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The Blazers Have Lost Their Identity

The Blazers were the young up-and-comers last year, but that momentum has faded. Where are they now?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been thinking a lot about LaMarcus Aldridge. Mostly because no one ever talks about him, including me. He was far and away the best player in Portland for years and I think I wrote one Aldridge-centered article. He left in heartbreaking fashion, devastating Portland’s roster. The worst thing that can happen to a franchise (besides losing the team altogether - RIP Seattle) is its best player leaving for nothing.

And now, no one talks about him again.

The team’s struggles are, in many ways, a direct result of his departure. Franchises are not supposed to simply bounce back from those types of changes. Olshey did well to get undervalued players in the summer of 2015 but they were all fairly one-dimensional. There were reasons so many people believed the team would scrape the bottom of the lottery barrel.

Their surprising success came too quickly. Originally, the arc of the team was viewed as a slow collection of assets that would take a number of painful years. Their hot streak at the end of last season not only propelled them into a relatively high playoff seed, it also gave the team an identity. Surround Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum with long, athletic wings that can switch multiple positions and you can create a workable defense. The offensive talent was there, so this seemed to be the key to unlock the roster.

That run also forced the Blazers’ hand. All those players were up for new contracts and the team’s success was conferred onto the individuals. After a small sample size and several free agent strikeouts, Portland was left to decide between bringing back the crew with a hefty price tag and no flexibility or taking a major step backwards. There was no in between. The only way to get any meaningful flexibility in upcoming seasons would have been to let numerous players walk.

That hot streak has failed to become the new normal. Portland added an additional wing that can switch multiple positions but it hasn’t solidified the defense. If anything, that promising identity from last year has abandoned them, illustrated by coach Terry Stotts’ frequent and necessary experiments with the defensive scheme.

This makes moving forward that much more difficult. Fundamental questions are now up in the air. Should Portland play a conservative defensive scheme? This is clearly Stotts’ preference and most of the best defenses use it, but this puts pressure on the guards to get over screens. Most teams don’t have two liabilities playing a combined 70 minutes a night.

Should the team remain committed to small ball? The statements about Al-farouq Aminu’s importance this offseason clearly show this was an intentional choice. Small ball is typically a tradeoff between rebounding and defense vs. shooting and playmaking. Given the team’s struggles this season, can Portland afford to give up anything in the categories of defense and rebounding?

But then again, the league is moving out to the perimeter. As those trends continue, the basic logic surrounding small ball might change. Quickness and the ability to get out to the 3-point line may trump size. Portland’s strong rim protection numbers but terrible overall defense illustrate this point.

Obviously, these questions have a major impact on the construction of the roster. For example, the ideal center or power forward for this team would change drastically depending on the defensive scheme. Portland could trade wing depth for a frontcourt upgrade but not if they’re committed to small ball.

All of this uncertainty suggests a longer time horizon. The Blazers can’t be looking at this specific roster and trying to fit a piece or two within it. They need to be focusing on talent and reworking the roster according to what opportunities present themselves. In other words, they need to throw out that playoff run identity. They’re short talent and need to acquire that before thinking about style of play.

On the other hand, their star player is 26 years old, going on 27. They can’t wait too long. Portland needs to maximize every ounce of talent they have which means taking advantage of Lillard’s and McCollum’s primes. This will be a tough needle to thread. There are no easy answers to these fundamental questions.

Aldridge’s departure left the team with a very narrow window for success. They needed to find undervalued assets, sign a big free agent, and flip a consolidation trade to balance the roster and solidify an identity. Only one of those things happened, forcing the Blazers to commit to an identity without enough evidence. Now it’s back to the drawing board.