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 dividing Portland’s season review into three parts, representing the three distinct “eras” through which the Blazers have traveled in the last ten months.
Change in Direction
When we last left our story, the Blazers had terminated President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey and were struggling through a spate of injuries, leading to a less-than-stellar record.
Olshey’s departure was more than symbolic. It took hands off of a steering wheel that had been pointed in the same direction for almost seven years.
After star forward LaMarcus Aldridge departed in free agency in the Summer of 2015, Olshey and the Blazers had build around their high-octane backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. A rotating cast of forwards and bench players surrounded the guards through the years, along with oft-injured center Jusuf Nurkic. Every off-season was a rehearsal of similar themes: We’re getting better...just one or two steps away. We’re not going to give up what we have in order to make wild swings. We need to get more support for Dame and CJ, and get straight defensively. We have a better chance now than ever before. These moves are real difference-makers.
The problem was, they seldom were. Season after season Portland rebuffed suggestions to trade one of their guards, instead spending draft picks and cap space on players to fill the roster and style gaps that the guards left in their wake. By late 2021 the Blazers had no more money to spend, no more picks to trade, and no more excess players to barter in pursuit of their stubborn quest. They had reached the end of the road.
When Olshey departed, his replacement, Interim General Manager Joe Cronin, was left in a dead-end alley, littered with debris. Sporting a record that was soon to drop precipitously below .500, fielding a mismatched, injured team led by a first-year coach, the Blazers could not forecast any claim to a significant playoffs spot. Even had immediate solutions presented themselves, Portland was too impoverished to pursue them.
The most pressing issue, by far, was the impending luxury tax. The Blazers were no stranger to tax penalties; they had paid them for years prior. But this year they’d be penalized for a team that wasn’t even going to make the playoffs. They’d also set themselves up for onerous Repeater Tax penalties the year following if they exited the season still over the tax threshold. The immediate priority wasn’t to save the season, but to limit the scope of its pain.
This mandated a tactic all but unthinkable under Olshey: dumping salary for cap savings and as many future benefits as could be salvaged. It was everything the previous regime eschewed, now the only road forward.
The 2022 NBA trade deadline fell on February 10th. Cronin had until then to make his moves.
Wails of lamentation went up at the first cost-cutting measure. The Blazers sent newly-re-signed wing Norman Powell—a potential 20-point scorer—along with forward Robert Covington—whom the Blazers had burned a first-round pick to acquire—to the Los Angeles Clippers on February 4th. The return was veteran guard Eric Bledsoe (carrying a non-guaranteed contract after the season), inexpensive journeyman forward Justise Winslow, and rookie Keon Johnson. The Blazers also got a future second-round pick, but no firsts. The talent imbalance was huge, but so were the savings.
That move was just an appetizer for one that would come four days later. Without fanfare, the Blazers sent McCollum—a real-life 20-point scorer—along with forward Larry Nance, Jr.—whom the Blazers had burned a first-round pick to acquire—and veteran Tony Snell to the New Orleans Pelicans. The return was veteran forward Josh Hart (carrying a non-guaranteed contract after the season), a collection of inexpensive wings, and a lottery-protected 2022 first-round pick.
You may notice a pattern here: proven, but expensive, players out, young players with favorable contracts in.
A day later, Portland would turn around some of their newly-acquired wings in a three-way deal with the San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz, obtaining Jazz forward—and free-agent to be—Joe Ingles, plus young guard Elijah Hughes and a future second-round pick.
With these deals, the Blazers had ducked safely under the luxury tax threshold, earning income and saving themselves potential penalties both this year and next. They’d also acquired younger players in Hart, Winslow, Johnson, and Hughes. They’d given themselves cap options the summer following and acquired a single, conditional first-rounder, a potential lottery pick.
The value Portland extracted out of their players was situational. They prized savings over talent, future assets over present. They found other teams with inverse priorities, then consummated the deals. They gave away the best player in each of their two big deals, normally the sign of a loss. But if those players were making boatloads of money while not carrying Portland to ultimate success, that could still count as a win. Or so the logic goes.
The Games Go On
Neither logic nor spirit were availing Portland on the floor during this stretch. Lillard came back for a brief run after attempting to out-rest a recurring abdominal injury. His on-floor performance was no better than it had been earlier in the season, which was, by his standards, pretty bad. McCollum was gone. Nance, Jr. had been injured much of the year and he was now gone as well. Powell and Covington were no more.
A series of four wins right before the All-Star Break offered hope that maybe the Blazers could cobble together something resembling a respectable season, but even with those victories, their cumulative record was just 25-34. They’d need to win nine more in a row just to get back to .500.
Spoiler alert... that wasn’t happening.
Up Next: Racing for the Lottery