The Blazers began the 2021-22 season with the NBA’s longest active playoff streak, having reached the playoffs every season since Damian Lillard‘s second year in the league. They finished it with Lillard on the sidelines, longtime backcourt-mate CJ McCollum in New Orleans and a group of young players and journeymen getting beat by historic margins in the season’s final month.
Before Portland’s season finale, Lillard took the microphone and told the home crowd, “this does not continue.” Adding Grant is the first step in newly extended Blazers general manager Joe Cronin’s plan to rebuild the roster he stripped down prior to the trade deadline. Is adding Grant a significant enough step to get Portland back on the right side of .500?
On the other side, Detroit took advantage of Grant’s value heading into the final season of a three-year contract that saw him blossom as a scorer. Dealing Grant and taking back no salary in return gives the Pistons one of the NBA’s biggest war chests entering next week’s free agency. How might the Pistons utilize that spending power? Let’s break it down.
Trail Blazers get:
No. 46 pick in 2022
2025 first-round pick (via Milwaukee Bucks)
No. 36 pick in 2022
2025 second-round pick
2026 second-round pick
Portland Trail Blazers: B
Essentially, we can think of the Grant trade as part two of the deal that sent McCollum to the Pelicans ahead of the February trade deadline. Not only did the Blazers get the future first-round pick they sent to Detroit in the McCollum trade, they also generated the trade exception used to take on Grant’s salary.
Stripping out players on expiring contracts, Portland ultimately gave up McCollum, useful reserve Larry Nance Jr. and a pair of future second-rounders in order to get Grant, wing Josh Hart, unproven youngster Didi Louzada and the 59th pick in this year’s draft. I think that combination of moves makes sense for the Blazers.
In a vacuum, McCollum — particularly the version we saw running the point for New Orleans after the trade — is likely a better player than Grant. However, Grant (who was actually born in Portland while his dad, Harvey, was a member of the Blazers) is 2½ years younger, will make $12 million less in 2022-23 and better fits the team’s needs. With the emergence of Anfernee Simons as a third ball handler and shot maker, an athletic forward like Grant was a far greater priority.
Grant has been mentioned as a Blazers trade target for months. Not only is he the kind of versatile forward defender the team has long prioritized, dating back to Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless before Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr., Grant and Lillard had also connected when the two played together for the gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic team last summer.
It will be interesting to see how Grant fits back in on a contending team. He filled a role for the Denver Nuggets in 2019-20, helping them to the Western Conference finals in the bubble, before signing with the Pistons in order to get more offensive opportunities. Grant’s usage rate jumped from finishing a below-average 18% of Denver’s plays to 28.5% in Detroit. In that context, Grant’s near-average efficiency was impressive, given he’d never before been considered a shot creator.
In Portland, Grant’s role will probably end up somewhere between those two extremes. Lillard and Simons project as the team’s top two scorers, but Grant could be allowed to do more offensively when one of the two guards is on the bench, historically a trouble spot for the Blazers’ offense. When he’s off the ball, Grant is the kind of high-volume but average accuracy 3-point shooter (36% last season on 6.1 attempts per game) Portland has typically featured at forward.
Although Grant hasn’t had the same consistent positive impact on his teams’ defensive rating as Covington, he’s more of the individual stopper the Blazers wanted Covington to be. Grant was particularly effective during the Nuggets’ 2020 playoff run, serving as the team’s primary matchup for Donovan Mitchell, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. Given the number of powerful, athletic forwards in the West, Grant is probably more valuable returning to the conference.
The question now is whether Portland can get back to those playoff matchups. Dealing for Grant all but assures the Blazers will play out this summer without using cap space. Although they could have created up to $48 million in room this summer, that would have required stripping the roster bare around Lillard. Using the trade exception and Bird rights on Simons (a restricted free agent) and center Jusuf Nurkic (unrestricted) always made more sense.
As ESPN’s Bobby Marks notes, Portland will enter free agency a little more than $40 million under the tax line. Depending on the price points for Simons and Nurkic, that could enable the Blazers to use the non-taxpayer midlevel exception to add one more contributor to what looks like a solid top six of Lillard, Simons, Grant, Nurkic, Hart, combo forward Nassir Little and this year’s No. 7 pick. That group is good enough to be in the playoff mix, but far from a certainty to get there.
In the long-term, Portland will have to hit on a lot of player development to return to contention with Lillard (who will turn 32 in July) on the back nine of his career. Adding Grant seems to presage long-term extensions both for him (Grant is eligible to add four years and up to $112 million six months after this deal is complete) and Lillard (who can add two years at a projected $116 million this summer).
If the Blazers ultimately determine they can’t compete, Lillard and Grant won’t likely have as much trade value on extensions as they do now. Still, once Portland decided to stay the course with Lillard, adding Grant at this price was a sensible decision.
Detroit Pistons: A-
Back in February, the notion of a Grant trade to the Blazers included the Pistons snagging the pick that Portland originally got from New Orleans: This year’s Pelicans first-round pick, headed to the Blazers if the team missed the playoffs and did not win the lottery. (Barring a lottery stunner, that would have landed No. 11 overall.)
By comparison, the future Milwaukee pick Portland got and will send to Detroit isn’t quite as prime. Odds are, with Giannis Antetokounmpo at age 30, the Bucks will still be contenders of some sort in 2025. And in the unthinkable event Milwaukee’s pick jumps into the top four in the lottery, the Pistons will get nothing at all.
That said, getting any kind of first-round pick for a player signed as a free agent two years ago is still good business. Grant wasn’t the same kind of fit with Detroit’s future plans after the team won last year’s lottery, landing Cade Cunningham. Now, the 20-year-old Cunningham’s timeline should be the focal point for the Pistons.
In addition to the pick, Detroit also generates nearly $20 million in additional cap room by moving Grant for no contracts in return. Already easily capable of creating space for a max offer, the Pistons now totally control the board for the next two weeks, giving them a variety of options.
If Detroit goes the max offer route for a younger free agent like Dallas Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson or Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton, the latter a restricted free agent, the Pistons can now do so without having to decline reasonable team options for guards Hamidou Diallo and Frank Jackson.
Additionally, Detroit might be able to add a max free agent and re-sign former No. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley III, acquired from Sacramento at the trade deadline. (Because Bagley carries a massive $28 million cap hold, the Pistons would likely need to re-sign him first before officially signing an outside max free agent.)
Alternatively, Detroit could think longer-term and collect additional draft picks by taking on another team’s massive unwanted salary. The Pistons will have enough cap space to take on the contracts of either Charlotte Hornets forward Gordon Hayward or Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook, something no other team is capable of doing without sending back a substantial amount of salary in return.
We can’t be certain at this point Detroit will use the cap space wisely. Grant is the notable exception when it comes to the team’s forays into free agency the past two years, which have otherwise yielded Kelly Olynyk, Mason Plumlee and a variety of reserves. For now, getting a pick and more cap flexibility for a player who no longer fits their timetable is a quality move for the Pistons.