021 is a long way off and when his contract expires who is to say he won’t want to head somewhere else if the Blazers are unable to slip out of their current salary troubles? Remember, you could pose the same question about McCollum, and both guards have mega deals that will only continue to squeeze Portland’s salary space as the years go on.

Right now the Blazers are winning, and their record in 2018 is a far sight better than their 2017 showing. No matter how the season ends, or how much they talk up four straight years of playoff appearances, if the Blazers want to move to the next level it will be up to Olshey to finally pull the trigger and find a deal come June that clarifies the future in Portland.