A Portland Trail Blazers season that started with so much promise is coming to a dismal, embarrassing end.
Remember when the Blazers spent the first quarter of the season streaking into first place in the Western Conference? Or when they spent the next two quarters of the season trying to show that if you looked at the roster from just the right angle, they could maybe avoid the play-in round with a top-six finish?
That’s all a distant memory.
It’s been replaced by the fact that earlier this week, the team announced they were shutting down franchise player Damian Lillard for the season while simultaneously running advertising campaigns encouraging fans to come and witness Lillard’s greatness before the season ended.
Or by the fact that the team’s biggest stretch run acquisition is a Seattle Sonics Sasquatch ripoff that absolutely no one asked for.
They will finish a second straight season of an aimless rebuild with the best player in franchise history in street clothes, another year older, having spent another year somehow unable to cobble together enough talent around a superstar who can drop 60 points a night to even finish in the top 10 in the west.
The longtime sad sack Sacramento Kings proved to be the latest team to completely lap the Blazers in the West Wednesday night, crushing them by 40 points to make it to the playoffs for the first time in 16 years. The Washington Generals put up a better effort against the Harlem Globetrotters on most nights.
The Blazers have been so completely, utterly terrible in surrounding Lillard with anything resembling talent that they have just one hope: Pray to the ping-pong ball gods that this season’s humiliating finish lands a high draft pick this offseason and that high draft pick turns into an in instant impact player who can team with Lillard to save the Western Conference’s newest sad-sack franchise.
It seems like so much longer than four years ago that the Blazers were pushing the Warriors in the Western Conference. When they were swept by the Warriors in four games in that 2019 series, it seemed like it was simply the next step in the team’s rise, that they would be back the next season ready to rule the west. Little could we know that it may have been the peak of the mountain. In the years since, every team in the conference that has chosen to put forth even a modicum of competitive effort has caught, passed, and lapped the Blazers so many times that it’s surprising the team’s City Connect jerseys are not an image of roadside litter.
This is not how it was supposed to be. Last year the team could get a pass. It was Jody Allen’s first full year in charge. Despite making the playoffs for eight straight years, the team moved on from head coach Terry Stotts, then hired a coaching rookie in Chauncey Billups in the name of improving the team’s defense, then the team’s front office imploded dramatically, then Lillard got hurt. It’s fair to write off the 2021-22 season, wash it clean, and start it over.
But back-to-back seasons?
When you have an all-time great on your roster?
When your defensive “guru” of a coach has managed to produce a defense that has actually gotten worse by several orders of magnitude in the two years he has led the team?
There’s simply no excuse for the Blazers’ embarrassing failure this season.
They have a head coach who has failed to generate any positive change on offense or defense, but to whom they are tethered for another three years. When you have a talent like Damian Lillard on your roster, even the bare minimum of talent should be enough to keep you above the play-in line, but that’s something that general manager Joe Cronin has not yet been able to provide. While Allen may speak of being committed to the franchise and consistently shooting down rumors that she intends to sell the team, the Blazers have now gone into back-to-back rudderless spirals on her watch.
Without the scapegoats of Stotts or scandal-tainted former general manager Neal Olshey around, there are not many people left for the Blazers coaching staff and management team to pin their own incompetence. The next logical step for a dysfunctional franchise would be to chuck a disgruntled star player under the bus. That may have worked in Brooklyn when the team had multiple star players all sandbagging for a trade at the same time, but it’s less likely to fly in Portland, where Lillard has done nothing but profess loyalty to the city and team again and again. Given the environment that he has to work in, one could hardly blame Lillard should he take a look at the dumpster fire that the team has planted him in and ask to get out.
The Blazers should be thankful and grateful that he hasn’t done that yet, but it’s not something they should take for granted. Time is ticking on Lillard’s contract, and the man is not getting any younger. This offseason, it’s time to get serious about getting the man some help, or the Blazers could soon find themselves swapping positions with the Kings for the next 15 years, watching star players leave, other teams rise up the standings, and watching the playoffs from the couch while wondering what might have been.