For many of the Portland Trail Blazers’ supporters, the spring of 2019 represents the peak of the previous decade, a time in which Portland had its best chance to deliver another much-awaited championship to the Pacific Northwest. For others, it’ll always be arguable that, if fully-healthy, the 2014-15 version could’ve surpassed even those expectations.
Regardless of one’s standing in that discussion, it can’t be debated that the Blazers’ title window was much more open than it is today. In an in-depth piece yesterday, (subscription required), ESPN’s Zach Lowe traced back what went wrong, the lead-up to Damian Lillard’s potentially-soon-to-be departure, and how the seeds were planted for that breakup all the way back in 2015, a time period in which the Blazers temporarily boasted an argument as the NBA’s No. 1 team.
More to current day, Lowe discussed the failed trade ventures for that thought-to-be-more-coveted No. 3 pick that later became Scoot Henderson, and with how teams either: (a) weren’t willing to give up their talent, such as Mikal Bridges, Zion Williamson or Bam Adebayo, or (b) had a situation that wouldn’t fit the Blazers’ long-term plans — i.e. Paul George — before hitting on the trade that hamstrung Portland, even if they didn’t know it at the time.
To open old wounds, Wesley Matthews’ Achilles rupture during TNT’s Mar. 5, 2015 game against Dallas altered the Blazers’ entire trajectory. Yet, even beforehand, Portland recognized the potential possibility of perennial All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge departing them in the coming summer. So, the trade — Portland acquired Aaron Afflalo and Alonzo Gee in exchange to Denver for Will Barton, Victor Claver, and a lottery-protected first-rounder — provided Portland with a fallback, should they struggle in the next season, which seemed like a logical outcome at the time.
Instead, on the backs of Lillard and CJ McCollum’s competitiveness, they didn’t struggle, even winning a postseason series, which meant losing the first-round pick in 2016 altogether, an NBA Draft that included the likes of Brandon Ingram, Jaylen Brown, Pascal Siakam, Jamal Murray, etc.
It told the story of a Lillard and McCollum-led team that we’ve come to know all too well: competitive and talented enough to be very good, even sometimes great amongst the Western Conference’s top dogs. But not transcendent enough to break through, as history told.
Lowe’s narration of the infamous, exorbitant 2016 free agency spending spree and the Blazers’ subsequent whiffs during the 2017 NBA Draft help illustrate it even further. As he describes the $160 million spent on role players such as Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard, etc:
“Every deal went bust. It was clear almost right away the Blazers would have been better off looking for bargains that might have turned into trade assets; using room as a dumping ground; or inking shorter deals to keep room open beyond 2017. It’s not a great sign when your head coach (Terry Stotts then) predicts mere weeks after free agency, “We are probably not going to make the quantum leap the salaries might indicate.”
And then on the 2017 NBA Draft:
“They traded two — Nos. 15 and 20 — to move up five spots for Zach Collins. Donovan Mitchell and Adebayo were selected at Nos. 13 and 14. With their own pick — No. 26 — the Blazers selected Caleb Swanigan; Josh Hart, Derrick White, and Kyle Kuzma comprised three of the next four picks.”
Lowe’s full article covers the rest of the spectrum in a much more in-depth fashion, but it outlines the struggles of a small-market franchise with the inability (or sometimes hesitance) to take chances at disgruntled superstars, many of which the Blazers had opportunities to take, in players such as Paul George (in 2017), Jimmy Butler (post-Minnesota) or Kawhi Leonard (post-San Antonio), even if it were simple one or two-year rentals to chase a title.
The exact point to which Lillard’s relationship with the Blazers became fractured has been much descanted. Perhaps it’s just the pressure of the “ring culture,” perhaps it’s the Blazers failing to make good on Lillard’s “dream free agency scenario” that featured Draymond Green and Jerami Grant, perhaps it’s just time for a change of scenery.
In any case, Lowe outlines one particular theory here. The link to that full article can be found here.