What exactly is the Trail Blazers’ plan?


Damian Lillard’s voice carries. It’s the privilege and power that come with six All-Star berths and All-NBA selections, along with a perennial MVP bid, with an ever-expanding sizzling reel of cold-blooded highlights. Lillard is one of the highest paid superstars in the NBA: he is one of the only eight players to ink a supermax extension and is also a cross celebrity with several high-profile deals off the pitch. When rainmakers of this magnitude speak, everyone listen.

Lillard spoke after his Trail Blazers lost in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs to the shorthanded Nuggets. It was a disheartening loss: Portland lost Game 5 in double overtime, despite Dame exploding for 55 points and 10 assists, and lost a 14-point home second-half lead in Game 6 thanks largely to an inability to defend the pick-and-roll. He spoke clearly, calling on everyone in the Blazers organization to “look in the mirror, because we’re constantly running out of money.” [and] whatever we do is not working. He spoke directly, expressing doubts that replacing Terry Stotts with Chauncey Billups at the head of the bench – a change of coach that was crap in itself – was enough, on its own, to transform the Blazers.

“I don’t dispute that Chauncey can really change our squad and make us a better team and move us forward in that direction,” Lillard told reporters last month as he prepared to go to Tokyo with Team USA. “But I think if you look at our squad as we approach next season, I don’t see how you can say, ‘This is a championship team, we just need a new coach.’ … Do we want to win it all? Do we really want to do it? Then we have to do things to show it.

He basically addressed an audience: Blazers president of basketball operations Neil Olshey, who was hired in 2012 and made Lillard his first draft pick that same year. Olshey guided the franchise through a streak that produced eight straight playoff appearances, but also resulted in more first-round outings (five) than playoff wins (four). Olshey made it clear when he sacked Stotts that he believed Portland’s underperformance last season, especially on the defensive end, was “not the product of the roster” he had put together, and that ‘he thought a new coach and a new defensive approach could change that. alignment in a real contender for the championship. Lillard made it clear – in that pre-Olympic press conference and also in “long meetings and text messages” with Olshey before that – that he disagreed, calling on the Blazers front office to “be more urgent on what our next step is, and how we are moving forward.

While Lillard didn’t elaborate on his definition of “emergency,” he also didn’t look very excited about a summer run of re-signing Norman Powell for five years and $ 90 million and over. addition Cody zeller, Tony Snell, and Ben mclemore for the minimum of veteran. And so the NBA world is waiting for Dame to speak again – to see when, or if, he will say the magic words and become the latest superstar to seek greener pastures in a league-shaking trade.

He hasn’t done it yet. Lillard, whose four-year supermax extension kicks off this season, said last month he had “made no firm decision on this. [his] the future will be. Several subsequent reports confirmed this, with ESPN’s Zach Lowe writing that “Lillard is not available and has not requested a trade,” and Stephen A. Smith describing Lillard in a recent episode of Lowe’s post as “incredibly reluctant to leave Portland”. Again this week, Lillard told viewers on Instagram Live that he “isn’t leaving PDX, at least for now.”

“I don’t think he wants to leave. He’s built an empire here, ”a Blazers executive told Jason Quick. Athleticism in July. “But we have to assume he’s leaving to make sure he doesn’t leave.”

There’s the catch, though: Olshey’s offseason certainly doesn’t appear to be conducted with a level of gravity commensurate with the existential threat of arguably the greatest player in franchise history leaving town for good. . Which begs the question: Uh, what are the Blazers Make, exactly?

The lack of resolution this summer leaves the Lillard situation hanging over the entire franchise like the sword of Damocles. But if the status quo holds, it will also give Olshey the chance to jump into the season with Billups at the top of the roster he has put together – a roster he clearly believes a lot in – in the hope. to win the kind of championship – level results that could give Lillard, 31, new faith that the rest of his prime has been in safe hands.

It’s a terribly bold bet, but it might not necessarily be a dead bet. Olshey shipped Gary Trent Jr. to Toronto for Powell on the 2021 trade deadline, convinced the longtime Raptors swingman would elevate Portland’s already powerful offense into the stratosphere. Post-trade feedback confirms: Blazers led the NBA in points scored by possession after Powell arrived, and scored in a tie upper clip during the first round game with Denver. According to Clean the glass, When the five new starting players of Lillard, Powell, CJ McCollum, Robert Covington and Jusuf Nurkic shared the floor during the regular season, Portland beat opponents by 14.2 points per 100 possessions – the second-highest net score of any training to save at least 750 possessions together – and nerfed the Nuggets by an obscene 20.8 points per 100 in the starters’ minutes in the first round.

The issues arose when the second unit entered, especially on the defensive side, as Denver sliced ​​the Blazers into ribbons whenever Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter were on the field. While both brought value offensively and on boards, the Nuggets were able to take advantage of their lack of foot speed in space to force Portland’s defense to turn, creating an open blow after the fact. open. Both will play elsewhere this season. Olshey is betting that while Zeller (still plagued by injuries to Charlotte, but damn strong when he’s healthy), Snell and McLemore can’t quite replicate Melo and Kanter’s firepower, they will provide a More stable defensive play and enough complementary shots to help prevent the advances from turning into deficits while the starters catch their breath.

A semblance of addition by subtraction in the reserve corps – as well as leaps forward from young Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little – would be huge for the Blazers. A full season for Powell, who averaged 17 points per game as a hand-to-hand adjustment in Portland’s offense, should also help. Combine those with healthier turns from McCollum, who averaged nearly 27 points per game before suffering a broken foot that cost him 25 games, and Nurkic, who missed 10 weeks with a broken right wrist and in the minutes Portland defended in the top five rates, plus an hoped-for defensive improvement under Billups (who insists it will no longer be “optional to play hard defensively” at Portland), and maybe you can see the Blazers quickly emerge from the gates in a talented West but lacking a runaway favorite. (You may need to squint a bit.)

Maybe that puts Portland in a position to grab an opportunity as the February trade deadline approaches, where Olshey has taken bigger swings in years past – landing Powell last season, Trevor Ariza in 2020 , Nurkic in 2017 and Arron Afflalo in 2015 — to complete the rotation. Maybe if some things go well, the Blazers can enter May with both the puncher’s luck that Dame always offers. and the kind of balance and depth they rarely implemented.

If you think there is an awful lot of “maybe” to hang the future of your franchise on, you are not alone. But then, given the state of affairs and Lillard’s patience, that’s about all Olshey can hold on to.

He fired the second-most successful coach in franchise history and handpicked his replacement. if the Billups experiment ignites, it is extremely unlikely that he will get another chance at getting hired. He’s redoubled his faith in the quality of the rosters he’s built, despite the recurring lack of balance and depth that has so often left the Blazers with no recourse other than Bail Us Out, Lady.

He’s put together an eight-man squad that is slated to come into free agency play in the summer of 2022 and where the only players on guaranteed deals extending beyond this season are Lillard, McCollum and Powell … and yet the As-built Blazers still won’t have significant salary cap space for the next offseason, even with a skeletal roster, as these three guards are expected to make $ 92.6 million in 2022-23 and $ 99.4 million in 2023-24.

The loss to Denver seemed to mark the end of an era, but it did not mark the end of Olshey’s reign. That would likely change if Lillard asked for it, however; it’s hard to imagine that Olshey could stick around to sketch out a plan for what is to come in Portland. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine what life for the Blazers would be like: rebuilt around McCollum, Powell, and whatever high-end player / prospect they get for Lady (cough, cough)? Stripped to the studs for a rebuild? (Portland has all its own first-round picks going forward.) A cursed middle lane that leaves the Blazers wandering the proverbial late lottery wilderness, looking for a new North Star to follow?

Maybe that’s why Olshey is so firm, why Lillard hasn’t raised his voice yet, why the franchise and the franchise player are spending their summer in a gaze contest. As frustrating as it can be, there is a certain comfort in what is familiar. On the other side of desperate trades and magic words lies the unknown and, with it, the potential for irrevocable and bewildering change. The Portland managers apparently aren’t quite ready for this just yet, so we wait with open ears for the words that would reverberate and change everything – for Lillard, for the Blazers, and maybe for the power structure in a league. it has never been so complete.

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