No ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ Card: Why the Trailblazers are about to Implode
Bad Men, Bad Takes – Season 1
It may not seem that big a deal on paper, but Sunday’s 145-117 loss to the Boston Celtics might be the beginning of the end for this current version of the Portland Trailblazers.
In its isolation, the loss, while bad, is not a disaster. The Blazers were missing leader Damian Lillard through injury and while the team battled hard in patches, particularly in the second quarter to bring the margin to just six at half-time, the end result was predictable – another loss where the margin was so large that the game was decided well before the final buzzer.
It was their fifth loss in their past six games – their only win coming against the Detroit Pistons, the worst team in the entire NBA so far this season. Those losses have come at the hands of the Kings, Warriors, Jazz, Spurs and now the Celtics by an average margin of 20 points. The Warriors and Jazz are some of the Western Conference’s elite teams, and it can be argued losses to them were not unexpected, but the Kings and Spurs are both below .500 and the Celtics have been marred by inconsistency all season.
While still early in the season, the Blazers were in a precarious position in the off-season with rumours abounding that Damian Lillard wanted a trade, and that he put the heat on the organisation to begin to build something substantial and not be satisfied with simply making the Playoffs. The performance of the team in the opening six weeks has done nothing to alleviate the concerns Lillard reportedly had, and recent events could mark the start of a shift in attitude and direction in the rose city.
Neil Olshey (left) and Damian Lillard (right) prior to a Playoff game. Olshey was fired last Saturday. Credit: Blazer’s Edge
First and foremost, the franchise fired General Manager and President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey following the results of an independent investigation into concerns around workplace environment raised by non-player personnel at the Blazers practice facility. Olshey, for all of his faults as outlined in the report by law firm O’Melveny & Myers, was objectively a good GM.
He had helped lead the Blazers to eight consecutive post-season appearances since his appointment in 2012 and while Blazers fans had long lamented the lack of change on the roster and attempts to bring in another genuine superstar to help Lillard, the reality is that there is only a small handful of those players the world over, and the Portland market is a tough sell to any potential free agent. Another lense to view the firing of Olshey through is one that opens the inevitable questions surrounding stability for the franchise going forward.
While Joe Cronin will serve as interim General Manager while the franchise searches for a permanent replacement, the Blazers were already dealing with the resignation of President and CEO Chris McGowan last month following his nine-year tenure. In addition to this, the organisation currently has vacancies in all kinds of positions, ranging from Internships to Season Ticket Managers and from Activation Specialists to Digital Product Managers. Where the lack of stability arguably hits hardest, and has the largest impact, however, is on the court with the Head Coach.
New Head Coach Chauncey Billups (centre) speaks to franchise corner-stones CJ McCollum (left) and Damian Lillard (right). Credit: Sporting News
The Blazers moved to fire Head Coach Terry Stotts at the end of last season, just one-day after their Game 6 loss to the Denver Nuggets in the first-round. While Stotts had his flaws as a Head Coach, he had the support of Superstar and face of the Franchise Damian Lillard, and also helped the team make a Western Conference Finals appearance during the 2019 Playoffs. His replacement, Chauncey Billups, on the other hand, had never held a Head Coaching job in the NBA and while he was lauded during his time as an Assistant with the Clippers last season, is very inexperienced.
This lack of experience is already causing headaches for the Blazers on and off the court, with Billups failing to improve the Blazers on the defensive end, a key pillar of his candidacy for the position. Portland were ranked 29th last season in defensive efficiency and currently rank 30th this season.
In addition to his failings to improve the Blazers on the court, he has also recently called out not only the entire team for their lack of effort in Lillard’s absence, but also the veterans specifically for not helping the young players build a sense of pride in their performance and develop an understanding of the politics that exist within the NBA.
In fairness, Billups may well have a point in this regard. The team is playing uninspiring ball and seems to coast through games when Lillard is not on the floor to try and ignite a spark for them. Just like, again, in fairness, the roster seeming to be incapable of developing defensively is not necessarily Billups’ fault. Coach Stotts was at the helm from the moment Lillard was drafted and could never manage to get any combination of players to buy in and make any substantial gains on that end of the floor. But the disconnect that appears to exist between Billups and the playing group without Lillard as a conduit is concerning, one that may be concerning enough to trigger an already dis-engaged Lillard to pull the pin.
Lillard (right) hits arguably his most famous shot over Oklahoma’s Paul George (left) to power the Blazers into the second-round of the Playoffs in 2019. Credit: Blazer’s Edge
Lillard dis-engaged? What on earth gives me that idea I hear you ask. Well, let’s look at things crictically.
Lillard has been on record repetitively during his career as saying he wants to retire a Blazer, and while I believe that is true, the franchise has failed to deliver on their promise to him during the off-season. Lillard asked for the franchise to gain a sense of direction and aim higher than just making the Playoffs every year, and to help him get the right pieces around him to make a deep post-season run.
So far, instead of stability and a standard of excellence, Lillard has been delivered a rookie Head Coach who seems to not relate well to the playing group and calls the team out in the media to try and ignite a fire beneath them. Also, he’s witnessed a GM and CEO be fired and tender his resignation respectively, as well as an independent investigation into workplace culture – all before Christmas.
Perhaps you could overlook those factors and believe in the franchise. Perhaps you could play for the fans who show up game-in, game-out to support you, but even that may not be enough considering how a portion of the fan-base turned on Lillard during the most recent off-season and questioned his character. This article by Quentin Thorne sums up how Lillard may be feeling after some perceived a section of the fan-base turning on Lillard, so while he has always said he wants to retire a Blazer, that may be changing.
“Why should he give his heart and soul to people that are willing to turn their back on him so quickly? Why reward these fans with a championship even though they feel they have the right to insult his character? The answer is he (Lillard) does not have to do anything for any of these people.” Quentin Thorne – RipCity Project
We’ve seen star players have the fan base turn on them as recently as Blake Griffin with the Detroit Pistons. While it may only be as small percentage of the fan-base who criticise a particular player, NBA players are humans too, and they feel anger. They can feel hurt emotionally and this quote by Blake Griffin sums up why Lillard may be feeling that way. He has given his all for this franchise, this city, and these fans. To be levelled with this level of criticism given all he has done for them would be enough to make anyone questions whether this is where they want to continue to play.
Which brings me to Lillard’s recent absence due to an abdominal injury. Lillard recently put on public record that he has been dealing with this injury for ‘three to four years’. Firstly, this is astounding given the level of play he has delivered consistently over this time, but it also raises the question why he would choose to sit with the injury now when it hasn’t been something that has caused him to miss time in the past?
According to the Blazers, Lillard has never missed time due to any abdominal issue prior to February 3rd this year. A look at Lillard’s official injury history proves this. So why start missing games with this issue now? Well, could it be that Lillard is focusing on getting himself right for when he opts to request a trade so he can hit the ground running with his new team?
In my mind, all signs point to this being the way Lillard’s mind is working. During the off-season, he asked for certain things from the team, and they have not only failed to deliver, but he’s has had to watch the entire organisation fall apart around him, both on and off the court. The General Manager that helped them reach eight consecutive post-seasons is gone, and the only coach he has known at the NBA level is also gone, replaced by a rookie Head Coach who appears to be struggling to keep his head, and the team, above water.
If Lillard’s time is quickly coming to a close in Portland, I suspect the Franchise would likely embark on a fully-fledged re-build given they have a new CEO, President, General Manager and President of Basketball Operations. If that’s the case, Blazers fans should be prepared to wash the bitter taste from their mouths and remember the good times.
The best of which may well be the aftermath of the shot over Paul George, which, given it’s nickname as ‘The Wave”, may well be a fitting and ironic end to Lillard’s tenure in Oregon.
Lillard waves goodbye to the Thunder during the 2019 Post-Season. Credit: NBC Sports
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