By reasonable standards, 2013-14 was a smash success for the Portland Trail Blazers, and that’s important to recognize.
No, they did not bring home the franchise’s second title. And many will say that they played below their talent level in a losing effort against San Antonio in the Western Conference Semi-finals, and were a let-down after such a great series against Houston.
Whether that’s true or not, it’s imperative to look at the season on the whole, not judge it solely on how it ended.
Before we go down that road, it’s critical to remember that this Blazers team is a new team that was born out of a NBA organization being completely overhauled from top to bottom between the spring of 2011 and the summer of 2013.
During that time, General Manager Rich Cho and Head Coach Nate McMillan were fired, with Chad Buchanan and Kaleb Canales admirably serving under interim roles prior to the arrivals of GM Neil Olshey and HC Terry Stotts. While the Blazers rebuilt their franchise from basement to contender, they became a revolving door for low and mid-level talent, other team’s cast-offs, and past-their-prime vets, and eventually waived, traded, or let walk away 12 notable players (in addition to others) including Luke Babbitt, Marcus Camby, Jamal Crawford, Raymond Felton, Rudy Fernandez, JJ Hickson, Andre Miller, Greg Oden, Joel Przybilla, Brandon Roy, Gerald Wallace, and Elliot Williams. Nicolas Batum was nearly lost to Minnesota as a restricted free agent, but the Blazers matched an offer sheet to retain him through the 2016 season.
During the same stretch, Portland added 12 new players via draft, trade, and free agency that are still under contract at least through the 2013-14 season in Will Barton, Victor Clavor (drafted in 2009, signed 2012), Allen Crabbe, Joel Freeland (drafted in 2006, signed 2012), Meyers Leonard, Damian Lillard, Robin Lopez, CJ McCollum, Thomas Robinson, Earl Watson, Mo Williams, and Dorell Wright.
That is a world of changes prior to the 2013-14 season kicking off, which helps to explain why most experts and fans were doing their best to keep expectations level for the newest Blazers squad to take the court, while looking to improve upon the team winning 33 games, placing 11th in the Western Conference, losing the last 12 games of the season, and missing the playoffs for the second straight year in the 2012-13 season.
The new starting five of Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Robin Lopez gelled more quickly than anyone expected, and the Blazers absolutely stormed out of the gate to a 31-10 record midway through the season, and were the league’s #1 team in terms of offensive efficiency. They were one of the hottest teams in the league, and a popular pick to battle for the #1 seed in the West with the Spurs, Thunder, and Clippers.
They then had some struggles in the second half of the season as Aldridge and Freeland missed time due to injury, and depth became a glaring concern the team could no longer cover up as the starters began to show signs of fatigue. They were still able to manage a 23-18 record over the final 41 games, finishing 54-28, and placed 5th in the Western Conference, and sent two players (LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard) to the NBA All-Star Game for the first time since the 1993-94 season (Clyde Drexler and Cliff Robinson).
All of that would have made for a pretty memorable season. But then the Blazers drew the #4 seeded Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, and suddenly they looked and played like the team we all saw in November and December.
Aldridge set the franchise record for points in a playoff game (46), added his name to the list of players with consecutive 40 point playoff games in games 1 (46) and 2 (43), and tied the NBA playoff record for points (140) and rebounds (45) through the first four games of a playoff series. Lillard joined him in becoming the first teammates to have 45 and 30 points in a playoff game since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in 1992. Portland jumped out to a 2-0 series lead, and eventually won the series on a Damian Lillard catch-and-shoot three-pointer as the clock hit zero in Game 6 with Houston clinging to a two point lead and just 0.9 left on the clock as play resumed, winning the series 4 games to 2.
It marked the first time Portland had won a playoff series since the 1999-2000 season, and Rip City rejoiced.
The Blazers then drew the #1 seeded albeit aged Spurs in round 2, who had just won a tough 7 game series with #8 seeded Dallas, and looked tired and ripe for defeat by a young and now very confident Blazers team.
But despite their age, the Spurs did not look tired against Portland. And for how much they looked like their late 2013 selves against the Rockets, Portland certainly looked like their early 2014 selves against the Spurs, as their depth was again exposed and their starters looked tired and out of answers for everything the well-oiled-machine of San Antonio threw at them. Too many rushed passes and low-percentage and contested shots, and not enough complete team play did them in, and San Antonio won the series 4 games to 1, even with Spurs star PG Tony Parker being unable to play in the second half of game 5.
It was a tough lesson to learn, but a lesson none the less. The Spurs have won 4 titles and could have won a fifth since the 1999 strike-shortened season. The Blazers briefly learned how to compete with such a monster, winning game 4 at home handily, but fell back to their early series issues in the second half of game 5 and lost by 22 points.
But narrowly avoiding a sweep and a 22 point loss in the elimination game to follow simply should not be how this season should be remembered. And LaMarcus shooting the lights out to the point of Damian Lillard’s series performance being relatively quiet in round 1 should not be forgotten because he was defended well and slowed to the point of being ineffective in round 2 by a team known for playing better as a team than any in the league.
Aldridge was still a MVP candidate this year, and finished 10th in the final voting. Which means that it’s fair to say Portland has the 10th best player in the league in Aldridge, although he probably deserves to be higher on that lost, top 5 perhaps. And Damian Lillard still had an outstanding second year to follow up last year, when he was voted the NBA Rookie of the Year.
And yes, the Blazers, as a team, had an outstanding year.
With Aldridge their oldest starter at 28, an average age of 26 on the team, and all five starters and most of the reserves under contract through the 2014-15 season, this team has a very wide open title window.
This year wasn’t make or break, and whether or not you were thrilled with how it ended, that doesn’t change the fact that the year on the whole was a success, and that getting as far as they did was better than expected.
There isn’t always a tomorrow. For the Spurs, this may be Tim Duncan’s last year as a player. For the Miami Heat, this may be the last time their “big-3” take the court together.
But those are problems for teams who do not have time on their side. For the Blazers, they are young, and there is at least next year to make all of their basketball dreams a reality.
Get ready, Rip City. This season may be over, but these Blazers are not finished.
These Blazers are just getting started.