When Damian Lillard was named as a 2018 NBA All-Star reserve for the Western Conference yesterday, it was nearly the only thing that had gone completely, unabashedly right for the Portland Trail Blazers all season long. The 2017-18 campaign hasn’t been a failure, but neither have the Blazers found sustainable success. Their record stands at 25-22, they’ve not won more than three games in a row all year, and despite improving their defense dramatically, they’re still mired in the 7th seed in the Western Conference. The most outlandish of hopes couldn’t place them higher than 5th by season’s end. There’s a non-zero chance they could still end up in 9th, out of the playoffs completely...a disaster for a team living at the luxury tax threshold.
Pre-season dreams of glory aren’t dead, but they’ve retreated into a defensive bunker. Absent a radical upswing, “How high can we get?” will soon be replaced by a more practical consideration: Who’s going to survive this?
Eric Griffith just penned an article on the most “tradeable” Trail Blazers assets, accurate in the normal course of things. When owners and star players are scheduling private meetings, no matter how innocent, we’ve drifted into unknown territory with the potential for fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, rivers and seas boiling, forty years of darkness, earthquakes, volcanoes, the dead rising from the grave, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, and mass hysteria. Even if none of that happens, at least moves that would have seemed incomprehensible last summer now seem plausible.
With that in mind, we’re running down four high-profile Trail Blazers luminaries who would have been considered near-untouchable before the season, but who are now speculated to be in varying stages of flux. What are their odds of surviving the season with the team and returning for training camp, 2018?
Odds of Surviving the Season: One Million Percent
Despite wishful thinking from bloggers and speculation at ESPN, the Blazers will likely remain committed to Lillard for eternity...or at least until the last year of his contract. It’s not just about stellar production. Lillard’s image is recognizable the world over. He’s a calling card, giving the team a distinct flavor. His presence generates attention on social media and television. He lights up marquees and sells tickets. Even if you don’t buy the team leadership angle—and most do—these reasons alone would cement the Blazers to their star. Lillard’s combination of talent and charisma comes along once every two decades, at best. Portland doesn’t have anyone remotely close waiting in the wings.
Paul Allen isn’t holding private meetings with CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, even though they’re pretty good players too. That’s all you need to know about Lillard’s status.
Odds of Surviving the Season: Low
Stotts has done everything humanly possible to push this team ahead. He guided LaMarcus Aldridge-led and Lillard-led teams to the playoffs twice each, salting in two second-round appearances in the process. Instead of losing 60 games in 2015-16 after Aldridge left for the San Antonio Spurs, he marched the team right back to the post-season. He developed one of the most beautiful offenses in the league, then rebuilt it for a new generation. This year he’s even coached the Blazers to the Top-10 defense they’d always said they were missing.
Through all of this, Stotts has become a victim of his own success. Spinning straw into gold is great the first time you do it. After a couple years repeating the trick, you’re expected to spin straw into platinum. When that’s just not possible, they blame the spinner rather than the straw. That’s life in the big leagues.
At no time since he made the playoffs in 2014 have I felt Stotts’ job was in serious jeopardy. His accomplishments were nearly inarguable. By mid-December of this season, that assessment had changed. The Blazers have spent much of the year playing inconsistently, often times looking dispirited. That’s not Stotts’ fault, but once the gold-spinning claim has been uttered, you cannot spin copper and remain at the wheel.
Portland’s issues are fundamental, not systemic. Changing the foundation takes years, is painful, and requires copious amounts self-reflection and honesty. Self-reflection and honesty have been in short supply in Portland in recent years. Firing the coach is easier than finding them. With considerable trepidation I’ll admit that Stotts being let go during the All-Star break would not surprise me. Seeing him return as Portland’s head coach next year would.
Odds of Surviving the Season: High through the draft. After that, who knows?
If you want to identify the gray cloud hanging over the Blazers this season, try this. For the last two years at least, the mantra has been, “Portland is a young, talented team. If they ever develop a good defense, the sky’s the limit.” This year they’ve developed that good defense. So far, it’s looking like the limit still hovers right around .500. This not only plunges their current identity into crisis, it calls into question every claim that’s been made about this roster, the aspirations by which they’ve defined themselves, and the mountain of hopes under which they’ve buried the nagging suspicions that they’re just not constructed well.
Portland’s collection of talent has been oversold and overpaid. They’ve been charging against Olshey’s reputation at ever-increasing interest rates, only occasionally making more than the minimum payment. The bill has come due. Ten home losses, knuckling under to middling conference rivals, a steadily falling margin of victory...these are like creditors knocking at the door. Somebody has to pay.
Twice before the Blazers have fired GM’s prior to the draft. In one case they ended up with Luke Babbitt, Elliot Williams, and Armon Johnson. In the other they took home Nolan Smith and Jon Diebler. No matter what happens at February’s Trade Deadline, letting Olshey go prematurely would be unwise. But even if Paul Allen and Vulcan Inc. were to ignore the franchise’s current dollar-to-win ratio, they cannot be blind to Olshey’s propensity to strike out in free agency, or worse, make contact with foul tips that embed themselves in the organizational skull and refuse to dislodge. Letting Olshey guide the team through another July and August might be too much to bear.
Chances of Surviving the Season: High, but not 100%.
We’ve been talking theoretical trades for McCollum for years, but they’ve been more fancy than fabric. Now the strands are weaving together to make such a move palatable. McCollum is Portland’s only bargaining chip to pry away a roster-altering player in trade. CJ can bend the course of a franchise himself, which is the rub for the Blazers, but so far he hasn’t taken them anywhere significant. They might be able to wait out Lillard’s contract, banking on him remaining with the team no matter what. They dare not do so with both their guards, especially since CJ knows he comes second and has less incentive to stay if the team doesn’t excel between now and 2021.
Any McCollum trade would involve needle-threading. They cannot make a lateral move with their only significant fungible asset. They need an all-star at a non-guard position or a package of young players so startling it makes everyone sit up straighter in their chairs. Neither one of those is likely in any given month. Over time, possibilities will percolate. The Blazers might not actively look to trade McCollum, but they’re not going to hang up on offers either. If and when they make a change in management, efforts may accelerate.
String it all together, and we’re likely seeing the last run for this edition of the Trail Blazers. The Lillard Era is going to continue, but the river will bend differently around the rock. Blazers fans should probably brace themselves, praying that transitions will fall into place quickly and that the stream won’t dry up around the best player they’ve seen in 30 years.
And speaking of Last Days, the deadline for donating Blazer’s Edge Night tickets to kids in need is here. The cut-off is this weekend and we’re still 300 tickets short of our goal. If you’ve been waiting for your moment, this is it! Whether it’s one ticket, two, ten, or a hundred, we need your help now. Here’s the info.