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A Week in Rip City: The Precarious Nature of Rebuilds

After some time off, the series returns to discuss the Trail Blazers’ midseason crash.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers entered the season ready to rebuild and with a fanbase in need of a refresh. After several years of clinging to hope with a failed roster and multiple months of trade tabloid drama, the front office moved discontented franchise legend Damian Lillard to Milwaukee in September to start the reset in earnest, just in time for Media Day on Oct. 2.

There, Trail Blazers general manager Joe Cronin pitched his vision for Season One of a long road ahead:

“We have some guys that are going to take some time to grow into their own, so for me, it’s really enjoying the journey — these day-by-day improvements, the night that we’re really electric, where we see this is what we’re capable of if we can put this together on a consistent basis.”

I stashed this quote in my notes, waiting to break it out after a special night, a celebratory champagne-like quote reserved only for the best win of the season. I’d refer to it after the Trail Blazers surprisingly won a spirited game against a playoff contender while Scoot Henderson, Shaedon Sharpe and Anfernee Simons combined for 70 points and Deandre Ayton anchored the paint and the Moda Center roared with old glimmers of Blazer Mania.

Instead, I showcase it now, a few days after the Trail Blazers lost by 62 to the Oklahoma City Thunder and got outscored by 192 points on a 1-6 road trip straight from hell. The last two weeks served as the antithesis to Cronin’s thesis statement of hope for the season. The games brought embarrassment, not electricity; they sewed doubt, not potential.

They were a long example of the other nights on this journey.

While the franchise is hanging its hopes and hats on the occasional flashes that point to the best-case scenario, it’s easy to forget that ugliness and failure are the other possibilities on this path. After some early spunk, the last few weeks delivered a quick, unhappy reminder: Rebuilds are precarious in nature, with nothing guaranteed, and the journey certainly isn’t always enjoyable.

I clung to the most optimistic quote from Cronin’s presser in October, but there’s a reason why the GM also preached patience and pointed to occasional bright spots as the primary solace this season: Ugly, rough stretches are inevitable in a rebuild. Still, the latest losses carried a lack of soul that felt more concerning. It’s shocking how bleak it got so fast.

The Trail Blazers are less than three weeks removed from their best win of the season, a 130-113 takedown of the Sacramento Kings on Dec. 26 that saw everybody play well. For two months in this series, I enjoyed picking out the positives from Portland’s play. Despite a bad record, they weren’t hard to find — an improving defense; an early-season leap from Sharpe; offensive firepower from Simons; great veteran play that made people think twice about trading Jerami Grant and Malcolm Brogdon; sly tricks from Matisse Thybulle; the unexpected find of Toumani Camara, etc., etc. Above all, the Trail Blazers played hard, competing with an edge that made them a tough out for most teams and an enjoyable watch.

The last two weeks seemed to walk back all that progress and all that good will gained from fans.

After hovering around the top 10 for the first quarter of the season, the defense has plummeted to below average and is trending downward. Portland ranks 20th in defensive rating and 26th in that category over the last 10 games. The offense, dead-last in points per game, has been in the dumps all season.

Battling through injuries and slumps, Sharpe’s impact has quieted significantly from that early-season explosion. Simons capped off a bad stretch with possibly the worst game of his career, going 0-10 for five points and three turnovers against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday. Thybulle’s little effects on winning are obscured when games aren’t competitive and Camara’s great defense can get minimized by glaring offensive issues. Ayton, in an up-and-down season, hasn’t played since before Christmas. The healthy floor the veterans used to help provide is collapsing.

That trademark competitive edge has vanished, replaced by deflating, empty games that seem pointless after the second quarter.

Even the things that are still relatively positive — Henderson’s general improvement after a rough start, the heart of Jabari Walker, the underdog stories of Duop Reath and Ibou Badji — are too overshadowed to praise when the team is getting consistently thrashed by 30.

Sean Highkin of The Rose Garden Report wrote a great article this week pointing out the Trail Blazers shouldn’t be this bad, even with injuries and a rebuilding roster. Highkin noted players like Simons, Grant, Ayton and Brogdon are talented, proven players that rebuilding rosters don’t typically have at this stage. That truth only adds strength to the fever-pitch cries calling for head coach Chauncey Billups to be fired. After Billups entered the season with relative job security, considering the low expectations and the three years remaining on his contract, stretches like this make his future very uncertain — if not now, at least in the offseason.

So, suffice to say, the Trail Blazers are in a rough spot. The ugly of the rebuild is showing. Does that mean it’s a failure?

No, of course not.

We won’t get that answer for multiple seasons. One horrific, historically bad road trip in January against the NBA’s best teams isn’t going to seal Portland’s fate. Things are amiss, for sure, but not doomed. As of now, the biggest worry is this season feeling lost far too early and regression delaying Portland’s timeline.

As much as Portland put a solid early foundation in place following Lillard’s departure, it could ultimately take multiple spins at the wheel and several years of lottery picks to build the right core. This road trip raised questions and reminded everybody of that worst-case scenario lurking underneath the optimism.

Rebuilds are precarious.