Last summer, the Portland Trail Blazers were given an opportunity to salvage their season and keep their playoff hopes alive. They had slid down the standings due to a brutal set of injuries and a weakened roster forced by the salary cap, but nonetheless they were invited to the NBA Bubble and had a chance of clinching another postseason berth.
It was a tough task but fortunately they were led by the Bubble’s MVP, Damian Lillard, who averaged an astounding 38 points, 9 assists, and 5.5 3-pointers in their eight games. His fourth quarter heroics carried Portland to a 6-2 finish, a win in the play-in game versus Memphis, and had them primed to steal one from the Lakers before they fell honorably in five games.
Just one year removed from their impressive Conference Finals run, the Trail Blazers were sent home but felt great heading into 2021. Lillard continued his MVP-caliber play with a red-hot first half, the team added a prolific scorer at the trade deadline, several key players returned for the late-season push, and the team secured one of the West’s six outright playoff spots.
The 6-seeded Blazers were salivating at a matchup with the 3-seeded Denver Nuggets who they sent home two years ago and were severely weakened by injuries. In shocking fashion, the Nuggets were still able to keep up with the Blazers offense, stealing the pivotal Game 5 in which Lillard erupted for 55 points and the close-out Game 6 on the road with a complete fourth quarter shutdown.
This was far too familiar territory for the Blazers; it was their fifth First Round exit in seven consecutive playoff appearances.
While they haven’t been regarded as a real championship-level team, their shortcomings are inexcusable repeating the same mistakes year after year. Sure, the city and front office of Portland is likely pleased with being a regular playoff team, which is more than what many other franchises can ask for, yet this era is quite underwhelming considering their generational talent.
And after this year’s offseason, it doesn’t appear anything will change. Portland just won’t help their Trail Blazer; they have “Tunnel Vision”.
- Cruise Control
The biggest problem with Portland is that they’ve been failing by design, at the hands of the head coach and especially upper management. Play-caller Terry Stotts lifted the rebuilding Trail Blazers to eight consecutive playoff appearances, but he only reached the Conference Finals once, and general manager Neil Olshey has been credited with drafting their two cornerstones, but he continuously built a one-dimensional team.
Stotts and Olshey took over the reigns in 2012, and once they re-entered the playoff picture, they pretty much put the team in cruise control. The Blazers were tasked with scoring a lot of points and shooting lots of three-pointers, playing from the outside-in. When LaMarcus Aldridge left in free agency, that further exercised the notion to be perimeter-centric and use big men in order to create space.
As we learned from the Golden State Warriors and by watching this year’s playoffs, three-point shooting is an essential ingredient to winning in the modern NBA. However, the best teams often supplement it with an inside presence and by playing defense, things that Portland keeps underestimating.
Stotts’ recurring failed game plan and unwillingness to get aggressive are the reasons he’s no longer the head coach of the Blazers, and Olshey’s blueprint of a team built solely on scoring is the reason the Blazers were vulnerable to the intelligent Nuggets squad.
- Spare Parts
Not all NBA franchises are equal with some having the advantage of a major market, the luxury of an eccentric owner, and the history of championship success. Unfortunately for the Trail Blazers of Oregon, they’re without all three, and it’s been very admirable what they’ve accomplished in the last decade, however they could achieve even more if they weren’t always looking for spare parts.
Portland has had a history of building up young talent and letting them go when the price tag gets too high, and management often replaces these core players with journeymen and throwaways looking to be part of a rotation. They’ve brought in Seth Curry, Nik Stauskas, Kent Bazemore, Trevor Ariza, Mario Hezonja, Hassan Whiteside, and Robert Covington just in the last three years alone. This year the new names expected to be in the rotation are Ben McLemore, Tony Snell, Dennis Smith Jr., and Patrick Patterson.
Don’t forget Portland was the team that signed Carmelo Anthony when nobody wanted him, and even he has moved on to brighter pastures recognizing the circumstances. Yes, the Trail Blazers have been in somewhat of a cap crunch and don’t offer a very appealing market to play in, however there’s nothing legitimately preventing a team with eight consecutive playoff appearances from recruiting skill players and former greats.
This year’s free agent acquisitions tell you all you need to know about how Portland views filling out their rotation.
- The Wrong Passenger
A long-debated topic intensifies every year as Damian Lillard continues to evolve and the Trail Blazers continue to exit. Portland is one of the most successful regular season teams in recent memory, but their inability to become a real threat come the playoffs and win a Conference Finals game brings their secondary star into question.
C.J. McCollum emerged from being a sweet-shooting backup into becoming a prolific scorer, and he’s a perfect guard for today’s NBA who can shoot from all levels and create off-the-dribble. The problem is that he hasn’t developed much more to his game, practically being the same player for the last six years and not being able to make a jump come playoff time. What’s held the Trail Blazers down is that backcourt mates Lillard and McCollum are very much the same in that they’re quick scorers and shooters who are undersized and don’t play good defense.
McCollum is in all honesty the wrong passenger because he’s too similar to his co-star and doesn’t have the capacity to drive the car, and it would benefit Portland tremendously if they exchanged his value for a complementary big man.
- Light ‘Em Up!
We’ve evaluated the key elements of Portland’s limitations including the stationary team management, the reliance on discounted journeymen, and the problematic and stagnant co-star. On a broader level, the team’s shortcomings in the last five years and especially in the most recent two can be attributed to a staggering dependence on scoring.
Portland has achieved rankings of league offensive ratings of 3rd, 3rd, and 2nd in the last three years, thanks to one of the most dynamic backcourts, strong perimeter shooting, skilled-finishing big men, and electric bench scorers. But in the same time, they’ve succumbed to league defensive ratings that finished 16th, 28th, and 29th. They’ve been pummeled through all of their First Round exits, falling flat against tougher defenses and getting torched through their own weak defense, even to the injured Nuggets team a few months ago who started a backcourt of Facundo Campazzo and Austin Rivers.
2022 looks to be more of the same with a slow offensive-minded center in Jusuf Nurkic and the re-signing of talented scorer Norman Powell, who of all things, is another undersized perimeter-centric guard. The resigning of Powell is absolutely barbaric considering his high price tag forces a particularly weak bench and because it only adds to the problem of lighting up the opposition with no regards for defense.
It’s obvious why Lillard, the greatest offensive guard in the world, enjoyed his time in the Olympics playing with front court stars and defensive staples, and even more obvious that we’re due for another “Save Us Dame” stretch come the postseason with an underwhelming finish to the Blazers campaign.
If you’re sensing a divide between superstar Damian Lillard and the rest of the organization, you’d be exactly right. Lillard’s ascent to All-NBA and MVP status in the time the Blazers made only minimal steps forward are the precise reasons his name is circulating in the rumor mill.
The overwhelming issue with Portland, above all else, is that they’re too short-sighted to really benefit from their best player. Management, the starters, and the role players have the aligned goals of being a high-powered offense, building team success, and making a playoff run, while Lillard has greater aspirations of reaching the NBA Finals and winning his first championship. The former lacks the innovation and discipline to reach its full potential, while Dame year-after-year performs to an unbelievably degree only to watch lesser talents win rings.
It’s incredibly rare in today’s NBA for a superstar to be so loyal to his franchise; the likes of Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and obviously LeBron James have all left time after time to have a legitimate chance at a championship. Fortunately for the Blazers, they have the most faithful of all the greats, but the fans would be lying to themselves if they said the team wasn’t holding him back.
Lillard has done more than enough to elevate the Blazers over the years, and as management continues their short-sightedness with team building, it’d be shameful to let his tenure roll on much longer.
This era of the Portland Trail Blazers has been a gift to the NBA community, providing sky-high scoring outbursts and gut-wrenching postseason games. They’ve been a terrific model of a small market team building up young talent and achieving playoff berths regularly.
However, the tale of the organization has finally gotten stale, and after five First Round exits in seven years, they’ve fired their long-time head coach. But nothing else has seemed to change, and the team looks less promising than before.
On their road to the NBA playoffs, the Blazers are still geared into cruise control, reengineering their vehicle with spare parts, aiming for a lane with a top seed despite just one All-Star, and revving up full-speed ahead with no care for defensive driving. Guided by a traffic guide in Chauncey Billups, who’s never coached a professional basketball game in his life, they’ll likely find themselves on the highway of the postseason. In spite of a full tank of gas, they’re destined to take the first exit yet again.
Portland is lingering in the dark tunnel, with one of the brightest lights of basketball in the world. It’s a disservice to him, now the oldest rotation player on the team, and the entire NBA for this same strategy of living and dying by offense and throwaways to continue any further.
Ownership doesn’t have to trade Lillard, but they certainly need to be smarter with him. They’re lucky to still have a Trail Blazer, as the clock on “Dame Time” sounds louder…