Goodbye and good riddance to the 2020-21 Portland Trail Blazers, a cursed squad, a ship of fools.
They were gutted by injuries all year, shallow at every position imaginable, and sported the 29th-best defense in the NBA. (There are only 30 teams.) The team only managed to make the playoffs because Damian Lillard became NBA Hector this year, a mythic totem of old honor who took on all comers in service of a doomed, vaguely immoral cause. Zeus might think you’re awesome, but Achilles always comes sooner or later, and the next thing you know you’re a limp body getting hauled around by a chariot.
It was probably over on Tuesday, when the team couldn’t manage to pull away after Lillard went for 55 points and 10 assists and the team couldn’t capitalize. But failure only happens by a process, so the Blazers went out again tonight and got sacked for good. They were ahead for a while; it looked pretty good there after Jusuf Nurkic managed to go foulless in the first half. But boom, four—FOUR—fouls for him in the third quarter, the defense just pits out, a year and two weeks of playing beyond anyone’s reasonable capabilities seems to hit Lillard all at once, and the team just collapses to perdition in front of a home crowd.
This is almost certainly the end of an era.
If national media are to be believed, Terry Stotts has been a dead man walking for a while now. Coaching tenures aren’t really built to end nobly. You keep your job until you don’t. If general manager Neil Olshey wants to get nasty with it, you might even see some “How Terry Lost the Locker Room and Let Dame Down” stories from national columnists seeking favor over the next few days, some real dirtbag blame-shuffling to make sure no one blames the front office for any of this.
Stotts being exiled and replaced with new blood is the only rational step forward. But make no mistake: This team was best when it functioned with Terry’s best principles in mind, a flowing offense that worked out of the high post and emphasized ball movement to complement Lillard’s on-ball dominance.
Awash in a sea of injuries and declining returns from the back end of the roster, those principles were washed away in favor of an approach that made Lillard the be all and end all of the team’s offensive production, an approach that turned outright ugly when the team encountered playoff competition. Stotts has been the best coach the Blazers have employed since Rick Adelman was fired in 1994. His time with the team has run its course. That’s a shame, because he was good at his job, but it’s also the way of the league.
The team could fire Stotts and take another run with a version of this roster, but they should not.
The fact is that, since Al-Faroq Aminu left, the roster is deeply unbalanced. Lillard, a brilliant offensive talent who is also one of the NBA’s most lackadaisical defenders, simply needs to be surrounded by wing defenders and burly wrasslin’ big boys, and he just is not. The Blazers roster as currently composed is: high-usage ball-handling guards who play like Lillard (McCollumn, Powell, Anfernee Simons), wings who aren’t good (Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Nassir Little, Derrick Jones Jr.) or are maddeningly inconsistent (Robert Covington), imperfect centers (Nurkic and Enes Kanter), and 10-time NBA All-Stars playing on their fifth team (Carmelo Anthony).
This is not a sustainable, winning collection of players.
Olshey has seemingly gone out of his way to duplicate what Lillard does on the floor—which is to say, score—instead of hunting for the kind of complementary pieces that would make the team a complete operation instead of a fly-by night collection of dudes who try to overwhelm everyone on offense every night.
The one player who did naturally complement Dame was Jusuf Nurkic, a pick setter and dirty-work man, the team’s best defender by a mile. But he just couldn’t guard the NBA’s best center WHILE ALSO making up for the porous defensive presence on the perimeter. He fouled out multiple times. The team was basically functional with him on the floor and shitty with him off, and his foul trouble proved to be fatal to their chances of beating a depleted Nuggets squad.
The media have been primed to blame this loss on Stotts but, really, the Blazers roster has been increasingly unsustainable for years, subject to the whims of Olshey’s eccentric taste in players and monumental self-regard as a drafter. (Meyers Leonard once got $44 million purely because Olshey was operating on a sunk cost principle. Simons figures to be next.) It has totally neglected areas of need for season after season.
If the Blazers are going to retool or rebuild or whatever, someone aside from Olshey should do the job. He doesn’t even like it here, the only general manager in the NBA who publicly complains about how hard it is to get free agents to come to town whenever someone gives him the chance. Will he be gone like he should be, especially with the team’s ownership in limbo and the media lining up to shift the blame all the way onto Terry? God only knows.
Lillard will probably have some say in that decision. He certainly seems like the only untouchable person in the whole franchise at the moment, the bright red chassis of a car that has stalled out at first-round ignobility. But, then again, as Portland author and presumed Blazer fan Ursula K. Le Guin once said of the perpetual rule of capitalism: “Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” After Thursday night’s ugly beatdown, we could be in for something completely different, folks.