The Blazers’ quest to improve around Damian Lillard remains a serious challenge

For all the speculation surrounding the Portland Trail Blazers — Monday’s meeting between general manager Joe Cronin, Damian Lillard and his agent, Aaron Goodwin, only added to the noise — there has been little talk of significant moves for the Blazers outside of Portland’s well-known intent. to re-sign versatile forward Jerami Grant.

The Blazers were resistant to trading No. 3 overall pick Scoot Henderson, league sources told Yahoo Sports, for any return outside of packages that would have given a select group of sophomore stars to pair with Lillard. Even after dangling the No. 23 pick in last Thursday’s draft, Portland stood pat and selected Iowa forward Kris Murray, the identical twin of Sacramento standout Keegan Murray, who helped the Kings as a starter last season. Now, Portland appears to be moving forward in the offseason, much the same way Brooklyn continued last summer after Kevin Durant’s trade request came an hour before free agency.

The Blazers don’t appear to be in panic mode to restructure their roster around Lillard. Far from. Portland officials believe a strong offseason of additions will further reinforce Lillard’s long-term commitment to the franchise, essentially calling Lillard’s bluff — just as the Nets did with Durant — even though Lillard hasn’t played his trade request trump card yet — and may never do so. . Which additions are coming to Portland is a bit more challenging to figure out.

The Portland Trail Blazers don’t have many opportunities to improve around Damian Lillard. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

There have been plenty of other trade talks around the league, particularly with the Houston Rockets continuing to gauge rival teams’ interest in young players like KJ Martin, Usman Garuba and Josh Christopher on Tuesday, sources said. The Hawks, as another example, have made known contact with various teams about De’Andre Hunter. The Clippers continue to cruise the league and seek what a trade package of Marcus Morris and Norman Powell could return to Los Angeles, sources said. But no kind of roster has yet been created for teams interested in Portland’s best trade asset at the moment: 24-year-old guard Anfernee Simons, who is entering the second season of a four-year, $100 million contract. There were brief discussions with Cleveland about Portland forward Nassir Little before the draft unfolded, sources said, but no deal structure ever really took hold there. An expected increase in league-wide trade calls on Wednesday and Thursday before free agency opens Friday night could certainly bring more development for the Blazers.

The most consistent Portland rumbling around the league isn’t necessarily about Portland, but the Miami Heat’s patience for Lillard to actually seek a new destination ahead of the 2023-24 season. But before that bridge is crossed, and if Lillard never truly wavers in his commitment to the Blazers, the Heat have their own lopsided accounting to navigate this summer. After an expensive roster started and stopped its way to the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference and then ripped off a significant run to the NBA Finals, Miami must consider how to improve around Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo while standing dangerously close to the second tax. apron — especially after Victor Oladipo exercised his $8.75 million player option for this upcoming campaign. For potential outside targets: Christian Wood continues to be mentioned by league personnel as someone on the Heat’s radar.

At this point, Max Strus, a career 37.1% 3-point shooter over three seasons with Miami, appears to be headed out of South Beach on the open market. There are several teams often cited by league personnel as Strus suitors, from those with cap room like Detroit, Indiana and Orlando, to teams that have the full mid-level exception like Cleveland, and others working to get below that first tax apron and get access to the $12.2 million salary slot. The Cavaliers are looking at all kinds of wing targets, sources said, from Strus to Kelly Oubre to Georges Niang. There appears to be enough interest in Strus around the NBA that league figures don’t expect the DePaul product to return to Miami, and Strus looks likely to command the full mid-tier in average annual salary when all is said and done.

Gabe Vincent, the Heat’s second free agent starter from their underdog run, has a strong possibility to return. Vincent has generated plenty of interest around the league, but some of his options elsewhere, like many of the forwards on the open market this summer, have already dried up. Vincent would have been on the Suns’ shortlist of mid-level targets if Phoenix was unable to move Chris Paul and was forced to stretch and waive the veteran point guard. Detroit also looked at Vincent, sources said, before the Pistons made a draft-night trade with the Celtics to acquire Marcus Sasser at No. 25. Vincent is also a secondary candidate in Dallas and Philadelphia should any shenanigans keep the Mavericks or Sixers from keep Kyrie Irving or James Harden respectively. However, both All-Stars appeared to be heading back to their current squads.

Rest assured, Miami and Vincent, sources said, have mutual interest in keeping the UC Santa Barbara product with the Heat, especially given the roster’s other options at point guard. Without a Lillard trade or another deal that includes Kyle Lowry’s $29 million expiring contract, league personnel are preparing for Miami to waive Lowry with tax penalties in mind despite his strong postseason contributions. The Heat were exploring Lowry deals before February’s trade deadline, sources said, and there have already been whispers of potential destinations for Lowry on the buyout market. That would leave Vincent as the only reliable, internal answer at the slot next to Butler in the backcourt. Miami is believed to value Vincent around $10 million in annual salary, sources said, before negotiations begin in earnest. Look for Toronto to give Vincent another landing spot if Fred VanVleet ultimately leaves the Raptors.

Chicago’s point guard position is another piece in this overall free-agency puzzle. The Bulls are left with no clear answers to Lonzo Ball’s continued woes with knee problems. Executive Vice President Artūras Karnišovas told reporters after draft night that Chicago expects Ball to miss the entire 2023-24 season, throwing the Bulls’ build completely off course after stacking a wealth of offensive talent. With a clear need at the position and Alex Caruso considered more of a wing playmaker than a floor general, the Bulls are expected to bring back restricted free agents Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White, league sources told Yahoo Sports. There is still a chance for Patrick Beverley to return to Chicago, sources said, after the veteran helped the Bulls march into the play-in tournament this spring, although Beverley has also drawn interest from several playoff contenders. Should he eventually find a new home, the Chicago bullpen, who is pursuing a reunion with Derrick Rose, who the Bulls targeted in 2021 for the salary slot that ended up going to Caruso, could certainly resurface.

The bigger questions in Chicago come down to the Bulls’ perceived Big Three of Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and free agent Nikola Vučević. The Bulls have engaged several teams in LaVine trade options, sources said, as the All-Star guard enters the second season of a five-year, $215 million contract. However, Chicago is said to hold LaVine’s trade value well above the return Washington received for Bradley Beal earlier this month, and it’s hard to find a trade partner for the Bulls willing to sacrifice blue-chip players and first-round draft capital for the 28-year-old and his lucrative contract in the league’s new financial landscape. Perhaps the Knicks will kick the tires again on a serious LaVine overture this summer, but New York has so far drawn atypical praise from around the NBA for the Knicks’ recent patient team-building approach. Dallas was seen as one of LaVine’s most ardent suitors last offseason before he re-signed with Chicago, but the Mavericks have since gone on to acquire Irving as the second banana to Luka Dončić.

LaVine’s big deal makes the Bulls’ dance with the luxury tax as difficult as any team’s, primarily given contract negotiations with Vučević and any potential extension DeRozan may command as he enters the final season of his contract. Even at 34, DeRozan’s game has been well-deserved for another payday, with his blistering mid-range scoring failing to pose a consistent threat beyond the arc. However, questions remain about DeRozan and LaVine’s long-term pairing in Chicago, as the two talented scorers have struggled at times to share primary creation opportunities in Billy Donovan’s offense. Vučević’s return to Chicago appears likely. The Bulls wouldn’t be thrilled about Vučević leaving after pledging two first-round picks and Wendell Carter to acquire him at the 2021 trade deadline. Vučević’s situation seems far from exhausted, as many league observers have believed it dates back to May’s NBA Draft Combine.

There isn’t much of a starting center market this summer. Boston already jumped out for Kristaps Porziņģis. The Rockets could prove to be an option for Vučević if Houston’s top target, Brook Lopez, rejects the Rockets’ advances and stays in Milwaukee, but would Vucevic want to join a rebuilding environment? In addition, Houston head coach Ime Udoka is focused on installing greater defensive principles in his first season at the helm of the Rockets, and Vucevic does not bring the same level of back-line anchoring ability as Lopez or Jakob Poeltl — expected to return to Toronto, said sources – could be behind Houston’s young core. Perhaps San Antonio, as the Spurs target center to pair up front with Victor Wembanyama, could be the other possible destination Vučević needs for optimal leverage — unless the Spurs are a real threat to steal Poeltl back from Toronto, as more front office figures have mentioned in recent weeks.

Andre Drummond has another spot in the Bulls’ frontcourt until Thursday to decide on his $3.4 million player option for next season or whether the veteran center wants to pursue a minimum-salary option with a stronger playoff contender.

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