The Portland Trail Blazers just finished a 2021-22 season unlike any other in franchise history. A single year seemed to encompass three as Portland went through a cycle of hopeful signings, organizational unrest, firings, huge trades, and ultimately a race for the 2022 NBA Lottery at the end of a season that had started with Conference Finals hopes.
Sitting down to review the season, I couldn’t help but notice how events only months back by the calendar seemed a century away through personal, emotional perspective. Guessing it’ll be the same for readers, we’re going to divide Portland’s season review into three parts, representing the three distinct “eras” through which the Blazers have traveled in the last ten months.
Today we begin with the first era of the 2021-22 season, picking up with the franchise as they ramped up for a new year.
One Last Gamble
Portland’s off-season started with a whimper. They had no picks in the 2021 NBA Draft, having traded theirs away for Robert Covington and Rodney Hood in previous seasons. They did manage to snag Texas forward Greg Brown III deep in the second round, trading away cash and a future second-rounder to the New Orleans Pelicans for the high-flyer.
But Brown was a project. The Blazers needed far more than that to erase the memory of a crushing first-round playoffs loss to an injured Denver Nuggets squad the April prior.
Their big move came in the form of a late-August trade, sending out forward Derrick Jones, Jr. and lottery-protected 2022 first round-pick to the Chicago Bulls in a three-way swap for Cleveland Cavaliers forward Larry Nance, Jr. Trading picks for forwards had become a summer tradition in Portland (see also: every player mentioned in the paragraphs above). It was time to pull the slot machine handle again. Hopefully it’d work this time.
Nance, Jr. brought the Blazers height, defense, and passing ability, all prized qualities. He had once been tabbed as a possible star, progress impeded by chronic injuries. Portland didn’t need a world-changer. They wanted a solid, active defender who would slot into the rotation alongside their scorers. Nance, Jr. was a poor man’s substitute for Aaron Gordon, whom they had also coveted, but who ultimately ended up with the Nuggets.
Portland’s non-Nance moves were muted, shoring up the status quo than revamping the team.
Their key move was locking in free agent Norman Powell to a long-term contract. That was critical, as Powell’s departure would have left them no cap space or assets to replace him...unacceptable after trading Gary Trent, Jr. the season prior to acquire him.
To Powell, whom they touted as their “big free agent signing”, the Blazers added a host of minimum-contract veterans. Center Cody Zeller—a long-time starter in Charlotte, also hobbled by injuries—was the biggest name on the list. It also included Ben McLemore and Tony Snell.
The Blazers were forced into the minimum-contract strategy by a top-heavy cap ledger. They owed $85.5 million combined to Powell, Damian Lillard, and CJ McCollum. Three-quarters of their cap was going to three players, all of whom played in the backcourt by nature. The roster was pear-shaped, the cap situation even more so.
Because of those huge contracts, Portland would soar above the luxury tax threshold for the third consecutive season, leaving them in danger of incurring the Repeater Tax penalty in future years were the situation not addressed. Under these circumstances, adding even more salary on top was near-unthinkable. So they padded their roster as cheaply as possible, hoping that their top players could carry them.
This illustrates the all-or-nothing gamble the Blazers were engaged in. They had used up every bit of reasonable cap space, all their overhead towards the luxury tax, and almost every conceivable draft pick to build this roster. It was comprised of seven proven players. Aside from those seven, they had nothing left to spend, no more assets to trade.
The Blazers had pared the rotation down to its most consolidated, concentrated essence. There was nowhere to go from here. Either these moves would work, or this was the end of the road.
Turmoil in the Wings
As the summer unfolded, turmoil rose from a couple directions.
Following the April playoffs loss, the Blazers jettisoned long-time Head Coach Terry Stotts. He had led his charges to the postseason for eight straight seasons, a front-office selling point when they wanted to demonstrate how well their plan was working. But first-round exits were becoming less satisfying, and the same front office that had praised Stotts in prior press conferences now laid the blame for the team’s failures squarely on his shoulders. They claimed the roster was viable; the coach hadn’t made enough out of it.
Portland was sure to get better defensively with the additions of Nance, Jr. and Zeller, but they’d also need a defensive-minded coach to ensure rapid progress. The search went on through midsummer before President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey settled on former NBA All-Star Chauncey Billups.
Like many of Olshey’s hires, Billups had a long-term connection with the Portland executive. Their roots ran back to Olshey’s days with the Los Angeles Clippers. Billups did not possess any head coaching experience in the NBA, college, or anywhere. That raised eyebrows. Given Portland’s situation, offering a rookie coach the position was a stretch, let alone with a multi-year guaranteed contract.
When the franchise also failed to address questions regarding Billups’ past—a settlement for sexual assault followed him from his playing days—the atmosphere around his hire curdled.
Further stirring the toxic mix were mutterings from franchise superstar Lillard that the Blazers needed to improve quickly. The semi-implied, “or else” dangling from the edges of that demand left many openly wondering if Lillard was, or would soon become, discontent and demand a trade. Lillard disavowed the impulse on multiple occasions, but this was still a far cry from the eternal, undying loyalty he had expressed in seasons prior. Crafting Lillard trades became a cottage industry among national pundits during the closing weeks of the off-season and throughout most of November.
Summarizing: The Blazers entered the 2021-22 season having made no blockbuster moves, all their chips riding on Larry Nance, Jr., and half their roster making the veteran-minimum salaries. Their top three players occupied the same two backcourt positions. They were integrating a new coach who carried no head coaching experience. The franchise lay under a storm of controversy. They also had no options left except to make this work...not just to their usual, slightly-better-than-average level, but to leap directly into contention for the Western Conference crown.
Portland’s season did not start in promising fashion. They went 10-10 in their first 20 games. Most of their losses came to teams that would later prove playoffs-worthy. Losing to good teams was understandable, but it also made clear that the Blazers were not yet one of them.
A pair of losses to the Sacramento Kings in those opening 20 games added hot sauce to the burrito of mediocrity. The Blazers were not clicking. Despite the promises, additions, and strategies, their defense had not improved significantly...or at all, really. Powell scored just fine, but was overmatched at the small forward position. Nance, Jr. either blended into the background or stuck out in odd ways.
Amidst all this, the unthinkable was happening. Lillard was turning in the first sub-par season of his career. “Sub-par” was a relative term. Through Portland’s first 20 games, Lillard averaged 21.5 points. But that was down more than 7 from his prior-year’s average. He was shooting sub-40% from the field and barely 30% from the three-point arc, headed for drastic career-lows.
Without their leader excelling, the Blazers had no shot at ascending to the upper echelons of the conference. They languished in limbo, circling in muted frustration. Oddly enough, this period of uncertainty would be the high point of their year. The season was about to go south faster than ducks on amphetamines.
It started with Lillard taking an extended break, due to recurring abdominal issues. This helped explained the rough performance, but it also left the rotation listing towards the waterline. McCollum would follow soon after. He would miss 18 games in December and January due to a collapsed lung suffered in a game against the Boston Celtics on December 4th.
Running the Blazers without Lillard and McCollum was like running the Enterprise without Kirk and Spock. No matter how much you liked the supporting characters, this mission was going nowhere.
That’s the situation the Blazers found themselves in when the opening stanza of their season came to a crashing halt. The trigger event wasn’t anything happening on the court, though.
In November, the uncharacteristic turmoil surrounding what had been the most stable franchise in the league finally caught up with lead executive Neil Olshey. For several weeks, Olshey stood under investigation, the result of Blazers employees complaining about a toxic and bullying atmosphere at franchise headquarters. On December 3rd, 2021, the Blazers announced that they were terminating Olshey for violating the team’s code of conduct, the end of his ten-year reign at the top of the organization.
Whatever plans the Blazers might have had went out the window at that moment, along with all of their continuity. The prior April, the Blazers featured three long-tenured officers in their main positions: Olshey as GM, Stotts as Head Coach, and Chris McGowan leading business operations. By early December, all three were gone. (McGowan resigned in November, looking to pursue other options.) A team once stuck in inertia now had an institutional memory that extended no further than lunch.
Executives from within the organization stepped up to fill the roles: long-time staffer Joe Cronin as Interim General Manager, marketing guru Dewayne Hankins as Chief Marketing Officer, Billups remaining as coach. Cronin and Hankins could provide missing continuity in the short run, but their advent also marked a drastic change in direction which would unfold at the turn of the calendar year.
Next Up: Season Review, Part 2... The Trade Deadline Looms