The Portland Trail Blazers went into their playoff series against the Denver Nuggets holding the longest active playoff run of any team in the league (13 seasons in a row). But once again it was to no avail.
The Blazers lost the series 4-2. And, despite Damian Lillard averaging 34 points and 10 assists in the 6 games (including two 42 point performances and a 55 point, 12/17 from 3 game), Portland faced another 1st Round exit.
Now, the Portland Trail Blazers have extremely important decisions to make in the summer. An era of offensive basketball filled with clutch 3s and high scoring contests may be coming to an end as a handful of Blazers head for free agency. Additionally, the future of Portland’s franchise players are still uncertain. With these queries still to be answered, the Blazers will undoubtedly be the most fascinating team in the offseason.
Is Dame Time over?
Damian Lillard was noticeably frustrated after the game 6 loss to the Nuggets. He spoke bluntly in his post-match press conference saying, “obviously, where we are now isn’t good enough. I don’t know what a shakeup looks like or what changes will be made or could be made… We came up short against a team without their starting point guard and shooting guard, so obviously where we are isn’t good enough”.
The ‘shakeup’ Lillard alluded to is already taking place as head coach Terry Stotts was relieved of his duties just one day after the Blazers were beaten in the 1st Round.
This was the team’s fourth 1st Round exit in five seasons. It was inevitable that Stotts would be let go if the Blazers failed to advance again. After nine seasons in Portland, the Stotts era is over.
Damian Lillard told the Athletic, “I love Terry and I will miss him as my coach”. But if Portland are going to win the East – or at least progress to the 2nd Round – this was a necessary step.
Who replaces Stotts?
Portland general manager, Neil Olshey informed Lillard they were making a coaching change and told him the candidates they were looking for. He even asked Lillard, ‘if you have a few names, let me know’. Olshey stated “Dame’s opinion is very important” adding, “If you ask him, we have very rarely made a big free-agent decision, very rarely made a trade without his participation and his insight”.
Lillard told Yahoo Sports, “Jason Kidd is the guy I want”. Lillard wants Stotts’ replacement to have experience and Kidd fits that criteria.
Formerly head coach of the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks and now assistant coach of the reigning NBA Champions, the Lakers. Unfortunately, Kidd withdrew his name from the Portland vacancy soon after – fuelling further disappointment for Damian Lillard.
Chauncey Billups was the second name on Dame’s wish list. The Portland hierarchy are intrigued by Billups who would be a first-time head coach. Many believe Billups will be the chosen one, making fans question if a rookie head coach is the right man to lead the Blazers to the finals.
Does Lillard request a trade?
Jason Quick, a reporter for the Portland Trail Blazers, wrote, “I still don’t know if I believe Lillard would ever demand a trade out of Portland, it’s not his style. It’s so against his brand, against his story, against everything he has preached for the past nine years”.
But Lillard has certainly fuelled speculation about his future following the defeat to the Nuggets. Dame uploaded a photo to his Instagram with the caption, “How long should I stay dedicated? How long til opportunity meet preparation”.
Granted, he referenced the late great Nipsey Hustle, but it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see there was a ‘hidden’ message.
Lillard has been wholeheartedly committed to the Blazers and vowed to win a championship for the city of Portland. His actions have reaffirmed these beliefs; he has re-signed and extended contracts without hesitating or contemplating free agency. But, maybe now he is at the end of his tether and wants to leave a legacy in the NBA. Perhaps his desire to win is greater than his love for Portland.
Nevertheless, Lillard has never been onboard with the notion of teaming up with other All-Stars to form a superteam saying, “I would never do that”. Lillard added, “I’m not a team up type of person. If that’s what they want to do, I ain’t got no problem with it. But for me personally, it’s not something I can do. I’d rather go out there and lose before I do that”.
Can Portland contend?
The Trail Blazers have started their last four seasons with the same core – Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic – but they have continually come up short. There is a perception that the backcourt pairing of Lillard and McCollum does not constitute to ‘winning basketball’. It is thought, their lack of size and inability to play ‘elite’ defence will come undone in the postseason. And, those thoughts have been proven right year on year.
Neil Olshey has continually endorsed the partnership of Lillard and McCollum when naysayers have questioned their effectiveness as a tandem. Olshey has defended his decision to keep the two saying, “why would I break up one of the best backcourts in the NBA?”. As a result, he has been criticised for his reluctance to part ways with McCollum. However, Olshey’s latest comments regarding the future of his team left many feeling a trade was on the horizon – or at least a possibility. He said, “we are going to look to make our team better; nothing is ever off the table”. Many believe Olshey is open to trading CJ McCollum.
The NBA’s best Bromance
If a trade involving McCollum does emerge, one can only imagine it would cause friction between Lillard and the Blazers organisation.
The pair don’t just perform harmoniously on the court, but they have a true friendship off it too. They are known to take vacations together, sit next to each other on the team plane, talk daily in the offseason and McCollum has even made an appearance in Dame Dolla’s music video. The two formed their bromance at College where they were both 4 year graduates from smaller schools – Lillard from Weber State and McCollum from Lehigh.
Since they were selected by the Blazers, the pair have matched up the years on their individual contracts. Lillard explained, “It’s so we’ll both be free at the same time. If there’s ever a change of heart, then we can make that decision together”.
The decision may be taken out of either of their hands if CJ is traded…
Jusuf Nurkic only has one year left on his deal, but he said himself, “I don’t know whether I’ll be back. We’ll see what’s going to happen”.
Nurkic was clearly disheartened after the Blazers’ defeat in game 6 and spoke like a man that doesn’t want to re-sign. The disgruntled centre was direct saying, “In the right situation, yes [he’d be back next year]. But this is not it”. The Bosnian continued to speak his mind to the press as he continued by expressing his frustrations on the season, “I wish my role was bigger, I think I could’ve helped more”.
The departures don’t stop there. Portland also has multiple players entering free agency: uber-athletic Derrick Jones, future Hall Of Famer Carmelo Anthony and solid centre Enes Kanter. But most notably, Norman Powell. Powell, who was acquired in the Gary Trent Jr trade earlier this year, has a player option of $11million.
However, Powell is expected to opt out and become a free agent this summer as he will be a hot commodity for many teams. If this does come to fruition, the Trail Blazers would have given away a prized asset and promising star in Gary Trent, for nothing.
Two Blazers options
The Portland Trail Blazers are facing a crossroads.
Do they trade their All-Stars for draft capital and young talent, similar to Oklahoma City?
Or, do they reshape their current roster and try to contend next year with the same core?
One thing is certain though, eyes will be firmly planted on what the Blazers do!