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.
On Tuesday we covered Portland’s summer moves and the hopeful, yet confusing, early part of the season. Yesterday we looked at the tumultuous trade deadline. Today we chronicle the progress of the season through January to its ignoble end a few days ago.
Injuries and Trade Aftermath
The fallout from Portland’s trade-deadline binge was significant. A crater lay where once a full roster had stood, with new players emerging through the rubble, looking for opportunity.
The most significant news of the mid-to-late season was Damian Lillard not returning. The veteran guard—face of the franchise and still its brightest (and only?) hope—continued to recover from abdominal surgery, leaving his availability for the year up in the air. Prevailing wisdom, echoed at times by Lillard himself, was that if the team were pushing for the playoffs, his return might be speedier. If they were competing for lottery position, there was no reason for him to push his recovery. He would end up missing the entire rest of the season.
This wasn’t an isolated case. Even before they were traded, CJ McCollum and Larry Nance, Jr. had missed large swaths of the season with injuries. Now they, Norman Powell, and Robert Covington were gone. Stops, starts, and the trade deadline left Portland’s roster in flux for most of the year. By the end of February, 80% of the opening week starting lineup, plus the first sub off the bench, were missing.
Filling the Gap
Not all was lost. In this open environment, several less-heralded players excelled.
Josh Hart proved his worth almost immediately upon arrival, swimming into Portland’s sets effortlessly. His passing and defense were evident from Day 1. He also brought a surprisingly strong scoring kick and a 37.3% three-point mark.
Jusuf Nurkic stepped up alongside Hart. Promoted from the fourth option in the offense to nearly the first, Nurkic found new verve for the game. His three-point shot never came around, but his scoring, rebounding, and defense swung positively as he became a featured part of the lineup.
But nobody flourished more in the relative vacuum than Anfernee Simons. As soon as instability and injury reared their heads in the backcourt, Simons responded. He scored 20 or more points in 17 games, including a 43-pointer against the Atlanta Hawks on January 3rd. He’d reprise that outing with 38 against the Minnesota Timberwolves on March 5th. Simons averaged 40.5% from the three-point arc, 44.3% overall, for 17.3 points per game on the season. In the process, he made a run at the NBA’s Most Improved Player award and ensured himself a significant raise during his upcoming Restricted Free Agency summer.
But as February swung into March, injuries starting claiming Portland’s secondary stars as well. Nurkic, Hart, and Simons joined Lillard and small forward Nassir Little on the injured list. In fact, significant players from the start of the season or the trade deadline remained upright. Within the space of a couple weeks, Portland’s lineup went from fractured to fully broken. 10-day contract players, emergency signings, and untested rookies found themselves on the jumbotron, announced as starters.
Even now, players excelled. Trendon Watford and Drew Eubanks each proved themselves solid, capable frontcourt additions. Watford had his two-way contract converted to a multi-year deal mid-season. His year would end, as so many others had, with an injury that kept him out of Portland’s final 8 games. Eubanks continued to re-up on the 10-days, becoming Portland’s most important player during the waning months of the campaign.
The Long Slide to Iniquity
Those bright spots were submerged in a tidal wave of futility. The Blazers dropped 20 of 22 games following the All-Star break, setting an NBA record for most losses by 30 points or more in a season. They weren’t just losing, they were earning a PhD in the subject.
At the start of the season, the fate of Portland’s 2022 first-round draft pick was up in the air. They owed it to the Chicago Bulls for the trade that brought them Nance, Jr., but only if the pick fell outside the lottery. By early March, it became clear that the Blazers would be keeping that asset. The only question was, how low would they sink in the standings? Or, conversely, how high of a lottery slot could they earn?
As it turned out, Portland finished with the 6th-worst record in the NBA, comfortably out of the playoffs picture, with a 37% chance of earning a Top 4 pick in the Draft Lottery. Given the course of the season, it was as good of an outcome as could be imagined.
The lottery pick could not disguise the nightmare that the season became, though. The summer prior, it was apparent that the Blazers had to win, and win big, in order to justify their current course. Not only did they not manage that, they did the opposite, tying the fourth-worst record in franchise history. They had not seen a final tally this bad since the dregs of the Jailblazers era seeped into oblivion. Before that, you have to go back to the expansion years of the franchise to find so many losses.
Whatever the plan was, this wasn’t it. The Blazers will want to forget their 2021-22 campaign as quickly as possible. They’ll try to re-sign the players they prized most in the chaotic campaign, develop one or two young players acquired in trades, hope their lottery pick strikes gold, and pray that Damian Lillard returns fully functional next year. If great seasons are, “One for the books,” 2021-22 ended up one for the shredder.