The Blazers just got their hats handed to them in the playoffs once again. If you’re counting, Portland has now lost 10 playoff games in a row. You might be thinking, “But wait, you can’t blame them for getting swept by the Warriors last year.” Well, not in a vacuum, no. But I can blame them for the brutally slow start that forced them to claw their way up to the eighth seed that year.
This team needs changes. We can all see it. We might disagree on what needs to be done - and we’ll have all summer to argue about it - but it’s clear that things aren’t working as they currently stand. Olshey mentioned at the exit interviews press conference that we need to separate the regular season from the playoffs but, unfortunately, that’s not how it works. It’s difficult for fans to reconcile the team’s message that this team is in the third year of a five year rebuild, yet celebrate that they’ve made the playoffs five straight years. Are they rebuilding or are they trying to contend?
Honestly, it might not matter. The Blazers have been flirting with salary-cap hell since the disastrous summer of 2016, and now the bill is coming due. Ed Davis and Jusuf Nurkic need new deals. Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton are free agents. That’s going to put Portland well over the luxury tax and all but eliminate any flexibility for the next two seasons. And that’s just to bring the same guys back to a team that was just overmatched in every conceivable way in the playoffs. Do you think this group is ready to make some noise in the playoffs? I certainly don’t.
Even if Neil Olshey agrees and sees the need to change the roster, I’m not sure he has many options. Meaningful free agents are out of the question; Portland can’t afford them (even if they had interest in suiting up for the Blazers). Olshey has solid history in the draft, but how many immediate difference-makers at positions of need come from the 24th pick? There are rumblings of a coaching change, but I’m not sure what Terry Stotts was supposed to do with this group. Is there talent? Yes, but not enough, and the talent that is there isn’t multidimensional enough.
I resisted the “trade CJ McCollum” cries for more than a year. If you have a hard time bringing stars to Portland, why would you move out one that you already have? This series against the Pelicans showed me why that possibility needs to at least be explored. McCollum isn’t the problem, per se. He’s a talented and versatile scorer, one of my favorite players in the NBA to watch. But this roster needs to balance its positional scoring. It’s clear as day. Al-Farouq Aminu had a career year, and was pretty darn good in the playoffs. New Orleans still just left him wide open and dared him to beat them. He couldn’t do it, and neither could anyone else on the court. We saw it before against the Golden State Warriors, we even saw it against the Clippers before Chris Paul and Blake Griffin went down.
So if this is year three of a rebuild, what is the plan for years four and five? There’s no easy out here if you’re trying to re-balance this roster. With the contracts handed out two summers ago, and the team’s three first round picks used on Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan, the extra-assets cupboard is starting to look bare. If this ends up being a “five-year rebuild”, Portland better hope that Damian Lillard still feels as strongly about being a Blazer lifer in 2020 as he does now, because he’ll be just shy of 30 years and facing free agency the following summer.
I’m rooting for Olshey to pull something off this summer. I would hate to see Damian Lillard’s prime wasted away because some bad contracts meant he couldn’t get any help. If playoff opponents want to trap Lillard into oblivion, they can do it. We’ve seen enough.
Regardless of what was said at the exit-interviews press conference yesterday, I just can’t separate a nice regular season and another playoff beat down. It’s all one body of work for the players, the coaching staff, and Olshey himself. Hopefully everyone gets out of town for a couple weeks, has a nice summer vacation, and clears their heads. Because this summer is going to be talked about in the future; either for its changes, or lack thereof.