Monday night, the Golden State Warriors finished their sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals. Even without Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins, and Andre Iguodala (the last game and a half), the Warriors were as inevitable as they have been the past half-decade. The Blazers had double-digit leads in each of the last three games, and actually led for over half the minutes in the series. It didn’t matter. The Warriors never appeared out of control or flustered, and there was never a real sense they were going to lose any of the games. For the Blazers, it was a disappointing end to a magical season of overachievement.
This is the sixth year in a row the Blazers have made the playoffs, all with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum on the team, but the first time they’ve made it past the second round. The last two seasons, they got swept in the 1st round, with their 2018 defeat at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans being particularly dispiriting. It seemed like big changes would have to be made, either to the organization or to the roster, but the Blazers held their ground, and the result was their first Conference Finals appearance in over 20 years. They never got down, whether they were losing in a game or trailing in a series, and that fight served them well in beating teams who were favored over them in the playoffs (Thunder, Nuggets). It just wasn’t enough against the redoubtable Warriors.
However, the Blazers need to be careful not to take the wrong impressions away from this season. Making the Conference Finals and playing some close games against the Warriors could give the idea they’re just a piece away from being a true contender, especially with a healthy Jusuf Nurkic. That could be the case. It could also be wishful thinking. The Blazers went 53-29 this year, a very nice record. They had a Net Rating of 4.1, good for 7th in the NBA and 4th best in the Western Conference. They were talented, deep, and had star power on top. But they weren’t a great team, and they faced the easiest possible path to the Western Conference Finals.
In the first round, the Blazers got to play the Oklahoma City Thunder, the 6th seed, but probably the weakest team in the West going into the playoffs. Paul George was injured, Russell Westbrook was throwing bricks, and their depth was non-existent. They hadn’t played well in months, and were lambs for the slaughter. In the next round, the Blazers squared off against the Nuggets, another very good team that wasn’t quite great. Nikola Jokic played like a superstar, but his supporting cast was inconsistent to say the least. Even with the Nuggets’ up-and-down play, it took the Blazers seven games and the best performance of CJ McCollum’s career to defeat them and move to the West Finals. In many years, these Nuggets might have lost in the first round themselves. Most years, the path to the West Finals is much tougher than the one the Blazers had to face.
Absolutely none of that is to discredit the Blazers. They still had to win those games, and those series, and did so without Nurkic, who was their second-best player in the regular season. Their resilience and toughness were unreal, as was their homecourt advantage in Portland, and that’s saying nothing of the shot-making that Damian Lillard and McCollum provided. The Blazers and their fans should celebrate this season and remember it extremely fondly. But that doesn’t mean it was necessarily a breakthrough, or that they’re guaranteed to make the Western Finals again.
The team they beat in the second round, the Denver Nuggets, is facing a similar dilemma. This was the first playoff appearance of the current group, and most of the key players on the roster are young and will most likely improve in the years to come. But nothing is certain in the NBA. The Blazers had an easy road to the WCF, but so did the Nuggets, who gamed the seeding so that they’d avoid the Rockets and Warriors until the Finals. They took out an overachieving Spurs’ team, and then lost to the Blazers, who were, again, without their second-best player. Opportunities like that might never come around again, even if the Nuggets are young and the future seems like it’s right before them.
To some extent, the conversation around the Nuggets-Blazers series seems moot: neither team was going to beat the Warriors in a seven-game series. As it turns out, the Blazers didn’t even win a game, and the Nuggets very well might not have won one either. So why does it matter that the Blazers won that series and the Nuggets lost? It matters because making a Conference Finals is a big deal. Look at the Lob City Clippers and how they’re remembered and mocked for not making it to the West Finals. Or, to a lesser extent, the Wizards of the Wall-Beal era, which are now a laughingstock, but which made the second round three times in four years, only to fall short each time. It’s hard to make the Conference Finals, and it means something. This Blazers team will be remembered forever, sweep or not, because of their push to the Western Finals and the games they won along the way. Those memories are vital for players, franchises, and fans alike, championship or no.
There’s an interesting paradox. The Blazers’ season (and Nuggets’ season, too) need to be celebrated. They were both unequivocal successes. That doesn’t mean either team should sit on their laurels or expect similar success in seasons to come. The Warriors aren’t going anywhere, even if Durant leaves. The Rockets might be declining, but teams like the Mavericks and Kings are rising, and the Clippers and Lakers are both lurking threats to get superstar free agents this summer. The West is not getting any easier, and teams who want to succeed have to make moves, including the Blazers.
The Blazers have big decisions to make. Five players who got significant rotation minutes in the course of the season are free agents this summer. Which of them should be retained? How high a price should the Blazers go for guys like Al Farouq-Aminu and Rodney Hood? More importantly, is this core, as is, good enough to make another Western Conference Finals run? It was this year, yet, as discussed above, it might not be in years to come. Damian Lillard is the one constant, the rock of the franchise, but neither McCollum nor Nurkic should be off the table in trade talks. The Blazers are still at least one step away from greatness, and they need to make whatever move they can to get there. Running things back too much can lead to a sense of staleness and inevitability (once again, ask Lob City and those Wizards teams), and the Blazers need to avoid that at all costs.
Damian Lillard is squarely in the middle of his prime. He has a couple years left of top-tier, All-NBA level greatness left, and then the decline will almost inevitably start. The Blazers need to build the best team around him that they possibly can, and that might mean the dissolution of what was a great story and really fun team. Treasure this 2019 squad while you can, because things could look a lot different in just a few months.