Portland Trail Blazers

Portland Trail Blazers

Portland Trail Blazers fans are split. There's a faction who feels much the way they did after beating the Denver Nuggets in the second round, advancing to the team's First Western Conference Finals appearance in 19 years. Those fans, they like to say, we're just happy the team made it that far. Yet another section of the Rip City faithful is disappointed the team went out in yet another playoff sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors.

So how should you feel?

As with many things in the NBA, recency bias seems to play a larger factor than perhaps some of us would like to admit. Emotions get woven into current events, which then cast an unfair light backwards onto what has already come to bear.

At its core, this Blazers team is one that had many adaptations over the course of the 2018-19 NBA season. CJ McCollum was tethered nearly full-time with Damian Lillard. Maurice Harkless tried to get healthy all year. Evan Turner was the mastermind of the second unit. Jusuf Nurkic took on a larger role in the offense, both as a screener and a passer. The bench was much more productive than it was in seasons past, and saved the Blazers in countless regular season games.

This team is also the squad that just got swept by the greatest team ever assembled, one missing perhaps its best player. It's reasonable to be upset with how Portland showed up against Golden State. It's also reasonable to understand the myriad contextual factors that led to those losses, and appreciate this team for how good it was. 

The Blazers were very good, and they got swept. They can be both. They were. They are.

At times, when they were playing together, these Blazers looked absolutely unstoppable. Lillard and McCollum were additive, not taking chunks away from the team basketball delivered by the chemistry that developed top to bottom over the course of the year. The your-turn-my-turn offense was gone, and the defense was more collaborative outside of just a pick-and-roll guard defender and a helpside big man.

They weren't some flash in the pan, and we saw real growth in Portland this season. It started with coach Terry Stotts, who went deeper into his bench and played a longer rotation throughout the year. Whether it was by choice or by function of the roster, Stotts needed more shooting and more dynamism than he had in seasons past. That allowed players like Jake Layman, Nik Stauskas, and Zach Collins to add their contributions at different stretches over the season.

As the year went on, we very clearly knew who this Blazers team was. Yes, it was still Lillard's show, but the rest of his supporting cast looked as though they were the missing piece he had needed for years. The Blazers, as top-heavy as the rest of the Western Conference, were suddenly thick, some eight or nine or ten players deep.

It will get lost in the jumble of history when folks, particularly those who didn't watch this team all year, write about Portland in the years to come. From a distance, you can already see how this season will fade into a short, one line narrative:

Nurkic broke his leg with three weeks left in the season, and despite the best efforts of some fill-in guys, the Blazers couldn't keep things going against the champions.

But that isn't a very good or even accurate understanding of who Portland was, or why it succeeded in the postseason this year. What will get lost is that Portland was able to grab the third seed in the West because of its bench and another MVP candidate season from Lillard. But here’s the rub: that's the same thing that kept this squad going in the postseason even after Nurkic went down. The success of the Blazers in the regular season was the success of the Blazers in the postseason.

Without stopping to understand just how crucial this chemistry was to this team, you’ll miss the best story about Portland this year. Yes, McCollum adapted to his new role. Lillard came out with some new tricks, particularly some up-and-under moves near the rim. But this season was about feeling a swell of confidence for the Blazers when substitutions were made. It was the strong play of the Portland rotation that allowed them to adapt to a catastrophic loss like Nurkic’s broken leg when other, less congealed teams would have crumbled under the heat.

That takes us back to the question of how we should feel, and it starts with how Portland consumes basketball. Rip City is a unique place in the NBA. The Blazers are both a team that has been excellent over the past two decdes, but also not catastrophically frustrated when they aren’t championship contenders. The Blazers or one of the NBA's best franchises from a winning perspective, certainly under the ownership of Paul Allen.

A friend of mine, John, has been championing the idea that “The Blazers are going to win the championship” on Twitter for several years. It's a kind of irrational, feel-good confidence that folks inside the Portland sphere have come to expect. It’s fun, but it doesn’t mean much. What John’s perpetual tweeting of #TBAGTWTC really represents is a tongue-in-cheek poke at the shift in American sports culture to the “championship or bust” model.

The Blazers are not championship contenders at this moment, but throughout the history of Allen's ownership of this team, they've also tried very hard not to go in the other direction; to bust. Without that kind of all-or-nothing thinking, it's much easier for ask to understand how Blazers fans should feel about this season. We land somewhere in the middle, with confidence and happiness for all of the things that did go right, while at the same time understanding it's okay to be disappointed it didn't keep going.

In one month or two months or six months time, I think Portland will see this Western Conference Finals run for what it really was: A magical, fairytale story that wasn't about just the stars, and it wasn't just about the coaches, and wasn't just about the injuries. It was about the bench, and the individual performances, and guys stepping up to will each other forward, well past where they should have gone.

This season in Portland was about camaraderie. It was about brotherhood. It was about being a team that become more than the sum of its parts by banding together. In some small way, it was about resisting the inevitability many have felt in the face of a league dominated by the Warriors. On paper the Blazers had no right to be in the WCF. On the court, they earned every square inch of parquet hammered into each other. From baseline to baseline, stanchion to stanchion.

Feel how you want about this Blazers season coming to an end. I know how I’m going to feel. Proud.

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