Trail Blazers at a Crossroads

It was fun while it lasted, but it was really sad to see how the 2014-15 season unfolded for the Portland Trail Blazers. Almost overnight, they transformed into a title contender after years of mediocrity, but their fall back to earth was as fast as their rise. A year removed from Damian Lillard’s Game 6 buzzer-beater against the Houston Rockets, their season ended in the form of a five game rout at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies, and the path ahead for the Blazers appears to be as clear as mud.

Maybe we overrated them. Maybe they were never as good as we thought. I wanted to see Portland become a powerhouse, and after their appearance on Portlandia (Blazers owner Paul Allen and general manager Neil Olshey were also featured in sketches from that episode), they were the suddenly coolest team in the NBA outside of the work of art that is the San Antonio Spurs. They had a lot of great personalities from the fearless little point guard that could in Lillard, to the perennially underrated veteran superstar LaMarcus Aldridge (Seriously, this guy hasn’t been talked about enough until recently in the discussion for best forwards in the NBA. It is tough that he plays in the same era as LeBron James, Tim Duincan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, and Anthony Davis.), to Robin Lopez, who looks like Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez’ evil twin because he his(I don’t know that he’s literally evil, but the fact that he let his hair go all Sideshow Bob on us while Brook kept his tight makes me suspicious), to tough guy Wesley Matthews. Also, they have great fans. One thing the NBA has really gotten right over the years has been putting teams in cities that are that don’t have a major league team in football, hockey, or baseball, which breeds a rabid fanbase like you see at the collegiate level or like the following hockey has in Canada. Portland is one of those cities just like San Antonio, Oklahoma City (sorry, Seattle), Memphis, Salt Lake City, and Sacramento, and Blazers fans, along with Portlandia has made me want to live there at some point. At the trade deadline, the Trail Blazers added shooting guard Arron Afflalo from the Denver Nuggets, a former UCLA standout so good that Kendrick Lamar he’s mentioned and praised in a Kendrick Lamar song, and they appeared poised for a deep playoff run. Then Matthews got hurt.

The injury to Wesley Matthews exposed just how vulnerable any NBA team is to collapse. The Blazers were a tight knit roster, artfully constructed with players in their prime (aside from Lillard, who still has a high ceiling, but his defensive shortcomings currently hold the 24 year old back from true super-stardom. They have an experienced coach in Terry Stotts, who won a championship as an assistant under Rick Carlisle in Dallas, and who has implemented a great offense in Portland. All of that is great, but the injury to Matthews, one of those hard working Marquette basketball players like Jae Crowder or Kenneth Faried, was a huge loss. Matthews was the tough guy that helped the skill guys shine, like what David West does for Indiana or Draymond Green does for Golden State.

The 2015 Trail Blazer are hardly the first championship contender to have a season and possibly a legacy derailed by injuries, and they certainly won’t be the last. My Celtics won a title in 2008 (the only one of their 17 that happened in my lifetime), had an even hotter start in 2008-09 before Kevin Garnett wrecked his knee and fell in seven games to the Dwight Howard and Stan Van Gundy-led Orlando Magic in the conference semifinals, came back older and slower the following year, but made the 2010 NBA Finals anyway before a knee injury to Kendrick Perkins in Game 6 left them with no answer for Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum. In 2011, they traded Perkins away, and had to rely on Shaq’s pushing 40 year old body, which inevitably did not hold up. In 2012, it was young Avery Bradley whose injury combined with LeBron’s arrival as a champion that derailed their last attempt at the illusive second title for that Celtics team. In the summer of 2012, Ray Allen signed with the Miami Heat, and the era was over. In Portland’s own history, injuries to Bill Walton, and more recently Greg Oden (who was drafted #1 overall, ahead of Kevin Durant in 2007) and Brandon Roy (drafted #6 overall in 2006, the same year the Trail Blazers also picked LaMarcus Aldridge at #2) have left fans and pundits alike wondering what might have been. I’m sure Blazers fans would love for a run like what the Celtics enjoyed, or even one like the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are in danger of losing Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to free agency, injury, or both, have had, but their window with this roster appears to be even smaller than it was even a couple of months ago. It’s amazing and frightening how quickly things can change.

The dark cloud looming over Portland’s summer is the impending free agency of LaMarcus Aldridge. LMA has the feel of a franchise superstar, and before a couple months ago, he was a consensus favorite to play in Portland for the rest of his career and retire as a Blazer.This is a franchise that has had a lot of talented players go through the organization, but few, if any stayed there forever, much like the Atlanta Braves. Even Hall of Famers Bill Walton (who was the MVP of the 1977 NBA Finals, Portland’s only championship) and Clyde Drexler (who helped bring Portland to the NBA Finals before losing to some guy named Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls) eventually found greener championship pastures in Boston and Houston. People had hoped that Aldridge would be the Trail Blazers’ Chipper Jones in that regard, but the way this season ended makes it a lot harder for Portland to bring him back. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and even Hank Aaron played for other teams, but Chipper was only ever a Brave. Bill Simmons wrote in one of his recent mailbag columns that Aldridge could stay in Portland out of loyalty, but as he enters his second decade in the NBA, it likely wouldn’t be the best basketball decision for a good to very good player who needs a ring to be remembered as a great player.

There are homecoming options for the Texas native if he signs with the Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, or Houston Rockets. Dallas has an aging superstar in Dirk Nowitzki, and a roster in flux after the disaster that was trading for Rajon Rondo this season. They’ve been a consistent contender outside of their lockout-shortened 2012 championship hangover, but in the short term, they do not seem like a better basketball situation than Portland. San Antonio just lost a thrilling seven game series to the Los Angeles Clippers, after winning their fifth title in fifteen years. They have the best coach in the NBA (and the second best to build a franchise around in the history of the game after Red Auerbach, with all due respect to Phil Jackson and Pat Riley) in Gregg Popovich, they’re the only game in town the way the Trail Blazers are in Portland, they have a great mix of young and veteran talent, and he has the chance to be the “next guy” when Tim Duncan eventually retires. The burden of being the next guy is not for everyone. For every Dave Cowens to follow Bill Russell, there are a dozen discouraging examples like the revolving doors at the quarterback position the Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos experienced after Dan Marino and John Elway retired. That’s why the Houston Rockets, who have not won a title since the mid 90s with a completely different roster, and are still looking for a third All-Star caliber player to go with Dwight Howard and James Harden, might be the best place for Aldridge to land. There are also young teams in the East like Boston and Orlando that LMA could make into something exciting.

The future is murky, but it is hard to believe the Trail Blazers will be better next year than they were the last two. We will see, but there isn’t much to feel good about in Portland right now if you’re a basketball fan.

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