Almost exactly two years ago, Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers were on top of the basketball world. After dispatching the Denver Nuggets in a deciding seventh game to advance to the Western Conference finals, a camera caught Lillard literally skipping off the court, folding his arms over his face to fight back tears of joy.
It was a remarkable moment of undisguised happiness for a dude who mean-mugged his way through a series-winning buzzer beater just two weeks before. You’d have to go back to the days of Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter to find a more gleeful moment of Blazers basketball.
Fast forward 23 months and the mood in Rip City is defined more by finger-pointing than hugging. After suffering through injuries, a laughably bad bottom-ranked defense, and overall lethargic play, the team’s championship aspirations have given way to a desperate fight even to make the playoffs.
It’s gotten bad enough that Chris Haynes, a Yahoo! journalist closely linked to Lillard, characterized the Blazers as “playoff bait.”
It’s becoming clear that the perennial embarrassing playoff losses to the Lakers and Warriors of the league have begun to wear on the Blazers. They are no longer a young and improving team that’s “one year away.” They are now the slightly above average team that has plateaued at “not quite good enough.” In other words, playoff bait.
If the Blazers are escorted out of the first round again, even sentimental fans will expect big changes. At least one of the trio of Lillard, head coach Terry Stotts and president of basketball operations Neil Olshey will likely be gone.
So who deserves the blame?
Much of the fan base will now be screaming about Stotts. The Blazers’ defense puts up less resistance than the receipt checker at Walmart, and Stotts’ player rotations have irked many of Rip City’s Twitterites.
The problem is that coaching changes rarely fundamentally alter an NBA team’s direction. If Stotts is fired, whoever replaces him will inherit the same flawed roster. Not even Dr. Jack Ramsay could fix Portland’s defense when Enes Kanter, Carmelo Anthony and Anfernee Simons are the first reserves off the bench.
After Stotts, Olshey is next up for scrutiny. He has repeatedly doubled down on a Lillard-McCollum lineup as other teams trade All-Star-caliber players at a historic pace.
Jimmy Butler and Paul George have been swapped multiple times over the past several seasons. The Raptors won a championship wagering on an exchange of DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard. The Denver Nuggets, a Northwest Division rival, acquired Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and immediately won 13 of 16 games. Meanwhile, in Portland, Olshey’s biggest trade brought in…Hassan Whiteside.
That, one assumes, is why Haynes, the Lillard whisperer, is talking about Lillard not getting enough help. But blaming the coach or the GM is to ignore Lillard’s own role in enabling the passivity of the front office.
I know: This is blasphemy. Portland’s healthy locker-room culture has been repeatedly highlighted as the Blazers’ primary asset. For years, Lillard has been extolled as one of the best teammates in the NBA.
And yet, the Blazers have experienced a multiweek malaise nearly every year since LaMarcus Aldridge left in 2015. In 2017, the season was saved by Nurk Fever after months of sub-.500 play. Last year, some inspired performances in “the bubble” helped the Blazers squeak into the playoffs despite a losing record. This year, they’re fighting like hell to avoid the dreaded play-in scenario and secure an extra week of rest, after failing to outscore their opponents for nearly the entire season.
This is not a good way to stack the deck for success in the playoffs. Burning up energy in April to make up for December laziness is the professional basketball equivalent of the all-nighter before the linear math exam. Good enough to secure a passing grade, but probably not getting anyone admitted to MIT (or hanging an NBA championship banner). At this point, it’s fair to ask what good that stellar locker-room culture is if the players need a late-season push every year just to make the playoffs.
Lillard’s esteemed loyalty to his teammates has also made marquee trades, the type that land a Butler or George, less likely. Dame has publicly defended his teammates on many occasions and even spoken out against hypothetical trades involving other Blazers.
That loyalty is commendable, but we live in an era of unprecedented player autonomy—and past results have made it increasingly clear that this version of the Blazers will not be competing for a championship. It’s time for the big trade that Lillard has tacitly refused before, even if that means sacrificing someone like close friend CJ McCollum.
The bottom line is that the clock has struck midnight for this iteration of the Portland Trail Blazers. Lillard now needs to weigh loyalty against any chance of booking a championship parade. Ownership could fire Stotts, and even Olshey, but it won’t be enough if the team’s culture remains untouched. Dame has to take a long look in the mirror and accept that a new coach, major trade(s) and a reset of expectations for his teammates may all be necessary.
If he’s not willing to take action, we will all have to accept that this version of the Blazers peaked with the 2019 Western Conference finals.