You may have noticed as you watch teams not named the Portland Trail Blazers in the conference finals that even superstars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and James Harden struggle to make it to the NBA Finals. Now before you get all defensive, “struggle” doesn’t automatically translate to not playing well. The definition of “struggle” that best applies here is “strive to achieve or attain something in the face of difficulty or resistance.”, and all three superstars are definitely facing resistance.
First of all, would it kill LeBron to wear a headband again? You may not have noticed, but he doesn’t have the same swagger with his father time beard and no head band. Ditch the beard, rock the headband again, and even if you lose, you’ll look dope. It was his iconic look for so many years, why not bring it back and beat up Boston? The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but it would be fun to see.
Currently, James is down 3-2 to a Boston team winning in spite of being down Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Harden drew a somehow even tougher opponent, who is only down reserve forward Andre Iguodala. Heck, even Klay Thompson’s knee isn’t a big enough problem to keep Golden State’s third scoring option from putting up 20. And despite that, Harden’s Rockets have a 3-2 edge over Durant’s Warriors and with fellow star Chris Paul maybe out for game six. Maybe.
And that’s how scary the playoffs are. Houston had the best record in the league, arguably the best offense and overall roster, and still lost by 41 in one of the most important games all season, then narrowly won the next two games, and now are in the fight of their life just to earn a shot at the next series, and they have to at least split the next two games with Golden State to get there. That may sound simple, but in today’s NBA, nothing could be further from the truth.
The series LeBron is dealing with is essentially a replay of the 1989 playoffs with different players. Almost-peak Michael Jordan had his Bulls in the conference finals for the first time in his career, only to be sent home in a six game series. While the roster of the Bulls looked an awful lot on paper like the juggernauts that would shock the world with a three-peat in the next few years, this team probably overachieved getting to the eastern finals only to be shown the door by the most recent 1980’s dynasty, the Detroit Pistons.
Peak or near-peak Jordan never carried a team less talented than the 1989 Bulls that were two wins away from the Finals. Think of all the garbage teams LeBron has tried or succeeded in carrying deep in to the playoffs, and look up those rosters and compare them to the 1989 Bulls. There’s more bull than meets the eye in a lot of those lineups, and that’s the point. Every team thinks if they get a couple of stars they can figure out the rest. The only issue is that you need at least one superstar to get to the playoffs, two if you want to win a series, and you probably need a third player who can be a star to get to and win the Finals.
And that’s where we are at. Super teams are nothing new, for crying out loud, the Wilt Chamberlin-Jerry West-Elgin Baylor Lakers team was bounced in the 1968 Finals. Three hall of famers in their prime wasn’t enough?! No, because they ran in to Boston’s biggest three, and lost in an epic seven game series.
The playoffs are absolutely nuts, savagely unpredictable, and sometimes even giants go home the runner up. That’s how it has been and how it will continue to be. For how historically great LeBron has been this postseason, it probably isn’t enough to get past Boston, and even if it is, can he continue that magic against the winner of the west? Maybe, but the odds are not looking great that he’ll be able to stand after this series. But knowing LeBron, he probably has two more game seven miracles up his sleeve.
And in a long way around, that brings us back to Portland. They don’t have a LeBron or a Durant or a Harden, as much as that stings. They have Lillard, who is amazing, but Lillard is also either unwilling or incapable of carrying a team deep in to the playoffs. The most well-rounded team Portland has had in years was in 2013 when they won their first playoff series in years and then lost in five games to the eventual finals runner up.
Let that sink in – since losing back to back conference finals in 1999-2000, the closest Portland has been to the conference finals is losing a one sided series to the NBA’s second best team in 2013. Fans and GM Neil Olshey can tell themselves all the bedtime stories they want about how good the team is on paper or that they are only a piece or two away, but 2013 was a hell of a roster and they couldn’t finish when it counted. What exactly is this current team supposed to be capable of that their 2013 counterparts couldn’t do?
If how hard LeBron and Harden and Durant are having to work to get there is any indication, Portland needs at least a third star to compliment Lillard and CJ McCollum, or they are just not going to make it. Call me crazy but I have my doubts that Zach Collins or Jusuf Nurkic are going to make a big leap before Lillard is on the wrong side of 30. Something to consider is that LaMarcus Aldridge bolted for San Antonio and the potential to team with Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard to try and win a title. That was four years ago when Aldridge was 28! That’s how fast the league changed and how quickly the Spurs’ seemingly wide open title window slammed shut.
Oklahoma City was one win from the Finals two years ago, going up 3-1 on a 73 win Golden State team. They lost the next two, then lost Durant to the Warriors. The Thunder have since “rebuilt” by adding Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, but it got them even farther from the Finals, as they were one and done in the playoffs this season, not getting any farther than Portland did.
The playoffs are scary crazy nuts, and even “super teams” like OKC don’t get very far. Minnesota was supposed to be the 2nd or 3rd best team on paper with a lineup featuring Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, and Karl Anthony-Towns, but couldn’t survive Houston’s red-hot offense in the first round.
Are you noticing a trend? Portland was savagely sent packing by New Orleans, only for Golden State to embarrass them the following round. No team is safe, no one outside the top four anyway.
What is clear is that Portland is not just a piece away, but a few pieces away. Or a new head coach away, or a new GM away. Or they might be a complete roster overhaul away. Think of the Houston team that Portland beat in 2013. Other than Harden and Trevor Ariza, do you recognize anyone? They don’t have Patrick Beverley, they don’t have Chandler Parsons, and they don’t have Dwight Howard or Omer Asik. Harden and Ariza are the only carry overs, they took a 56 win team that lost to the Warriors in the conference finals in 2015 and blew it up. They added a new coach and dispatched two stars and added another. They rebuilt, reloaded, revamped, retooled, whatever you want to call it.
They did what it took to compete with the best teams in the league. To make an omelet, you have to break some eggs. Some Portland fans may have their hearts broken in the short term if a favorite player or more is sent elsewhere, but if that gets this team closer to contending, then it will absolutely be worth it.
The time has come to break some eggs, and maybe some hearts. It’s time to get competitive. Every team that wants to win eventually gets to the point Portland is at – it’s time to put up or shut up.
When it’s all said and done, maybe it will be Lillard time again. And maybe it won’t be. Whatever the time, whatever the move, if it puts the team in a better chance to compete with elite teams, then it’s for the best.
There was a time for Walton, and then a time for Drexler, and then a time for Rasheed, and then a time for Roy, then a time for Aldridge, and right now it’s Lillard time. But his time won’t last forever, and if the Blazers make good on their promise to be more aggressive, they will either bring more stars to Portland, or they’ll do something crazy and send one or both of their stats packing for a chance to build an even better team.
Whatever happens, they have to break some eggs, or the Blazers and their fans might spend each new offseason with a broken heart.