Portlanders are used to the Trail Blazers struggling. Professional basketball mediocrity runs through our blood after decades of knee injuries and first-round playoff exits.
But the Blazers’ 13-22 record is much worse than mediocre. If the season ended today, the 12th-place Blazers would be on planes to Hawaii, despite the fact that two-thirds of the league qualifies for the postseason. It’s gotten so bad the season is half over and the Sacramento Kings have a better record.
You read that right. Our beloved Trail Blazers can’t even keep up with the perpetually pathetic Kings this year.
The team’s lack of on-court success, combined with the ongoing COVID pandemic, has noticeably dampened enthusiasm in the Rose Garden.
“This season wasn’t what I was expecting in terms of wins, so that’s unfortunate. And because of that, the mood definitely isn’t the same,” says season ticket holder Ty Delbridge. “It’s not as loud all the time, and you don’t feel as much energy. That’s also probably because of COVID and the stadium just not being full like in the past because of restrictions.” (Delbridge plans to attend 25 to 30 games this season.)
According to the NBA’s official numbers, ticket sales in Portland have dipped below 90% of capacity for the first time since the 2006-07 season—Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge’s rookie season. On many nights, the number of actual seats filled appears to dip far below 90%:
“It’s disappointing. I think the fans that show up, are supportive. But it’s 50% capacity at times, maybe 60%?” says Michael Mickanen, a fan since the 1990s and current season ticket holder. “The energy is not the same with all those people missing.”
The Blazers were fifth in attendance in the last non-pandemic NBA season but are 18th now. Their problems extend beyond vaccine mandates and Omicron spikes. The front office all but chased fans away during the offseason with a series of laughably embarrassing decisions. Franchise superstar Damian Lillard endorsed convicted domestic abuser Jason Kidd to succeed Terry Stotts as coach, a rape allegation followed new head coach Chauncey Billups, the private investigator responsible for looking into the allegation against Billups was posting pornographic images on Twitter, and assistant coach Milt Palacio was arrested for insurance fraud in October. Meanwhile, former president of basketball operations Neil Olshey turned official press conferences into meme fodder and a new TV deal with Root Sports angered fans who prefer streaming.
The mood around the Blazers was decidedly unfavorable when the season started.
“I was angry with how Olshey conducted business over the summer, and it left me feeling less than excited to support the organization,” says Catherine Stelzer, a lifelong fan who ultimately chose to pause her season tickets this year. “Between the GM fiasco and the pandemic, the decision was easy but also disappointing. Considering Omicron and everything else that has happened this season, I’m glad I made that decision.”
In recent weeks, the Blazers have taken steps to win back fans like Stelzer, firing Olshey for unstated violations of the organization’s code of conduct.
But the the franchise, and city, remains stuck with the team that Olshey built. It’s a lineup featuring four 6-foot-3 guards and few, if any, competent perimeter defenders. After being embarrassed in the playoffs last year by the Denver Nuggets, Olshey chose to run back the same core roster with promises that some tinkering on the fringes (e.g., swapping Derrick Jones Jr. for Larry Nance Jr.) and a new coach would be enough to vault Lillard and company into the conference finals.
Thus far, it does not appear that Billups has improved anything. The Blazers defense has sunk to last place in the entire NBA, and the offense has cratered from second place last year to 16th this season. The players have looked unmotivated since day one—an opening-night home loss to the not so dismal Kings.
And then COVID started coming for the roster—removing players from the lineup for two or three games at a time. Since Dec. 2, the Blazers have lost eight of nine home games by an average of 12.3 points and can’t even bother to pretend to try to play defense in the opening minutes on any given night:
“This season has been abysmal. The vibes are fucked and the team’s effort has been lacking,” says Justin Hintze, owner of local food truck Jojo, who has attended about half the home games this season. “It’s just uninspired basketball and very dumb roster construction thanks to (thankfully) fired Neil Olshey.”
The Blazers have gotten off to slow starts in past seasons, but the demoralizing nature of this year’s losses have started to wear on some fans.
“The Blazers aren’t just losing games, but night after night of blowouts feels more demoralizing,” says Stelzer. “It feels like there is a cloud of doom over this team right now.”
Ultimately, however, the Blazers immediate concerns center on Lillard. In addition to the off-court turmoil and disappointing offseason, Lillard has struggled to play through an abdominal injury and adjust to new rules aimed at limiting fouls. The end result has been across-the-board decreases in Lillard’s gaudy offensive stats. It remains unclear whether Lillard will be able to play through the injury or eventually miss extended time.
Lillard’s injury, combined with the disappointing roster, makes it unclear whether the Blazers will be able to turn this season around. In the meantime, the mood in the Rose Garden isn’t likely to improve any time soon.
“I very likely will not renew the tickets. Here’s the deal: I could buy [single game] tickets all I want,” says Mickanen. “If I wanted to go to 20 games a year, I can buy them on the market for cheaper than what the season tickets cost.”
Tomorrow: What can the Blazers do now?