The Portland Trail Blazers embarked on a difficult rebuilding process this season. Expectations of making the playoffs, let alone winning there, have gone out the window, replaced by a race for lottery position and hopes for the future.
The transition between championship aspirations and poring over future mock drafts was swift, leaving Portland fans taking a polar bear plunge into bad basketball and dashed dreams. Under those circumstances, it’s pretty natural to ask for an accounting. One reader does exactly that in this edition of the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
I’d like to propose a petition to have Jody Allen sell the team. It is obvious that she doesn’t know anything about basketball and she need to sell to someone who does that will clean house (hire a new GM and head coach) and get the Blazers back to respectability. Any idea how to start that?
I don’t think you’re alone in that sentiment.
When dealing with such issues, though, I follow a simple rule. I can’t expect people to think like a person in my situation thinks. They have to think like a person in their situation does.
To the current ownership, much of what’s happening with the Trail Blazers makes sense.
Jody Allen inherited the team in 2018. In her rookie season as an owner, the Blazers went deeper into the playoffs than they had at any time since the turn of the millennium, At that point, she did something that made sense: rewarded and extended the people who made that happen. President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey and Head Coach Terry Stotts got contract extensions. Star guard Damian Lillard would follow later on.
All of these moves were natural. Who in their right mind would lose Dame, or make him unhappy for a nanosecond? Also, lacking any experience in the field, why would you not rely on a management team that, to that point, had brought not only Lillard but growing success behind him?
We know how that story ended up. After the 2019 NBA Playoffs, the Blazers never reached the Conference Finals again during Lillard’s tenure. After a pair of first-round playoffs exits, Stotts was fired. Olshey replaced him with untried coach Chauncey Billups on a 4+1 year contract (team option on the fifth year) before Olshey himself was dismissed for violating organizational policy, to be replaced by understudy Joe Cronin.
At that point, management was in disarray. Billups was new to the position and the organization. Cronin—a first-time GM himself—took over mid-season under trying circumstances. The Blazers were losing around Lillard, who, following two years of tanking and the summary disposal of veterans around him, broke the last shelf off of the iceberg by asking for a trade in the Summer of 2023.
Summarizing...a neophyte owner trusted in the personnel and direction of her new organization, invested considerable resources in it, only to watch it crumble right in front of her. It fell apart so completely that no management or coaching team could Humpty Dumpty it back together again.
Under these circumstances, the franchise entered into complete rebuild mode, divesting itself of expensive contracts and player in favor of future assets. This brought about a completely new set of priorities: build for tomorrow, maintain flexibility, and keep unnecessary overhead out of the equation.
That’s exactly the phase the Blazers find themselves in right now. They’ve stockpiled draft picks between 2024 and 2029. They’ve divested of super-expensive contracts and opened the possibility of future cap space if desired. Points one and two of the manifesto have check marks.
That’s going to be the franchise’s answer to your question about regaining respectability. They’ll point at Scoot Henderson, future picks, and the possibility of future moves and argue that they’re on the way already...or at least are closer than they were a year ago.
The third part of the formula—low overhead—involves acknowledging that Phil Jackson and Pat Riley together couldn’t get this team to 30 wins this year, and maybe not next. The critical task of Portland’s General Manager over the next three years will be to draft well and make opportunistic, value-driven trades. The Head Coach will train young players and absorb a lot of losses. Those things don’t require fancy names and huge salaries.
Absent obvious incompetence, it wouldn’t make sense to fire current personnel, eat their salary, then hire new staff to do the same things and eat the same bad records as the old guys did. There’s absolutely zero reason from an owner’s perspective—let alone a semi-detached, non-expert owner’s perspective—to invest more right now when the future hinges not on the popularity of front office personnel, but on the players they (or their successors) will draft.
And speaking of successors, there’s a non-zero chance that the team will be under new ownership by the time some of those future draft picks get executed. If the team is going to be sold, why throw the system into fourth gear down a road that:
A. We still don’t know the end of...
B. Might not be the preference of new governors in the future?
I’m not arguing that all this is correct, let alone optimal. I’m saying that from a particular ownership perspective—which the owners of the Trail Blazers might inhabit at the moment—it’s understandable, maybe even smart.
As you have already identified, that perspective is not likely to be shared by devoted fans of the franchise, who care less about owners, dollars, and timelines than success and positive (ideally instantaneous) feedback. There’s the rub. The slow-build, medium-heat, low-overhead, “divest-and-reinvest” approach will end up looking like the exact opposite of the forward charge that true devotees want to see.
To the credit of Jody Allen and Portland ownership, she already tried that forward charge once by putting her dollars behind Olshey, Stotts, Lillard, and company. She did so with far more evidence that it would work, in a far more certain environment, only to have it blow up in her face under an onslaught of public disgrace for her lead executive, public trade demands from the franchise superstar. If it didn’t work then, how would an immediate reinvestment with far less predictability behind it pay dividends?
At the same time, “lukewarming” the way through the next decade and hoping something changes is a path followed by many NBA franchises residing below the upper crust. It seldom works. Teams need a Minnesota Timberwolves trade or an Oklahoma City Thunder draft spree to break through the inertia. Until that happens, there’s no reason to forecast it, and thus plenty of reason to complain and wonder what’s going on from a fan’s perspective.
It’s possible that the answer to the request for radical improvement is, “Not yet.” That’s not because of desire or work ethic—both of which are there—but because it’s not possible to get from Point A to Point Z in 2023-24. That’s not an indictment as much as an admission of reality.
Maybe Joe Cronin, Chauncey Billups, and Jody Allen will bring about that franchise-changing set of moves eventually. My gut feeling is that none of the three top figures will be present to witness the end of this decade’s regrowth period. Cronin is the most likely to endure, but 10 years is a long time to remain General Manager when your team is losing. Public pressure—and demands of new owners, if applicable—under mounting losses will color perceptions no matter how much patience gets preached. A premature charge won’t fix the issue, though. Nor would it lengthen the tenure of any of the principals. It’d just make the process more confusing, likely more expensive too.
That’s why you’re more likely to see the Blazers keep on as-is, trust in the future picks, perhaps engineer ways to get one or two more, than you are to see any major change in the name of moving forward. Ownership and management aren’t incompetent. They’re doing what all of us are doing: making their way through a bad situation, relying on the experience and knowledge they have, with no guarantees that it’s going to make a difference. You can’t ask them to not do that at this juncture. All we can do is pray that, when a door opens to a new way, they’re smart enough to see it and leap through...or that the people who end up replacing them are.
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