The Trail Blazers spent the entirety of this year, regular season and playoffs alike, defying the world's expectations for them and insisting that no matter what, there was no ceiling to what they could accomplish with their teamwork and competitive spirit. This only makes it more cruelly ironic that in the end, their miracle run was met with - thwack! - a ceiling.
All year long, the moral of the Blazers' story appeared to be "anything is possible." Then, in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs, we all collectively realized that wording was a little off. Really, the moral was "anything is possible, except outlasting the best team in NBA history in a seven-game playoff series."
Sadly - and I mean sadly not just for Portland, but for all 29 NBA teams that reside outside of Oakland, California - this is what the Warriors do. They destroy hopes and dreams. They shatter mythologies and deflate egos. They end seasons; they threaten to derail entire eras of teams' histories. It would be narrow-minded and selfish for any Blazers fan to believe this only affects them. The dominant force that is Golden State is not a Portland problem; it's an everyone problem.
Look around the league, and it's not hard to find evidence that the Warriors have the rest of the league demoralized. For example, ask yourself - why do you think the Cavaliers fired coach David Blatt back in January? It can't be because they were dissatisfied with Blatt's results. They were 30-11 at the time, riding high atop the Eastern Conference. No, they fired Blatt because tension was mounting within the organization that no matter what the wins and losses said, they weren't title material yet. That's the Warriors effect.
Look at OKC. Why do you think it's been so tough for us simply to sit back and enjoy the Thunder's largely successful season? They won 55 games during the regular season and are now headed for their fourth Western Conference finals of the Kevin Durant era. The problem, of course, is that reaching the conference finals doesn't mean a thing if you can't go all the way, and there's panic in Oklahoma that Durant might leave this summer to play for a team that's even better. Like, you know, the Warriors.
The examples go on. There have been rumblings about the Clippers blowing up their formidable three-man nucleus of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, even though all three are basically in their primes. There's gloom and doom in Memphis. The Rockets haven't been the same since Golden State dismantled them in the West finals a year ago. I'd argue that all of the above have felt the pull of the Warriors' gravity. It's tough to go on competing when you're up against a mighty force you can't control.
I wrote about the phenomenon of Warriors defeatism back in March, when the Dubs were still sitting on 60-something wins and chasing the Bulls' record. You could already feel it then - the entire NBA was ceding defeat (or at least many of the media members and fans on the periphery were). It was starting to make the league less fun. It's enjoyable to follow the NBA when there's one dominant team and everyone else is gunning for them; it's not so enjoyable when the elite squad is so much better that no one else has the heart to compete.
My advice to everyone, back in March, was not to sweat the Warriors-induced panic. First of all, there's more to basketball than just pursuing championships - there's nothing wrong with fielding a competitive team, fighting to win 50-plus games and surviving as far as possible into May and possibly June. There's virtue in that, even when you come up short of the ultimate goal. And besides, why blow it up? Is any blowup really likely to pay off? Every time you take a step back in the hope of taking two steps forward, you're taking a massive risk.
Warriors panic is the product of a "championship or bust" mentality that's infected everyone in and around the league, from players and coaches to owners and GMs to writers and fans. We all suffer from it, to some extent. My response: Fight it. Appreciate basketball in all its beauty, even if one nagging part of you says not to. Don't let the Warriors drag you down.
This is a general NBA thought, mind you. But when you look especially at the Blazers' situation, it only becomes more pertinent. If there's anyone in the NBA right now who should be looking excitedly to the future, it's Portland. The Blazers are a young, hungry team that's trending in the right direction - and if this past season is any indication, they're moving that way much faster than expected.
I harp on this incessantly, but it bears repeating one last time: Vegas said the Blazers would win 27.5 games this season. Instead they won 44, plus another five in the playoffs, laughing in the bookmakers' faces all the way there. No one understands quite like the Blazers that expectations were made to be surpassed. We might assume now that no one can ever usurp Golden State, but we can spend the next five years wondering if maybe, just maybe, that assumption is wrong.
We've seen how much the Blazers have improved in this year alone. Damian Lillard went from LaMarcus Aldridge's sidekick a year ago to eighth place in the MVP voting. CJ McCollum went from averaging 6.8 points per game as a bench guy last season to 20.8 this year. Al-Farouq Aminu proved to be an elite wing defender and surprisingly competent 3-point shooter. Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis and Allen Crabbe all served as capable role players, with each registering the best years of their young careers.
The list goes on. Up and down the roster, there are success stories - and there's reason to believe this collection of talent will get even better with more development and continuity together. The Blazers are in the perfect position to come back next year even better. There's no reason for the Warriors, or anyone else, to destroy that sense of optimism.
Obviously, the Warriors have even more reason to be optimistic. It's hard to believe this about a team that's already won one ring and appears bound for a second, but the Warriors are still so young and so well set up for long-term success. Stephen Curry is still only 28 years old. Klay Thompson is 26. Draymond Green just turned 26; Harrison Barnes is still two weeks away from turning 24. They're cost-controlled, too. Curry is under contract for $12 million next season and it would be a shock if he didn't return on a long-term extension. Thompson is signed through 2019 and Green, through 2020, both on contracts that are expensive now but about to come bargains as the cap goes up and the value of a dollar plummets.
The Warriors aren't just heavy title favorites now; they've got all the pieces in place to be a dynastic presence atop the NBA for the rest of this decade. Still, though, the reality is we don't know what the future will hold. A lot can change in sports, and fast. Remember - the Warriors stumbled into this all-time great team by accident. Then-starting power forward David Lee was sidelined by a minor hamstring injury for a few weeks in late 2014, forcing Steve Kerr to go to his bench and hand a heavy workload over to an untested youngster named Draymond; the rest is history. As quickly as the Warriors arrived at their destiny as The Best Thing Ever On Hardwood, it could all be taken away.
Injuries can happen. The excitement of Curry's first four seasons was sullied by nagging concerns about his ankles; if they were ever to give out again, suddenly everything would change. Personnel can change. Barnes is a free agent this summer, and there's buzz that he might command a max contract - what if he ends up somewhere else? Chemistry problems can seep into the mix. What if the Warriors keep Barnes, and resentment simmers over him being the highest-paid Warrior?
Or, quite simply, guys can age and lose their fastball, and we may realize that certain key players - guys like Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut - were more important than we initially thought. Think about the Miami Heat circa 2013-14 and consider how we used to perceive Dwyane Wade. One minute, he was part of the most dominant team going; the next, Miami was getting shanked by the Spurs in five games and LeBron James was skipping town on his too-old partner in crime. Life comes at you fast.
The bottom line is we don't even know what will happen a year from now, much less three or five or more. We all like to pretend we do, but we're just guessing, and sports would be no fun at all if we were never wrong. Luckily, we're wrong all the time.
The positive thing for Portland is we also don't know what the future holds here. For starters, we could see even more improvement from Lillard and McCollum and Aminu and everyone else, but beyond that: There's never been a better time for the Blazers to aggressively hit the free agent market and chase another premium piece.
Last summer, the Blazers were a rebuilding project that no sane player in their right mind was touching with a 10-foot pole. Now, though, circumstances have changed. Consider what Kevin Arnovitz wrote about the Blazers this week for ESPN:
A growing number of free agents are bypassing teams such as the Lakers and Knicks to join teams in less glamorous but more hospitable markets where they have a more appealing supporting cast and a superior work environment. Aldridge might be the case study when he decided it was time to leave Portland last year. He canceled a meeting with New York and consigned the Lakers to his second tier, as he ultimately chose San Antonio, where there's no such thing as a marketing campaign based around an individual player. Ironically, it was Aldridge's departure that has enabled the Trail Blazers to begin building their strongest selling point in any July free-agent meeting: Damian Lillard is the guy you want to play with.
It's all true. This is a new era in the NBA - one in which yes, Portland is still a small media market that lacks the glamour of a New York or an L.A., but it can be a destination nonetheless because players' priorities have shifted. Hollywood glitz matters less than a substantive roster with talent peaking at the right times. For everything the Warriors have going for them, Portland has plenty as well. McCollum is 24 years old; Lillard and Aminu are 25. Davis is a relative senior citizen at 26. They're all under contractual control for a long, long time. Add another impact player to that mix and the Blazers could really get somewhere. (We've got all summer to debate who those players might be, so there's no need to dive in immediately, but let's just say you already know where I stand if you've been following my not-so-subtle Twitter campaign.)
For now, the Blazers are done and we're all stuck watching the final two rounds of the NBA playoffs from home, without a dog in the fight. The Warriors will advance to take on OKC, the Cavaliers will meet whomever survives that God-forsaken Toronto/Miami series and the Blazers will gear up for next year. In all likelihood, the NBA season will end a month from now with Golden State winning another title and building its case to be the NBA's next great dynasty.
That's OK. Watch the dynasty happen. Admire it; respect it. Maybe even learn a thing or two from it. Just don't let it demoralize you, Portland - life's too short, and the future here is too bright.