The 2023 NBA Playoffs are well underway, with first-round series either determined or winding down. With the Portland Trail Blazers out of the postseason before it began, fans are watching series around the league with a mix of interest and envy. Two of those—Knicks vs. Cavaliers and Heat vs. Bucks—have spawned questions in the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
It’s hard to watch Josh Hart celebrate while help the Knicks as one of the best teammates ever in the whole association. It’s hard to hear us talk about needing veteran defenders and good teammates. It’s harder than anything when you realize that we literally had Josh and traded him to the Knicks in the first place. And they’re advancing and we’re vacationing. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to just keep him? Yes he didn’t play as well when he was with us but this was right there all the time. Who didn’t see it? Are we cursed?
I hear you. It’s hard to watch Hart play a pivotal role as the Knicks ousted the higher-seeded Cavaliers from the playoffs and not have a twinge of jealousy.
As to why he didn’t play that way when he was here: hit did, mostly. His three-point shot wasn’t comparable, but he was hustling around the floor, grabbing rebounds and defending anyone the opponent put in front of him. The Blazers didn’t have the same kind of corporate defensive unity that the Knicks have, nor did they have the size. Those factors conspired to make Hart’s contributions less effective.
The story was similar on offense. He was the fifth option among the starters. He’s not a catch-and-shoot offensive player. He needs a couple dribbles and some rhythm to get in the groove. In a lineup with Lillard, Simons, Grant, and Nurkic, that was seldom going to happen. In New York, he can get closer to the third position, especially if Julius Randle is out or ineffective. Being able to play more freely helps.
The Blazers knew these things, though, just as they knew his talent and drive. Ultimately, they probably would have kept him and tried to work him in better, but his contract dictated otherwise. They understood that he wouldn’t pick up his option at the end of the season. They were already planning to pay Jerami Grant. They couldn’t absorb another significant contract while remaining financially responsible unless this team proved they could contend with this exact rotation. They weren’t even close, so Portland let him go. The alternative would have been still not making the playoffs, then ending the season with no Hart, no replacement players, and no first-round pick that they acquired in that trade. It’s not an ideal situation, but they did what they could under the circumstances.
That assertion reveals the bigger issue with the Blazers right now, one they still haven’t overcome. All their higher-talent players come with asterisks, mostly contractual. They were able to get Grant and Hart because their deals were expiring and their former teams knew they wouldn’t be re-upping (or at least not cheaply). Portland inherited the starters, but also the issues.
The Blazers have been playing that game for the better part of a decade. They’re slightly more on top of it now than they were a couple years ago, but they still give the impression of a guy running on a treadmill that’s set a bit too high. They’re always on the edge of slipping off, having to grab handrails and make compromises to steady themselves. Trading Hart even though they knew his potential was one of those grabs. It helped them along even though it wasn’t the best move overall.
We mentioned this on the podcast last week. We’ll know the Blazers have made it when that dichotomy disappears...when the smartest move and the move they’re actually compelled to make are the exact same thing. Until then, they’ll be playing catch-up: signing forwards they’re not completely sure they can use long-term, re-signing centers to preserve their salary slots, contemplating trading future stars for immediate—but also shorter-term—benefit.
If there’s such a thing as rhythm, this franchise doesn’t have it, at least not instinctively. For too many years now they’ve been a couple years early or a couple years late in nearly everything, pelted with unfortunate injuries at the wrong times besides. However they end up solving that, they need to address it. They either need to get better at running or reset that treadmill to a more manageable speed and incline.
The end of that Milwaukee/Miami series was crazy! I can’t believe the Budenholzer blunders in the series. It was worse at the end! Have you ever seen such a badly coached elimination game? No adjustments at all. Just horrible.
I don’t disagree with that entirely, nor with the examples you listed in your email [omitted here for length]. The inbounds play that Jimmy Butler scored on was the worst example to me. The Bucks had Giannis Antetokounmpo guarding the inbounds pass like a random 7-footer, leaving smaller players on Jimmy Butler in the lane. Granted, the Heat could have gone for the win with a three, meaning mobility on defense mattered. But Giannis is mobile enough to cover inside and out. You lose all that when you plant him on the sideline against a stationary passer. They could have put another Wall Obstacle player in that position and sent Giannis into the lane. Or they could have omitted the sideline defender entirely, putting Giannis and a smaller player on Butler, leaving everyone else single-covered. The way it turned out was just a disaster. And it cascaded from there.
As far as Budenholzer, I chalk up half of it to everyone having a bad day. Sometimes it falls apart and you just can’t fix it. We’ve all had that happen. He did too. He’s paying for it now.
I think part of the lack of adjustment is also cultural, though. Budenholzer was already set in his ways when he came to Milwaukee. Winning a title (and accumulating all those victories besides) contributed to the impulse. When you’re the best, or close to it, you don’t change for others. You make other people change for you. Giannis and Jrue Holiday are bulldozers. You throw the lever and plow forward instead of getting fancy.
To be fair, that approach helped them win their title. But every approach has weaknesses. They ran up against a team that’s all about adjustments, with a player who went bonkers out of his mind against them. Their cultural mindset said to ride it out. They ran out of games before it worked.
I’ve absolutely seen worse coaching jobs. Plenty of teams get blown out entirely in elimination games, never getting close to a win. But I also find danger in “culture lock” for every franchise. The minute you begin assuming things about the game instead of responding to what’s happening in front of you, you’re vulnerable. It’s ok to play to your strengths, but you also need options. Milwaukee didn’t lack them last night. For whatever reason, they either couldn’t see them or thought it was smarter to not explore them. Live and learn.
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