What The Portland Trail Blazers Can Learn From This Year’s NBA Finals

The Portland Trail Blazers last made it to the NBA Playoffs in 2021. They haven’t made it to an NBA Final since 1992 and only have one ring to their name—their 1977 victory, led by the late Bill Walton. 

With a lackluster history in the NBA Playoffs, the Finals are a distant 30-year memory for Portland. Ending the 2023-24 season last in the Western Conference, the Blazers are currently on a downward trajectory. Portland has some serious off-season work to do for both next year and the future of the team. 

This year’s NBA Finals is a contest between the Boston Celtics and the Dallas Mavericks. In the regular season, the Celtics were ranked first in the Eastern Conference, and the Mavericks were fifth. Dallas is only the second fifth-ranked team to make it to the NBA Finals, following the Miami Heat in the 2019-2020 bubble season. 

So, what makes these two teams so successful? What allowed them to best all of their opponents to become the top two teams in the country? And what are the Blazers doing wrong?

One thing that led these two powerhouses to the NBA Finals is their investment in their star players. The Celtics have always been an NBA powerhouse, with 17 wins in their team history. But Boston’s recent history is so successful because it’s thinking ahead. The Celtics know years in advance which up-and-coming players they want to draft and ensure they get them through draft trades. As a result, Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum have played in tandem for the Celtics since 2017, and Boston has made the playoffs every year since. 

Even if they’re not a basketball fan, people know Jason Tatum. He’s one of the most recognized players currently in the NBA through his brand deals and success with the Celtics. And as of recently, Dallas’ Luka Doncic is no different. 

The Mavericks have jumped around the rankings since gaining Doncic in 2018, but their investment in him and his dedication to them is paying off. Dallas was second-to-last in the Western Conference in his rookie season, yet Doncic won the Rookie of the Year award. Even through one difficult season after another, Doncic stayed with the Mavericks, improving his gameplay every season. This year, though, Dallas bulked up its roster to have another star player beside Doncic — Kyrie Irving. Although a controversial public figure, Irving’s performance on the court speaks for itself. Last year, without Irving, the Mavericks finished 11th in the Western Conference, unable to reach a playoff berth. 

And this year, Dallas made the playoffs, and it’s in the NBA Finals. 

Portland is in an interesting position right now, balancing its new roster and coach while dealing with less-than-ideal draft spots. Despite having high odds of gaining the number one draft pick this year, the Blazers will pick seventh. Having a top-10 draft pick isn’t something to scoff at, but seventh is not ideal for Portland to continue its rebuild. 

Since the Blazers’ 2019 playoff run, Portland has been on a downward trajectory. The loss of C.J. McCollum, Carmelo Anthony,  Jusuf Nurkic, and biggest of all, Damian Lillard, has made the Blazers an easy opponent. 

Portland’s current roster isn’t reliable. Injuries plagued the Blazers all season, and there aren’t many veterans with years of NBA experience — it’s a young roster with a lot of growth to come. 

Its most experienced players come in the form of Jerami Grant and Deandre Ayton, but the pair aren’t “star players” to the caliber of Dallas and Boston. Ayton may have been the first pick in the 2018 draft — over Luka Doncic — but his impact on his roster isn’t near the same magnitude as Doncic. 

Hope came for Portland fans when the Blazers got a seemingly good pickup in third-overall pick Scoot Henderson in the 2023 Draft. But, compared to his counterparts in the draft, Henderson went under the radar. He had a rocky rookie season and was not granted any All-Rookie Team awards. While he could’ve shone brightly on a dull roster, he fell flat alongside his teammates. 

No one expected Portland to be good this season. Head coach Chauncey Billups is still adjusting to the Blazers and attempting to build a young roster. Part of building that young roster was the departure of Lillard and the hope for Henderson or Anfernee Simons to step up. But stepping up in Lillard’s absence is no easy feat, and when even he and Giannis Antetokounmpo headline the Milwaukee Bucks, they can’t succeed in the NBA Playoffs. 

The NBA is becoming more complicated, and more is left to chance. A fifth-seeded team can make the NBA Finals, and a powerhouse duo can’t get past the first round of the Playoffs. 

It takes time and strategic planning to build a strong roster. Recognizing the up-and-coming players and investing in their future is vital to building a successful program. The Celtics knew they wanted Tatum, and they planned so they could get him. The same goes for the Mavericks and Doncic. 

If the Blazers are going to learn anything from this NBA Finals, it’s that every move needs to be intentional. And if they’re not thinking ahead, they’re way behind. 

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