This story begins at the start of the 2015-16 NBA season. The Portland Trail Blazers roster has just been gutted. All-NBA selection LaMarcus Aldridge went to San Antonio in free agency. Wesley Matthew followed Aldridge to Texas to join the Dallas Mavericks following his torn Achilles, and Nicolas Batum cashed out on a max deal with the Charlotte Hornets. Fan-favorite Robin Lopez signed a lucrative one-year deal to link with the rebuilding New York Knicks. Apparently, the current group in Portland had hit their ceiling in the conference semifinals, and it was time for a rebuild. This was apparent to everyone except for the third-year franchise player, Damian Lillard.
Damian Lillard’s stranglehold on playoff berths has been apparent since the conclusion of his rookie season, but has it been a gift or curse for the franchise? The 2015-16 season is the most obvious year to point to where the roster could’ve been reset with a high draft pick. The ragtag starting five essentially consisted of all first-time starters except for the All-Star Lillard. The group overachieved; that statement will be a commonality within this story, placing 5th in the conference. They lucked into a first-round win after Chris Paul broke his hand while the Clippers were up 2-0 in the series.
The 2016-17 off-season brought the addition of Evan Turner, which turned out to be a dud. However, the mid-season trade of Jusuf Nurkić allowed them to salvage the season to make the 8th seed. This group would essentially remain the same for the following two seasons with back-to-back 3rd place Western Conference finishes, peaking with their 2019 Conference appearance where the KD-less Warriors swept them. The 2020 run by Dame was yet another highlight of his refusal to miss the playoffs, pushing them to yet another 8th seed and a first-round exit. The efforts are always admirable but cost the franchise draft lottery capabilities.
The 2017 off-season points to the biggest area of opportunity for the front office to make a cap-friendly roster improvement with the three first picks. Portland owned 15, 20, and 26th in a draft that featured John Collins, Jarrett Allen, and Kyle Kuzma in slotted areas of where they picked. It seems like it’d check the boxes of a versatile big and wings that they’ve been searching for since Batum left in free agency. Instead, they elected to trade two picks for the injury-riddled Zach Collins and keep Caleb Swanigan. Since Lamarcus has left, Dame has yet to play with another All-Star. Apart from the Nurkić trade, we can’t point to a trajectory-changing mid or off-season acquisition.
Since 2016, here are the notable acquisitions by the Blazers: Al-Farouq Aminu, Seth Curry, Evan Turner, Rodney Hood, Hassan Whiteside, Norman Powell, and Robert Covington, and Carmelo Anthony. I think there’s one jersey anyone would want to purchase or pick before round 9 in a fantasy basketball league. So maybe it’s not Dame’s refusal to miss the playoffs or allow the team to tank that’s been hurting the franchise. Maybe he’s been masking the plateauing talent around them. Maybe it’s him raising the floor of expectations to a point where fans and he himself had a false belief of his ability to carry a mediocre supporting cast. Or maybe Neil Olshey is relying on Dame to save him from kicking the can each off-season on major moves to improve the roster. Either way, this ultimately falls at the feet of the front office, not Dame Dolla.