The Portland Trail Blazers had a volatile, interesting year in 2021. After nearly a decade of stability, the Blazers experienced seismic shifts that redefined the terrain under their feet, changing the outlook heading into 2022 and beyond. On New Year’s Day we’re going to look back at the most significant events defining the franchise over the last 365 days. These are the stories that made their year.
The third biggest story of the Trail Blazers’ 2021 has the potential to become the biggest one, long-term. Since 2012, the franchise has been able to count on two things: Damian Lillard leading the team on the court and Damian Lillard lifting the team off it. Every single time the Blazers have needed anything, for an entire decade, Lillard has been their go-to. 50 points for a victory? Got it. Last-second buzzer-beater? Ask for something harder next time. Bring the team together? Naturally. Give obscure, corner-of-the-country Portland a name among marquee franchises? Have you checked out the latest All-Star highlights, insurance commercials, or movie releases? Lillard has done everything for, and been everything to, the organization.
Except in the Fall of 2021, it hasn’t quite been the same.
It started in the Spring, when the Blazers lost a 2-4, first-round playoffs series to the Denver Nuggets despite Lillard scoring 34.3 ppg, shooting 45% from distance. The franchise superstar logged a 55-point effort in Game 5, a contest the Blazers ultimately lost. Suddenly the national narrative turned from how awesome Lillard was for championing a small-market city to how they didn’t deserve him.
Unrest in the months following provided echo-space for the rumblings. Lillard reportedly pressured the franchise to improve the team, a task to which they had been unequal. They would remain so. Lillard spent July and August squelching rumors of trade demands while advocating for change. The cognitive and emotional distance between those impulses stood in stark contrast to the previous nine years of unconditionally-pledged support. Even if nothing had changed outwardly, the underpinnings appeared different. That’s not good news for a relationship which, up to that point, could have been described as near-perfect.
After the summer of discontent, Lillard started the 2021-22 season with the worst extended slump of his career. As of this writing, he’s averaging 40.4% shooting from the field, 33.0% from the three-point arc. Both would be dramatic career lows if extended for a full season instead of just the opening third. The Blazers are also in the middle of a 13-22 stretch, losing to every team imaginable, healthy or not. Their great performances this season can be counted on one hand. Their awful ones have already strayed to the toes and will soon require an abacus.
Shaky starts to the season are not unusual for the Blazers. Lillard standing at the heart of it, seemingly unable to correct, perhaps becoming a contributing cause (although hardly the worst factor)? That’s a whole new narrative in Portland.
Is it injury? Age? Coaching? The team around him? A quiet, prolonged resignation to fate? Nobody knows exactly. There may not be a singular, simple answer. But until this is resolved, it will continue to haunt the team like that 10-pound holiday weight gain after New Year’s. Maybe it’ll disappear under a flurry of high-efficiency, 40-point games from the resurgent superstar. Maybe this is the new norm, or close to it. Until we know, this will continue to be one of the biggest. oddest stories in a season full of same.