The Portland Trail Blazers haven’t experienced a more manic offseason since the summer and spring of 2014. With controversy surrounding Damian Lillard’s future and rookie head coach Chauncey Billups’ alleged off-court indiscretions, the franchise and fanbase have dealt with more than their regular dose of negative summer speculation.
But this regime hasn’t been immune to uncertainty and rumors. Seven years ago LaMarcus Aldridge entered what would be his final season as a Blazer with fans taking to biting their fingernails after each win and loss as the premier power forward’s pending free agency decision approached.
And while the anticipation of Aldridge’s last nine months in Portland was unique, it did share some similarities with the franchise’s current crossroads.
Back then, the Blazers had just celebrated an upset first round playoff victory thanks to the famous Damian Lillard 0.9 second buzzer beater that dispatched James Harden’s Houston Rockets. They then fell in a gentleman’s sweep against the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs.
But despite the underwhelming Conference Semifinal performance, the Blazers were poised for a big campaign in 2014-15. That season third-year Lillard, Wesley Matthews Jr., Nicolas Batum, Aldridge and Robin Lopez were joined by Arron Afflalo at the trade deadline with the team looking ready to seriously contend.
After Afflalo’s arrival, the Blazers looked unstoppable, for a a grand total of two weeks, before Matthews clutched his left achilles against the Dallas Mavericks on March 5.
The Blazers eventually finished with 51 wins and fourth place — thanks to a now defunct rule demanding each Division winner ceremoniously finish in the top four — but conceded home court advantage to the Memphis Grizzlies who owned the better record. The Grizzlies won in five in a series that, while disappointing, provided CJ McCollum a chance to breakout. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough for Aldridge, who after being courted by the Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers and Spurs, ended up back in Texas.
Who knows what happens if Matthews had stayed on the court, helping the Blazers make noise in the playoffs? Does Aldridge stay? We’ll never know. But clearly we’ve all moved on since then, well mostly.
Fast forward to the present and we have another Portland franchise player contemplating his future in Blazers colors. Yes, Lillard is contracted through 2024-25 and recently professed his love for the city of Portland, but we’ve all witnessed the public frustration the star guard has expressed over the past few months. It’s not out of the question that an unhappy and unsuccessful season compels Lillard to ask President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey for a new home.
Consequently, the question begs, what kind of season keeps Lillard and the Blazers family happy as we look to a new season? But honestly, while we hope for big things, I’m still not convinced this team is better than that Aldridge-led squad seven years ago.
Nothing is ever black and white when we’re talking hope vs reality. There are factors that need to be considered and a few things need to break Portland’s way.
Firstly, just like that 2014-15 team, if a serious injury befalls a player of equal importance to Matthews — let’s say Jusuf Nurkic, CJ McCollum or Norman Powell — my below-stated benchmark is unlikely to be reached, and for good reason.
Secondly, the Blazers have to buy in and execute a game plan implemented by a rookie head coach, dealing with pressure to perform out of the gate. Billups has talked the talk, but until the Blazers execute and achieve on the court, the jury is out. Will he get buy in? Does his strategy stack up?
Thirdly, a group of players I like to call the “hinge group” need to perform. Hinge because the fate of the Blazers’ season rests on their performance. We know what we’ll get from the likes of Lillard, McCollum, Powell and Robert Covington, but what do we see from Nurkic, Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little? They are three men who need to perform to their best in order for this team to exceed all expectations, especially come playoffs.
I’m going to suggest that satisfaction will be attained if this team reaches a Conference Semi Finals Game 6. Portland has made the playoffs every year since 2013-14, but there’s no point in making the playoffs if you’re fodder for the real contenders year in and year out. No one knows this more than Damian Lillard, hence, the more public expressions of emotion this offseason.
To be clear, this means this year’s roster needs to better than every single Blazers team — except the joy that was 2018-19 — since 2000.
No easy feat by any stretch.
This means not only winning a playoff series but not then being swept — or gentlemanly swept — in the second round. It’s contending for another Conference Finals berth with arguably flawed team construction and a rookie head coach in an always competitive west.
This means exceeding every pundit’s expectations, beating one of the other seven talented Western Conference playoffs teams and coming within four quarters of being one of the two best teams on the left side of the US — and Canada, I guess.
While the Lillard trade noise is unlikely to fade, regular-season success will help quiet the incessant questions about his future. But it’s the playoffs where this team’s true resolve is tested because just making the playoffs isn’t good enough and it hasn’t been for a few years now.
Let’s just hope the subpar preseason play is Portland’s way of lulling the opposition into a false sense of security.
Just to be clear, this doesn’t mean that fans can’t enjoy the highs and lows of the regular season and any playoff finish that falls short of the above expectation. I say this because I know some of you might see this as putting too high an expectation, ruining the joy of simply watching this team run out and entertain us 82 times.
But the stakes are a clearly higher this year. The Blazers need to convince Lillard — arguably this franchise’s greatest player — that this team has a chance to seriously contend. And while a 55-plus win season might be enjoyable, it’ll mean nothing if the franchise fails in the first round of the playoffs.
And if Lillard erupts in another losing playoff game, like he did in last postseason’s Game Five, you can pretty much call it quits on Dame Time in the Rose City.
Honestly, that game might have been the turning point in Lillard’s feelings about the rest of the career. It’s now up to the rest of this season’s roster to steer the six-time All-Star back to previous comments he made about being a lifelong Blazer.
If there was ever a season for the Blazers to outperform expectations this is it. With the aging Lakers, injury-stung Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors, and still to be proven Mavericks and Grizzlies, the door is little more ajar than previous years.
Ultimately, the team as currently constructed is the roster the Blazers will run with because, unlike the Milwaukee Bucks who swung for the fences to snag Jrue Holiday, Olshey is downright timid when it comes to making these type of bold moves.
We all want what Damian Lillard wants: a title in Portland. But we need to start seeing results and this season looks set to be the campaign that will dictate whether the Blazers cement themselves as elite or plunge back into mediocrity.