Though the Portland Trail Blazers enter the 2019-20 NBA season fresh off a trip to the Western Conference Finals, expectations for the year are mixed. Partisans claim the team got better by adding center Hassan Whiteside, swingman Kent Bazemore, and veteran Pau Gasol. Most national experts remain cautious, with oddsmakers pegging mid-40’s win totals and pundits forecasting a low- to middling seed in the 2020 NBA Playoffs. That variance provides the soil from which these two Blazer’s Edge Mailbag questions spring.
We made the conference finals this year and we haven’t gotten any worse, right? A year’s experience for Zach and Simons, and Nurk coming back, and Whiteside and Baze, I feel like I should be really happy. I am, but how come I can’t shake this sorta empty feeling? It’s like we accomplished more than we ever have before but we’re still falling short I guess? The Blazers must have reached their goal for last year, right? How come it feels like we’re still not there yet? Is the goal bigger this year too? Maybe that’s it and I’m afraid we won’t make it?
How come after getting to the WCF the Blazers still aren’t getting any respect? Is it geography or ignorance or what? The WCF were the next step in the plan and now the Finals and maybe a title! Does it seem to you like people are trying to minimize or take away that great playoff run and do you think the next step is a ring?
The truth about last year lies somewhere in the middle.
The Blazers did make the Western Conference Finals. Nobody can or should minimize that accomplishment, either in the abstract or relative to their own standards. 2018-19 and 2015-16 were the two (recent) years the Blazers inarguably met and/or exceeded any reasonable goal set before them. Only four teams remained in play as the familiar 2019 NBA Playoffs dwindled into late May; the Blazers were absolutely one of those four. That’s not easy. They really did it. This team played well and they deserve praise.
I do squirm a bit when “Western Conference Finals” gets used out of context as an indicator of success. It’s a significant marker, but it’s neither the NBA Finals nor a championship. Otherwise nondescript teams do manage to reach that level from time to time. We also know that the Blazers got an assist from a favorable bracket draw to get there.
That last point can be overdrawn too, though. Even with Paul George injured, the Oklahoma City Thunder were a tough draw for Portland. The seven-game series with the Denver Nuggets, won in Game 7 on the road, was evenly-matched and incredibly well-played. Portland didn’t blunder into the third round. They did everything they needed to do to take on tough playoff opponents and prevail. Their performance was among the top eight in franchise history.
When I summarize Portland’s playoffs performance last year, I think of vanquishing the Nuggets as the real indicator of success rather than “making the Conference Finals”. That the series win in Denver would have shown the team’s growth and talent even had the matchup come in the first round, and even had the Blazers been ousted by the Golden State Warriors in the second. That victory showed how good the team was relative to an actual opponent far more than the Conference Finals indicated how good the team is compared to all opponents.
Long story short, the 2018-19 season should be remembered as one in which every reasonable goal was met, every box checked off, and everyone played well.
In a homely sense, I suppose making the NBA Finals would be the logical next step. I have a hard time saying the Blazers won’t “succeed” unless they reach that goal this year. Ultimately, championships are the barometer of success. In that sense, one could say the team isn’t fully succeeding unless it’s progressing towards one. It doesn’t sit well with me to look at this team in this coming season and say they’ve failed if they don’t win one. Another credible Conference Finals appearance would be necessary before I’d make that leap.
Once the Genie is out of the bottle, though, you can’t put it back in. It’s no longer accurate to say that just making the playoffs, or even making the second round, is satisfactory.
For me, the sweet spot would be making the third round again, maybe making a slightly better run at that series this time.
This is a subjective question, so let’s throw it open to all our readers. What do you think the barometer for success this year will be, looking at Portland’s recent history, new additions, and expected progress? Weigh in below and keep those Mailbag questions coming to firstname.lastname@example.org!