The Portland Trail Blazers, fans and players alike, had hoped for more from this season. But with the Blazers still sleepwalking, what happens now?
In Miami on Sunday evening, it was clear that frustrations were beginning to rise on this Trail Blazers team. Even Damian Lillard, a man known for his ice-cool persona, seemed to lose his temper when Hassan Whiteside showed a lack of effort when defending a pick and roll.
I don’t blame him. The Blazers season so far has been a miserable one, as they sit a game back of the San Antonio Spurs, who currently hold the 8th playoff position. Portland are way below .500, and have looked disjointed since opening night.
Trade rumour’s and tension within the team have risen to the surface in the past few days, as insider Chris Haynes (who speaks to Lillard often) stated the Blazers All-Star “didn’t sign up to be on a team like this”.
Lillard is as loyal as they came, but even he has a breaking point. At some point, some change or action needs to take place. A trade, a plan for the future, whatever, the Blazers need some form of guidance.
So what does that look like?
It feels like the Blazers are treading water right now. More often than not, they beat the teams they’re supposed to beat, but when paired up with a team over .500 who has serious playoff aspirations, the Blazers look helpless.
Sunday’s loss in Miami was the perfect example. The Heat simply did everything better. Ball movement, defensive cohesion, shot-making, any form of hustle play, you name it. It would’ve been a 30 point blowout had Lillard not shot the Blazers back into things in the second half, but that’s not the point. Miami coasted, without their best player, to a victory over a below average basketball team.
And unless Neil Olshey absolutely robs a team for a star two-way player (not holding my breath), then I don’t see things getting too much better. Sure, Portland may sneak into the playoffs; with Nurkic back at the All-Star break, they probably will. But are they beating the Lakers? No. The Clippers? No. Even the Rockets, Nuggets and Mavericks look out of reach right now.
So what can fans do? Not give up, but adjust your expectations, and focus on the little things.
The little things
There’s a bunch here to focus on. If the Blazers refuse to give up on the season and plan for the future (which they won’t) then fans will need to look in other directions for success.
Whilst the Blazers probably won’t go back to the western conference finals, this season could turn into a scrappy, fun underdog sort of year. Sign a couple of guys off the free agent market, and let them become short-term Blazer legends.
There’s a few options on the market right now. Jeff Green still has something left in the tank, despite being waived by Utah a few weeks ago. The market also includes names such as Marquese Chriss, Alfonzo McKinnie and even Gary Clark; all three of these guys could play a positive role on the current roster. Players like this could make for a fun and gutsy late-season run, even if the highlight is only taking a game or two off one of the LA powerhouses.
Blazers fans can also generate some excitement by watching the development of our young talent, in particular Anfernee Simons. Simons has been extremely impressive in patches this season, showing off his elite potential as a scoring guard in today’s NBA. He can shoot from deep, beat his man off the dribble and seriously climb the ladder, but remains inconsistent, as most young players do.
Simons’ development has the potential to open up some doors for Portland in the future, as does Nassir Little‘s. The 25th pick in the draft out of UNC has been given limited opportunities so far this year, but is another who’s shown potential in patches. Little is also an incredible athlete, and plays extremely hard. If he improves his current raw offensive game, Little could turn into a solid rotation player for the Blazers in the next year or so.
What are the Front Office thinking?
This is ultimately what the fans want to know. Does Neil Olshey still believe in this season, this roster? Are changes on the horizon? Will Lillard force them through?
If we cut it down, the Blazers seem to have two options. They can try and force through a big trade, using their current expiring contracts and young assets. Kevin Love has been the talk of the town for a while now, and while his injury history and substantial contract isn’t exactly appealing, Olshey may be desperate to make a move now for Lillard’s sake.
LaMarcus Aldridge‘s name has cropped up as well, as did Blake Griffin‘s before he shut his season down by opting for season-ending surgery. There’s plenty of names on the market that the Blazers could take a stab at, but most include giving up their young assets, and hindering their future outlook.
Alternatively, the Blazers could hold fire, and look ahead to next season, where they’ll have Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic back firing on all cylinders. Rodney Hood too, although it’ll take him longer to return to his best. Along with that, they could use the contracts of Whiteside and Bazemore to pick up a small forward who would fit best with Collins and Nurk, not a player who they need to win now.
In doing so, they retain their picks. A smart move considering the way this season is going, while also retaining their young players. Holding fire seems the smart move long-term, but may not be an option if Lillard and co are looking to remain competitive this year.
Whatever the Blazers choose to do, there will certainly be storylines to follow over the next few months. Strap in for an exciting season regardless.