The Portland Trail Blazers are facing what could be the most critical offseason in the team’s history.
While many a keyboard Warrior may feel this is a critical off-season for a team that went from Western Conference finalist in 2018 to back-to-back lottery pick seasons, those aren’t the takes that matter.
The one that matters is franchise icon, Damian Lillard.
“I think this is our most important offseason since I’ve been here,” he told ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith earlier this week.
Lillard, a man well known for his patience and quietly saying all the right things, and Smith, a man known for having one deafening volume level and shoving his foot in his mouth, certainly made for an extreme dichotomy. And while Smith pushed Lillard to force the team’s hand publicly, ala Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant, Lillard instead put the team on blast in the politest way possible.
“I believe our organization has really tried. I just feel like at this point in my career…it’s time to stop ‘We tried’ and all of that, our urgency needs to go to we have to get things done,” Lillard told Smith. “We have to get things done; it’s been back-to-back years missing the playoffs. I felt like I had the best season of my career this season; I felt better than I’ve felt in a long time. They know how important it is to be on a competitive team and be on a level to make a run at the playoffs. That just has to happen.”
Those are not the words of a man interested in sitting through a rebuild. They are also not the words of a man with unreasonable expectations. Lillard didn’t say he expects the team to be an overnight championship contender. He expects to be on a team that can play competitive basketball and makes a run at the playoffs. Yet, a team with a top-100 all-time talent who can go for 70+ points in a game can’t even manage those low expectations.
That’s how far the team has fallen. Even with the expansion of the playoff field to 10 teams, the Blazers fell flat on their face this season and right back into the lottery. Even with two first-round draft picks, the team may not find itself in a position to meet Lillard’s exceedingly modest expectations of a competitive club. He wants to see things happen this offseason. Big things. He wants the organization to pick a path: rebuild or go for it.
“It ain’t a threat, I ain’t going to say I’m putting them on the clock, but if those things can’t be done, we can’t do something significant like that, and we won’t have a chance to compete on that level, not only will I have a decision to make but the organization will too because at that point it’s are you going to go young or are you going to get something done?” he told Smith. “I think we’ve been on the fence to fully commit to either one. We’re at that point now where everyone wants to win. They believe I deserve that opportunity, and I believe we will be committed and diligent to do those things this offseason.”
While the front office may be committed to improving the club, it won’t be easy to do so. The team is already up against the cap, needs to resign forward Jerami Grant to avoid going further into salary cap hell while most of their available cap space is tied up in a flawed and broken roster, owes a first-round pick to the Chicago Bulls before it can start trading first-round draft picks, has a coach who has appeared to be utterly overmatched at running an NBA team, an owner who is largely absent and unclear about her intentions regarding the franchise, and only a few young players who it can use to entice other squads to trade for to get the experienced, proven talent Lillard wants to run with.
In other words, it will take some doing to get from dumpster fire to “competitive.”
There are methods and trajectories to building a competitive NBA team from the trash heap and into the playoffs.
The San Antonio Spurs of the 1990s were competitive for years, then had a brutal season in 1996 and went full-on tank mode. They wound up with the No. 1 pick, drafted Tim Duncan, paired him with aging franchise icon David Robinson and went on to win three titles in the next seven seasons.
The Los Angeles Lakers were committed to a full-on rebuild under young coach Luke Walton in 2018 when Lebron James fell into their lap. Lebron made it clear that he wasn’t in LA to sit through a rebuild, and within a year, the Lakers dumped Walton in favor of veteran coach Frank Vogel and were punting their young players left and right to surround James with veteran talent. For one shining moment, it all worked out, and the team won a title in the 2020 COVID bubble season. Since then, though, the team has: lost in the first round in 2021, missed the playoffs entirely in 2022, and then clawed their way through the play-in round this year.
The Sacramento Kings have spent nearly two decades fumbling through rebuilds until finally crafting a team built around drafted talents and sly trades with other teams that could compete in the Western Conference. The team eventually made the jump from rebuild to competitive this season (which, interestingly enough, also involved canning Luke Walton as the team’s coach) and saw an 18-win improvement from last year grab them the third seed in the Western Conference playoffs. We can’t know if their success will be sustainable yet, but signs point to the Kings, at worst, being a competitive franchise for the next few years.
Those are just three of the options, there are many more, but regardless of which path they choose, it’s time for the Blazers to pick one. In or out. Commit to Lillard or rebuild. Push every available chip to the center or decide to fold. Their star has made his feelings clear: No more sitting on the fence.
It’s decision time.