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Both the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers saw their seasons come to discouraging ends on Thursday night. For the Lakers, an extended run of horrible injury luck was just too much overcome. Anthony Davis missed exactly half of the Lakers’ regular-season games with injury. LeBron missed another 27 and they played just 601 minutes together all season, one of the reasons they found themselves in the No. 7 seed and in the position of having to beat the Phoenix Suns in the first round.
Another ill-timed groin injury for Anthony Davis kept him out of Game 5 completely and limited him to just five minutes and zero field goal attempts in Game 6. Injuries were far from the only problem for the Lakers this season and they have a variety of areas they’ll need to improve on this offseason if they’re looking to make another championship run.
For the Trail Blazers, it was another incredible run by Damian Lillard, wasted. He was arguably better than he’s ever been in this series and the Blazers still went down in six games. Jusuf Nurkic put himself in terrible positions over and over again, CJ McCollum was more good than great and the bench revealed itself to have only three usable players — Enes Kanter, Carmelo Anthony and Anfernee Simons — each who offered significant and exploitable weaknesses to the opposition.
For the Trail Blazers to take a leap next season they’ll need to get more help for Lillard in almost every area — better defensive support, additional shot creation, lineup flexibility to deal with special matchups and generalized depth — and they’ll have precious few assets to do it with.
How can the Los Angeles Lakers improve for next season?
Obviously, a healthy LeBron James and Anthony Davis make the Lakers a completely different team but there’s no way the rest of the roster is good enough to just run it back next season and hope for health. Dennis Schroder, who supposedly already turned down a big extension, really struggled against Phoenix. It’s still not totally clear how Andre Drummond might fit on this team and the Lakers’ other offseason additions — Wesley Matthews, Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell — were functionally invisible in the playoffs.
Schroder, Matthews, Drummond and Alex Caruso are all unrestricted free agents. There have been rumblings that the Lakers are interested in re-signing Drummond but the price point at which he’s actually a value for the Lakers is probably going to be well below the salary Drummond is looking for. And who knows what the team will do with Schroder, even the $84 million contract he supposedly turned down looks like it could be an overpay considering how he finished the season.
To compound things, the Lakers don’t have a lot of trade possibilities. They hold the No. pick 22 pick in this year’s draft but don’t have a second-round pick. Trading future firsts is pretty much off the table with their 2022 and 2024 picks going to the Pelicans outright, and the Pelicans holding pick swap rights for 2023. The Lakers could look to move Kyle Kuzma or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope but they already struggled to find a take for Kuzma at the deadline and it’s not clear what either player could bring back that would actually be an upgrade.
The most obvious path for improvement then is to try and clear as much salary as possible and take some swings on the free-agent market. But even there, the likeliest options are catching someone like DeMar DeRozan or Kyle Lowry willing to take a discount in pursuit of a ring. Both those players are towards the end of their careers increasing the inherent injury risk and while both could be an improvement over Schroder it may not be enough.
How can the Portland Trail Blazers improve for next season?
The Trail Blazers have a few more options on the table than the Lakers but they all involve fairly big risks. They don’t have a first-round pick this year, owing it to the Houston Rockets. Both Norman Powell and Derrick Jones have large player options that are likely to be picked up, which means there are no easy paths to cap space. That really only leaves trades on the table with Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum as the obvious candidates.
The Blazers could probably find suitors and workable deals for both players but the issue is finding a return that actually raises their ceiling. Both McCollum and Nurkic have problems. McCollum’s efficiency has dropped off fairly significantly in the Blazers’ last three postseason runs and Nurkic has both struggled to stay healthy and consistently be an impact defender when the game changes in the playoffs.
But both guys have been hugely important in raising the Blazers’ regular-season floor over the past few years. McCollum averaged 23.1 points and 4.7 assists per game during the regular season, hitting better than 40 percent of his 3-pointers. Nurkic is a walking double-double whose passing skills really help unlock the curl and flare-heavy games of Lillard and McCollum. It’s hard to imagine Portland finding a trade that both replicates a reasonable portion of either player’s production and adds depth to improve the bench and flexibility.
As frustrating as it would be to try and run it back with a few free-agent role players added, the Blazers may be better off keeping their championship window open, however slim the opening, rather than risking it all in an attempt to smash through.
The most impressive storyline from the first round has to be that Devin Booker owned his first big playoff moment with the Phoenix Suns.
This week on The Long Two, Ben Ladner breaks down all the impending nuance of the Nets-Bucks matchup and dives deep on how Jusuf Nurkic repeatedly hurt the Blazers on defense.