Regardless of what Portland does with the #3 pick in the NBA Draft next month, whether they keep it or trade it, it’s very important for fans to temper their expectations.
No matter what move they make, it’s important to remember this – no move comes without challenges or potential pitfalls.
Let’s hit pause on the championship chatter. Portland has drafted hundreds of players in its history, and only one of those picks has led to a title. The variables surrounding that particular season may not have made sense to fans the year prior. That’s how crazy it was. And the ride down the mountain was probably just as painful as seeing them win it all was amazing, even for fans that had been on the ride for all seven seasons at the time.
Portland hasn’t been to the NBA Finals since 1992 and only has three trips in franchise history, with only one of those bringing home a trophy. Let’s get them back to the Finals before we worry about winning a second title.
The Trail Blazers have appeared in the Western Conference Finals seven times (1977, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1999, 2000, 2019), losing four of those series. The front office absolutely needs to get Damian Lillard help, but even if they do that, that doesn’t automatically mean that the team will go on a championship run.
Getting help for your star doesn’t guarantee a title. Yes, it’s worked for certain franchises in recent years, but for each team with a new addition to their trophy room, there are at least three other teams that didn’t get one. Getting help doesn’t mean an assumed championship; it might not even mean getting to the conference finals.
Here is some recent history of how teams have fared after getting help for their core players.
Milwaukee built their team around Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday. They were eliminated in the first round this year after losing in the second round in 2022 and winning the title in 2021. They fired their coach in 2023.
LA Clippers built their roster around Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. They were eliminated in the first round.
Philadelphia built their team around league MVP Joel Embiid and James Harden. They were eliminated in the second round. They fired their coach in 2023.
Phoenix built their team around Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton, and Devin Booker. They were eliminated in the second round. They fired their coach in 2023.
Golden State built their team around Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, and Draymond Green. They were eliminated in the second round this year after winning the title last year.
LA Lakers built their team around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. They were swept in the conference finals this year after missing the playoffs last year, lost in the first round in 2021, and won the championship in 2020.
Denver built their roster the really old-fashioned way, drafting most of their players and going all in on a center and a point guard with Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. The pair have led their team to the conference finals twice, and this year they made their first NBA Finals in franchise history. If the Heat manage to advance, it would be fascinating to see Nikola Jokic of Denver playing against Nikola Jovic of Miami.
Boston and Miami have followed the Golden State approach, drafting a young star and drafting some outstanding players to play alongside them while building the roster out with veterans. It has worked as both teams are playing for a chance at getting back to the Finals after being the Finals runner-up in recent seasons.
So what can Portland take from this? The first lesson should be that no one player fixes the problem. If the #3 pick is going to save the franchise, that plan will fail before it gets a chance to prove it. The Lakers were unique in having two former number-one overall picks, but the rest of the team was mostly built out of players used to make the salary cap work. This wasn’t a super team; they were just the best team money could buy after paying their superstars.
Portland has had plenty of experience in recent history watching top-heavy rosters with limited depth go into the postseason and have to deal with the challenges of their starters being exhausted and their role players not being good enough to keep up with the other team’s second unit players. It’s possible that bringing in another star will complete the circle, but it’s just as likely that the player isn’t able to catapult the team into the Finals one or two years after missing the playoffs entirely.
Even if the roster is the real deal, the other challenge is coaching. How many teams fired coaches in the last few weeks that would likely be an upgrade over Portland’s current coach? And could any of those guys have better luck combining Lillard with a new roster and sending them to the Finals in one or two seasons? It’s a tough challenge, and only two teams pull it off each season. It’s not very likely Portland will be absent from the Finals much longer, but it’s already been 31 years. Their Finals drought is precisely the same age as Lillard.
Say you get the right players put together and the right coach leading them. You still need to get through the other teams just to get to the top. Sure, there are more bad teams than good right now, but the elite teams are really good, so you can’t just add a piece or two and expect to get there.
In 1998 San Antonio had head coach Gregg Popovic, center David Robinson, and rookie forward Tim Duncan. They lost in the second round of the playoffs after finishing in 5th place in the West. Even getting an all-time player with your first draft pick doesn’t mean you’re winning it all in a year. Now the Spurs did win their first title the following season and won a few more along the way, but that’s not a given.
Shaq and Kobe first teamed up in LA in 1996 and waited four years to get a title, and part of that was they didn’t have Phil Jackson as their coach until 1999. LeBron went to Miami to team up with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, and they did get to the Finals in their first season together but did not win their first title until the following year.
There are times when the first year is the best. Oscar Robertson played in the NBA for a decade before he got to play with Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and they won a championship together in their first season as a duo in Milwaukee. Paul Pierce was fading away in Boston before Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen arrived, and the three of them led the Celtics to their first title in decades. Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green were already with Golden State in 2014 but
couldn’t get past San Antonio. Steve Kerr was hired as head coach the following year and turned their collective destinies around in one season.
So what can Portland take from this? That it is just as much skill as it is the right team at the right time. So much can go wrong, and so much has to go right. It’s a minor miracle that any team ever makes it to the boss level of the playoffs and wins. Your best players need to stay healthy, you have to be better than the best players on the planet, and you have to have a roster built for efficiency in the face of adversity. It’s a tough draw, and most teams can’t pull it off. There are still teams in the league that have never made it to the Finals, let alone won it all.
It will take more than a new player to get Portland there, and when it does finally happen, it will be amazing. It might not be next season. It might not even be the season after. It might not be with Lillard on the roster. It’s a big deal for a team to get to the Finals, and Portland has a lot of work to get the roster put together correctly and ensure they have the right coach working with that roster. And even then, they will need a lot of luck to go their way.