The Blazers: An End of an Era?

By Harry Robertson, Reporter

In spite of a heroic effort from Damian Lillard, and a roster burgeoning with more talent than the Blazer’s have seen in a decade, Portland has squandered yet another playoff run. And, with it, another year of Damian Lillard’s prime.


The end of the 2020-21 season feels different than others, though. It is more than likely that Terry Stotts, with his consistent and unwavering defensive deficiencies, is not going to retain his head coaching spot. Moreover, CJ McCollum, despite his long tenure of brilliant, crafty basketball on the offensive end, is also likely going to be placed on the market. This is truly the end-of-an-era for Portland Trail Blazers basketball, but those who were paying attention saw this was a foregone conclusion.


As Albert Einstein may have said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” The Portland Trail Blazers certainly didn’t get the memo. For the better part of 5 years they put their faith in an undersized backcourt who, on any given night, could shoot the other team out of the game. When those shots weren’t falling, though, the Blazers would be giving up upwards of 130+ points. How much of that blame falls on the personnel of the team, vs the coaching and scheming, is certainly debated. But, since the beginning of his 9-year tenure, head coach Terry Stotts has had a bottom-half ranked defense in 7 of those years.


So, this year, the front office sought to make trades to finally bring in the defensive specialists this team was so desperately lacking. Those trades culminated in the highly sought after Robert Covington, and the lanky, athletic dunk champion Derrick Jones Jr. Immediately, the Blazers were in the bottom 5% of the NBA in defensive rating. Despite the upgrades at the wing positions, it is difficult to make up for the lack of athleticism and height at the 1 and 2. Big man Jusuf Nurkić spent the majority of the early season playing back into shape, and, given the atrocious defense of backup center Enes Kanter, there was much to be desired from the center position.


Going into 2021, there was still hope for the Blazers. CJ McCollum was playing the best basketball of his career, and there was indication that Jusuf Nurkić could be on an upward trajectory. Then, injury struck. Both McCollum and Nurkić went down with an ankle fracture, and a wrist fracture, respectively. That is when Damian Lillard, Portland’s perennial all-star, and the best Blazer ever, kicked it into overdrive. Lillard kept the Blazers afloat, leading the Blazers to a 14-11 record without CJ, and a 20-15 record with Jusuf Nurkic. Dame-time continued to actually be a thing, with Lillard putting on heroic displays of clutch shooting almost every night. 


The day of the trade deadline, the Blazers traded budding star Gary Trent Jr. for the dynamic scorer Norman Powell. Powell was supposed to be the extra firepower that the Blazers needed — someone who could create their own shot while providing perimeter defense. And, initially, it seemed as though the trade was paying dividends. Even on nights that the Blazers lacked the ability to defend, they were still able to outscore almost anybody. But, as almost anyone will tell you, defense wins championships, and the Blazers still sorely lacked defense.


By the end of the season, the Blazers had performed well enough to avoid the dreaded play-in tournament, but just barely. This meant a first round matchup against the hobbled and depleted Denver Nuggets, who were missing their superstar point guard in Jamal Murray, as well as 2 key rotational players in Will Barton and PJ Dozier. Analysts and Blazers fans alike were calling Portland as the favorites in this matchup, despite the presence of the presumptive MVP in Nikola Jokic.


Those predictions were certainly wrong. When the game mattered most, there was one man who would consistently answer the call: Damian Lillard. In what is possibly the single best individual performance by any player in playoff history, Dame dropped 55 points on 12 threes, leading his team to two overtimes. In those overtimes, Lillard contributed an additional 17 points, while the rest of his team had 2. The Blazers lost 147 to 140. His teammates failed to show when the spotlight was brightest, especially his backcourt mate CJ McCollum, who, in what is probably his worst playoff series to date, shot 7-22 in 50 minutes. All of this is to say that the Blazers tried the exact same thing, yet again, and it failed. They saw the ceiling of this core in their 2019 WCF run. It is time to make aggressive moves to reward the best Blazer of all time for his dedication to this franchise.


So, what does the future hold for Damian Lillard and the Blazers? That question right now is up in the air. There are a few certainties: Terry Stotts will be fired, and the front office will be forced to reevaluate the core of CJ and Dame, with the former likely being shopped around. There is hope that the Blazers can retain Norman Powell, who will likely decline his $11m player option, in free agency. If that is the case, then you almost certainly need to try and get a star-caliber wing player in return for CJ McCollum. Despite his poor playoff performance, there is still serious value in a prime CJ, who is one of the best mid-range scorers this game has ever seen.


The Blazers are running out of time. Damian Lillard isn’t getting any younger, and for a guy who has branded himself on loyalty, and given everything he has to this team, it is time that the front office sees that loyalty through, and makes the trades that need to happen, happen. If they do not, the Portland Trail Blazers will be doing a disservice to the best player to ever wear their jersey.