BY CASEY MABBOTT ON
Well dear readers, your fighting Portland Trail Blazers did not go quietly in to the night, they did not vanish without a fight. They won two playoff series in the same season for the first time in 19 years, advancing to the conference finals and a rematch with the Golden State Warriors and a shot at redemption after being swept in the first round by the same Warriors team in 2017. For what it’s worth, Michael Jordan was knocked out of the playoffs by Detroit from 1988-1990, and when he finally got past them, he was virtually unstoppable. Jordan even got sweet revenge, sweeping the Pistons in 1991 en route to his first championship. Perhaps we will see a similar turnaround from Damian Lillard and the Blazers?
While the season may not have closed with the Cinderella ending many fans in Rip City were hoping for after a furious start to the playoffs, it was still a magical ending when you compare it to the expectations most people had for this team going in to the season, or even going in to the playoffs. Sometimes teams need a catalyst to get them to the next level, and we will hope this season and more importantly how the playoffs played out, will help elevate this team to the very top of the NBA mountain.
So how did your Blazers do this season with all they accomplished, and what were the best moments? How will the front office handle the crucial player decisions that need to be addressed, and can the team do anything to expand their lineup going in to next season? With so many unknowns, and no one really knowing what to expect, we asked Bryant Knox (BK) and Casey Mabbott (CM) to speculate on those thrilling questions and more.
Without further ado, here is this week’s lightning round –
1. The Portland Trail Blazers made this year a season to remember, advancing to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since the year 2000. In the years to come, how will you remember this season, and what was your favorite moment?
(BK) I think one of the great moments of this season that will be forever forgotten was the opening-night win over LeBron James and the Lakers on national television. Portland was entering the year underdogs to even make the playoffs, but there was an energy in the arena that made it clear nobody in Rip City bought into that. Taking down The King on opening night was good; taking down the Lakers was great; taking down The King on the Lakers was incredible after hearing prior to the year that LeBron wanted L.A. to trade for Damian Lillard. Everything about the win set up and symbolized what was to come, which, of course, was The Wave, The 4OT, The Game 7, The WCF Berth that will all go down in Blazers history.
(CM) I was a very green 18 year old with my whole sports life ahead of me the last time they made it to the conference finals, I wish I had known then how very dark my fandom would get before they returned to the third round of the playoffs. So this was a very special season after so many tough years. It’s been surreal to reflect on how many players, coaches, and front office personnel have changed in that time, even the stadium is called something else. It’s truly a whole new world around here, really the only similarities are that they lost to a team from California wearing yellow/gold jerseys, and Scottie Pippen was in the building. Those specifics aside, everything is different, everything is new. I will remember this season as when my hope in the Blazers’ chances at glory was renewed, after spending so many years as middling franchise. My favorite moment would have to be Lillard waving goodbye to the OKC players as he ended their season in the closing moments of game five from 37 feet out over the player who was just elected to the NBA all-defensive first team. That’s a moment that will live on in Blazers lore for decades to come.
2. Golden State’s roster seemed to get stronger while down their best player in Kevin Durant. Are there any other historic dynasties that could/did pull off the same magic trick, and should this change your view of how Portland played them in their playoff series vs the Warriors?
(BK) None come to mind. Partly because I’m not the hoops historian my OSN buds Casey Mabbott and Jared Wright are. But also because this just doesn’t happen. Kevin Durant has through stretches of his time in Golden State been the best player in the league. He’s a two-time Finals MVP for cupcake’s sake. But he also completely and entirely changed the dynamic of Golden State upon his arrival. The OG Dubs are—dare I say it after waxing Portland in 4—kinda fun to watch. Draymond Green is still insufferable in his antics, but the subtraction of KD has allowed him to play a better, more cohesive brand of basketball, and it’s also given Stephen Curry the bandwidth to channel his own inner Most Valuable Player. … All that said, I won’t go as far as to say the Warriors are outright better without him; they’re not. Durant can still win you a championship on his own, and he can be the ultimate Kawhi or Giannis equalizer in the next round. That’s why none of this is changing my mind about the Blazers and how they played the series. The duality of Durant’s medical LOA makes it impossible to say “if they’d had KD, the series would’ve turned out differently.” Although, it might have; those 17-point leads Portland lost in Games 2, 3 and 4 might have never existed in the first place ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
(CM) Over the course of an entire series? I can’t think of any examples where a team has pulled that off before. The closest example I can think of would be rookie forward Magic Johnson starting in place of all-world center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and leading the Lakers to victory in game six of the 1980 NBA Finals. So if you were down on the Blazers for getting swept “again”, this should definitely change your tune. Portland fought extremely hard in each game even though on paper, they had no chance to win, but they were just a few possessions going their way from perhaps being still alive. In order to win a championship you can’t just be good, you have to be great, and you also have to be lucky. Portland is good, and on the doorstep of greatness, but they have rarely been confused with a team that can be called “lucky” given their sad injury history to key players. Given how much adversity this team faced in just one calendar year, it just makes it even more impressive how far they went by doing so with replacement players.
3. ESPN’s preseason projections had the Trail Blazers finishing 10th in the West, with a record of 43-39. They instead finished 3rd in the West, with a record of 53-29 and advanced to the conference finals. How impressed should we be with this team given the expectation that they wouldn’t even qualify for the postseason?
(BK) Extremely impressed. And truth is, I’m not even really talking about the preseason projection. Portland have proved year after year under Damian Lillard that it can surpass expectations, so while impressive, it’s specifically how the team ended the regular season that comes to mind. With Jusuf Nurkic down and out, the air had been sucked out of Rip City. There were plenty of optimistis among us…but I’ll tell you right now, I wasn’t one of them. I thought to myself: This is another first-round sweep, and this is the summer the Blazers finally blow it up while Nurk recovers. … And then, Portland played out of its collective mind. That’s the kind of grit that wins you monumental games, and it’s the kind of on-court courage that earns you national recognition unlike anything the team had seen in quite some time.
(CM) Very impressed. I really didn’t like their handling of free agency last year (letting Ed Davis walk, signing Sauce Castillo and Seth Curry), or how they handled the draft. I thought they would take a step back this year, and would need to pull off a miracle to find a way to get the missing part of their “big 3” and go on a deep playoff run. Instead, Jusuf Nurkic became that third piece, and an under the radar trade for Rodney Hood and signing Enes Kanter turned in to gold when the playoffs came around. I don’t know that either player showed enough to justify a long term deal with the team so strapped for cash, but it’s great to see the Blazers outperform expectations, quiet even the harshest critics for a while, and use their newfound success to maybe open up doors for other free agents to consider Rip City as a legitimate destination.
4. GM Neil Olshey wasted no time extending the contract of head coach Terry Stotts and is expected to extend point guard Damian Lillard. Are you happy to see both staying in Rip City long term?
(BK) Yep. I can understand why there might be some concern with Lillard’s long deal and how much money he’ll be making late into his career, but it’s really a no-brainer. And same with Terry Stotts. These two have really defined Portland Basketball for the better part of a decade, and with the body of work both put together this season, it was a formality by the time exit interviews came around.
(CM) Terry Stotts’ extension is very well deserved, especially after the team declined to extend him last year as perhaps a way to motivate him to get more out of his players and to avoid a third consecutive playoff sweep. Stotts obliged, and took a roster on paper that shouldn’t succeed, and found ways to make it happen on game day. Stotts is a great offensive mind, and his players seem to really love playing for him. No one seems to love playing for Stotts more than Lillard, and his new deal should be ironed out any minute. There isn’t a player who gives more energy or works harder to elevate the play of his teammates each and every game. Lillard has re-tooled his game every season, and makes sure he has the same impact that other superstars impose on their opponents. As long as he is the face of the franchise and the focus of the opponent’s defensive gameplan, Dame will be worth every dollar Portland can afford to spend on him.
5. Portland has very limited ways to spend money this summer, a few players able to leave in free agency, and the #25 pick in the draft next month. If you were the GM, how would you manage free agency and the draft?
(BK) I haven’t looked at Portland’s situation too closely, so I can’t answer deeply with much confidence. But I can tell you right now, with Nurkic out the bulk of next season and likely to be in terrible game shape any time he does play, I’m all for developing some guys this next season. I know Lillard may not feel the same way, which is awkward because he and I actually have the same amount of say in the Blazers’ roster decisions—but we’ll get over that. If you lose a few guys from the “overpay or let walk” group, you’re fine. You really don’t have the ability to overpay much anyway from what I understand, so getting guys like Zach Collins (and maybe Anfernee Simons?) more reps makes sense while potentially targeting another good redemption story of a backup point guard to take you from Shabazz Napier—>Seth Curry—>[Insert PG about to have a career year here].
(CM) I know this won’t be a popular opinion, but I would let Al-Farouq Aminu, Seth Curry, Rodney Hood, and Enes Kanter walk in free agency. This will open up valuable playing time for Zach Collins, Meyers Leonard, Anfernee Simons, and Jake Layman and let you know what you truly have in the players you drafted over the last seven years. I strongly believe that this team can be just as good as they were this year by trusting guys that were drafted here, and the team honestly can’t afford any of the soon to be free agents at their current value anyway. If I had to keep one, I like Kanter and my best guess is he would probably like to stay here, but it’s unlikely the Blazers would be able to move around enough assets to keep him and they really don’t have room in their rotation for everyone if Nurkic is able to return earlier than anticipated. I would rather see Meyers Leonard get a shot to prove the final two games of 2019 were not a fluke, but in fact a player finally changing his stars (even though we thought he had finally changed them in the final two games of 2015). After that, instead of bringing in yet another young project, the front office should package the #25 pick with at least one player who will be on an expiring contract next year (Evan Turner anyone?) and send them to a team looking to unload an accomplished wing defender that can help this team win NOW. If they do keep the pick, it tells us that they believe Portland either can’t beat the current version of Golden State, or they actually believe that Moe Harkless is that accomplished wing defender, or soon will be.