We all know the Trail Blazers are struggling right now. We wanted a change in coaching style? We got it. We wanted a change at GM? We got it. We wanted the franchise to admit a problem with the roster construction? Hasn’t happened to my knowledge. We wanted a team competing for the championship? We’ll see what happens in the next few months but let’s just assume that will not occur this season.
And while we’re waiting for the team to get back to the NBA Finals before 40 years lapses (if they make it this year, it will be 30 years between Finals appearances), let’s not forget to celebrate who and what they are, rather than slamming them for what they are not.
The 1990s Trail Blazers teams are often thought of as one of the best dynasties never to win a championship. They were in the NBA Finals in 1990, in the Western Conference Finals in 1991, and in the NBA Finals in 1992. They didn’t make it out of the first round the next two years, and an aging Clyde Drexler was traded to Houston in 1995. And that was the end of that era. 1985 and 1990-1992 were the only seasons the Blazers made it past the first round of the playoffs with Drexler on the team.
There’s no question that the 1992 Finals team is one of the greatest rosters of all time; they simply had the bad luck of playing against the Chicago Bulls during Michael Jordan’s prime. After that loss, the team struggled to stay healthy, and by 1996 they were rebuilding. At the same time, Jordan was working on his fourth, fifth, and sixth titles. Portland would not make it back to the conference finals until 1999, a year after the Bulls dynasty was broken up and failed to make the playoffs.
The current version of the Trail Blazers are under constant pressure from fans and pundits to get the team back to the Finals, and everyone seems to have their opinion on how it should be done. Something that might be overlooked in the process of those demands is that the current team is nearly as successful in regular season play when compared to Blazers teams in the years following their last NBA Finals appearance.
Damian Lillard has never played in the NBA Finals and has only appeared in one conference finals, but the Trail Blazers have made it past the first round of the playoffs three times (2014, 2016, 2019), just one fewer than Drexler’s teams. While the team has had its share of struggles this season, they are just eight games away from a winning record. What’s interesting is those same eight games are what separates them in winning percentage compared to the 1992-1995 Trail Blazers.
From 1992-1995, Portland won 199 out of 348 games for a winning percentage of .571. From 2019-2022 (through their loss to Dallas on Wednesday night), they have won 150 out of 276 games for a winning percentage of .543. Eight losses separate their ultimate difference in success.
We can’t compare players to players since Damian Lillard will never be Clyde Drexler. The Glide is 6’7” in ways Lillard can only dream of, but Lillard’s shooting range on the court is rivaled by just one player in the history of the league. CJ McCollum is one of the best pure shooters in the league today, but his other contributions are limited, so he can’t be a Terry Porter. No one will confuse Robert Covington and Buck Williams, no matter how many different face masks or pairs of goggles you have them try on. Norm Powell and Jerome Kersey might one day share neighboring packs of fans at the Moda Center, but they are not the same player regardless of their similar playing styles. You could argue that Jusuf Nurkic and Kevin Duckworth are the same person, and you know what, I would probably just agree with you. Jusuf Duckworkic sounds pretty great.
When Portland peaked in their 1992 season, the average age of their starters was 28 years old. When they broke up the band during the 1995 season, the average age was 27 years old (they got younger by trading Duckworth and moving Cliff Robinson to center). When the current version of Portland peaked in 2019, the average age of their starters was 26 years old. Today, the average age of their starters is 29 years old. This team isn’t getting younger, and they appear to have missed their shot as the losses start to mount, and they have to look at rebuilding around a new star. It’s been exactly ten years since Damian Lillard arrived in Portland, so they are on track for their next star to be unveiled. That doesn’t mean Lillard’s time in Portland is over, although that is likely getting closer to being true.
Going back to the days of Walton, the average time between when a star player first plays for Portland and when their heir plays for this team is 9.5 years. If you take Lillard’s draft year of 2012 and add 9.5, you get the midseason of 2021, when Norm Powell arrived. How’s that for some cosmic math?
For those of you crying foul, take a look. Bill Walton got here in 1974, nine years later, Clyde Drexler was drafted in 1983. 13 years later, they traded for Rasheed Wallace in 1996. In 2006 the team drafted Brandon Roy. Six years later, they drafted Lillard. In 2021 just before midseason Portland traded for Powell nine and half years after drafting Lillard. If you add up 9, 13, 10, and 6 you get 38, divide that by 4, and you get the average time lapsed between star players is 9.5 years.
The shortest span between stars is Roy/Aldridge to Lillard at six years, the longest being Drexler to Wallace at 13 years. If the team has to wait thirteen years for Lillard’s successor, they will get here in 2025. But if the average of 9 years stands true, then that player is already here. And there is no reason not to like Norm, especially after he signed a five-year deal this summer to stay in Portland through the 2026 season. So even if Norm isn’t the next big thing in Portland, he’ll be here when that person shows up in 2025.
You may have noticed that Portland is not especially healthy this season, which definitely contributes to their struggles. Lillard is out indefinitely, CJ just got back from a collapsed lung, Duckworkic is perpetually about to get hurt, Nassir Little is out with a shoulder injury, Zach Collins doesn’t play here anymore. However, we still have to list him amongst the injuries, and it’s just a matter of time until someone else gets banged up. It’s just science.
The 92-95 Blazers had their own slew of injury woes; their starters missed an average of 42 games per season during that stretch. They barely missed any time in their last Finals season, just 13 total games. In the three that followed it, they were a figurative trainwreck from the trainer’s perspective, someone was always getting hurt. By comparison, Portland’s starters have missed an average of 63 games over the last four seasons, a pretty big jump. Much of that can be attributed to Duckworkic and CJ missing large chunks at a time, and Lillard’s absence this year is not going unnoticed. One major difference is that the 92-95 teams never won fewer than 44 games in one season, whereas the current lineup has done so twice in the last two seasons and might be headed for a third.
If this is the end of the road for the current Trail Blazers, it wouldn’t be a shock to most who have been watching closely the last few years. This team has regularly limped into the playoffs with high expectations and been forced to try and pretend they have the same amount of talent as their opponents that typically have a more well-rounded roster. If this is just the eye of the storm, then if this team can somehow survive this season and go into the summer with a hunger to prove themselves (and pick up a free agent or two that actually helps the team out in the playoffs), then who knows where they will go next year.
No one looked at the opening day roster and said, “That’s a championship lineup,” so we know there’s work to do. First-year head coach Chauncey Billups has not won over the fanbase with his system, and the interim (probably soon to be full-time) GM has not made the big deal(s) this team appears to need.
And yet the players, they grind on, giving it their best every night. We might be expecting too much for this team to be as good as some of the greatest rosters in Blazers history, but you won’t hear that from the players. They want to prove how good they are to us every day, and we love them for it. We can’t help hoping they get back to the top of the NBA mountain again someday, but that doesn’t mean we don’t love the team.
We’ve had countless opportunities to jump on the bandwagon of another team climbing the rankings. But we’ve stuck it out, and we will continue to be here rooting for them.
Win or lose, these are the Trail Blazers. We are Portland, and this is our team.