Back on March 25, the Trail Blazers and Nuggets had no idea they’d meet each other in the first round come May, but they did have an idea how to best prepare for that. And so, on that day, they did what contenders do: Make a trade they hoped would gain them an edge in the hyper-competitive Western Conference playoffs.
Let’s pause and say there are few absolutes in the NBA, that narratives can change quickly, that this Blazers-Nuggets series is now tied 2-2 and feels up for grabs, like a jump ball.
But in terms of those trades? At the moment? Advantage, Blazers, slightly.
This was for all to witness Saturday when the Blazers ran the Nuggets right out of Portland with a smackdown 20-point Game 4 win. And this no-contest was a wrap the moment Powell decided to win that trade for the Blazers — if only for a day — and when Gordon could not do likewise for the Nuggets.
Powell was a whirlwind who chopped up Denver’s defense by constantly attacking, getting high bounce on his jumpers, and issuing some lip service for fun if only because he was truly feeling it. He managed a playoff career-high 29 points on 11-for-15 shots and rushed to the rescue of Damian Lillard, who missed nine of 10 shots in what qualified as the must frustrating playoff game of his career.
Gordon, like most of the Nuggets, was trapped in a fog offensively, never standing out, struggling to keep the score from escaping his team. He had two baskets and six points in 18 minutes. His moment in this series was mainly confined to his stellar defense of Lillard in the second half of Game 3 (Gordon has the rare flexibility to guard four positions) and to an extent, Saturday as well.
Of course, come Game 5, the Powell-Gordon roles could swap. Such is basketball, especially in an evenly matched series where adjustments will certainly be made. Still, it’s very possible, aside from Lillard and Nikola Jokic, that one of those two midseason pickups might be the swing vote that gives this series to one team or the other.
The advantage for Powell is his championship pedigree. That ring was earned, not given, when he was one of the major supporting cast members for the 2019 Raptors. He knows big moments, taken big shots, helped win big games. In that sense, Powell is exactly the help Lillard needs to make a reasonable reach for what would be his first NBA Finals trip.
Powell also has incentive. As an unrestricted free agent, he’s playing for money this summer, and never underestimate a motivated professional player who wants to cash in. In order for the Blazers to justify the trade, they must give Powell what he wants, or close enough. Otherwise, if he signs elsewhere, Portland essentially rented him for a few months and lost Gary Trent Jr. (who’s also facing free agency) in the process.
After a slow start since arriving, Powell found his rhythm and his place in the rotation. He’s averaging 17 points, he gets the most difficult defensive assignments, and he’s asked to be a member of the Portland three-guard rotation with Lillard and CJ McCollum which is clearly the Blazers’ strength.
That’s not the case with Gordon. Unlike Powell, who was a second-round pick, Gordon came into the NBA in 2014 with plenty of promise as the No. 4 overall pick. Gordon was built for NBA stardom, as an athletic freak who could play either forward position, or so it was believed at the time.
He’s still waiting for his first All-Star appointment, and for that matter, his first dunk contest title (officially, anyway; he and others will swear he owns two).
Gordon was mainly a tease in Orlando, and the franchise kept waiting for him to make a star turn, until it reached the sobering conclusion that he wouldn’t. He was hopelessly caught in between: Not great enough of an outside shooter to play the wing, not bully-ball enough to play on the block.
After scoring 20 or more points only four times this season for an Orlando team that craved a signature scorer, he was shipped to Denver, which had big plans for him mainly in a big supporting role. They particularly pegged him for being the athletic defender they craved, and he has been all that for Denver. But when Jamal Murray was lost for the season with a knee injury, Gordon’s offensive importance doubled. Could he handle the increased scoring load — especially on a winning team, for a change?
In 29 games with Denver, Gordon owns one 20-point game compared to 13 single-digit games. Again, it’s an adjustment for a new player and new team and these issues aren’t always solvable overnight, but the Nuggets don’t have the luxury of time. That will arrive next season when Gordon has a training camp and Murray returns.
Now is when these difference-making midseason trades are supposed to count. When this series is over, we’ll know which team made the right bet.
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