The Blazers season came to an end on Thursday following a 126-115 loss to the Denver Nuggets.
The first-round exit stings, but if we’re being completely honest, it should have been expected.
The Blazers have been built for regular-season success, but the postseason is a very different animal.
For eight straight seasons, the Blazers have been fortunate enough to make it to the postseason, and for the fifth time in those eight seasons, they were bounced in the first-round.
As constructed, this team just isn’t built for a championship run and it never really has been over its current eight-year playoff streak.
But why? Let's dive in.
First, it goes without saying that Damian Lillard is the greatest player in franchise history. A perennial All-Star and an MVP candidate. He is not the problem.
The problem is the pieces that have been put around him to this point.
As NBA history has shown, it’s rare for a team to win a championship when their best player is a point guard. When a team does revolve around its point guard, there is a very specific roster constructed around them.
They have fellow all-stars to play alongside. They have all-league defenders to rely on. They have players who have a very specific skillset, but are in the upper echelon of the league for their respective skill. More often than not, it’s having a transcendent forward or a player that creates huge matchup problems that leads to a title.
Let me explain.
Since 1988, only four championship teams had point guard as their best player:
- The Detroit Pistons in ‘89 and ’90
- The Pistons again in 2004
- The Golden State Warriors 2015
In ’89-90, the Piston were led by All-Star point guard Isiah Thomas, but the pieces around him were incredible. He had Dennis Rodman and Joe Dumars who were both NBA First-Team All-Defense selections for both of those seasons, and both would join Thomas on the All-Star team in 1990. Rodman was also named the Defensive Player of the Year in 1990. Thomas also has Bill Laimbeer who was one of the greatest “enforcers” the game had ever seen. Thomas had the all-world talent around him.
In 2004, the Pistons best player was arguably Finals MVP Chauncey Billups. He was the team’s second leading scorer behind Richard Hamilton, but led the team in assists, three-point percentage, and free throw percentage. He was the cog that made the machine run. But, like Thomas’ Piston, he had the elite defensive talent around him. In Ben Wallace he had the league's best defender at that time. Over a five year stretch from 2001 to 2006, Wallace was named Defensive Player of the Year four times. He also had Tayshaun Prince who was one of the best two-way players at the time and would be an all-league defensive selection from 2004-2008. Rip Hamilstion, Rasheed Wallace. Billups had the talent around him.
Lastly, you have the 2014 Warriors-- the pre-Kevin Durant Warriors. Led by the league MVP, Steph Curry, the Warriors were unstoppable. But Steph’s supporting cast was incredible. Draymond Green was one of the best defenders in the league, finishing second to Kawhi Leonard in DPOY voting. Klay Thompson was an NBA All-Star and is perhaps the best catch and shoot guard the league has ever seen. He's great at defense to boot. He even had Andre Iguodala who was just a season removed from a First-Team All-Defense selection. He had elite defensive talent around him.
When teams were built around their point guard, they were usually built round transcendent forwards or Hall of Fame players so unique that they created major matchup issues.
In the other cases, the team is usually built around a player so unique that they create match-up probelms at every turn.
- Chicago had Michael Jordan, the greatest to ever play the game. But even he had Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, two all-league defenders.
- Houston had Hakeem Olajuwon, a unicorn that was nearly unguardable. He is one of the best bigs in the history of the league and major matchup problem. But even he had the help of Clyde Drexler at one point.
- The Lakers had Kobe and Shaq. Shaq was the league MVP and had his way in the paint, while Kobe was the league's best shooting guard, an All-Star, and, you guessed it, an all-league defender.
- The Spurs had the Twin Towers of Tim Duncan and David Robinson for one run, and later they had a core of Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard to win with. Duncan could play 4 and 5 and create problems at every turn, while Kawhi was and still is an all-league defender that can play any position you need him to. Kawhi would be the key to the Raptors winning in 2019, as well.
- Miami’s first title was basically a repeat of the 2000 Lakers with All-Star Dwyane Wade and Shaq running the show. Wade was also an all-league-level defender at the time and Shaq was still Shaq.
- Boston had the Big-3, but even they were built around their main star Kevin Garnett. A versatile forward who was arguably the best power forward in the league at the time. He also Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, two fellow All-Stars with Allen being the NBA's current all-time leader in three-point field goals.
- LeBron… Miami. Cleveland. LA. enough said.
You get the picture.
Portland has never put that type of talent around Lillard.
He has had CJ McCollum, who for as good as he is offensively, is equally poor on the defensive end. He has never made an All-Star game, but that's in part due to the stacked Western Conference. Still, he has never had an all-league defender next to him. He hasn’t had a roster with bodies that can help create matchup problems to take the pressure off.
It’s no coincidence that the time the Blazers did see their most success with back-to-back 50 win seasons was when Lillard had another All-Star by his side in LaMarcus Aldridge.
Since Aldridge left, it has felt like patchwork after patchwork to stay afloat. To be fair, it has worked… in the regular season. But championships aren’t won by success from November to April. They're made with success in the playoffs.
The point is, the roster as it’s constructed will always face an uphill battle to reach the top of the mountain. While the Terry Stotts era has come to an end, it’s hard to see any new coach finding greater success with the same exact roster.
Derrick Jones Jr. is Derrick Jones Jr. whether he's coached by Terry Stotts or Erik Spoelstra, one of the best coaches in the NBA. That’s not a knock on DJJ, it’s just to say the team needs more than just coaching change. It needs a complete roster overhaul.
The status quo is safe. The status quo is familiar. The status quo leads you to the playoffs for a league-leading nine seasons in a row. It also leads you to a 22-40 playoff record over that same period.
So, all eyes look to Neil Olshey. The person responsible for breaking the monotony... and he has failed to do so to this point.
When history shows that you need a certain type of player to find playoff success, Olshey has failed to bring in that type of player. He has brought in players like Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Derrick Jones Jr. Players who are talented rotational players but were asked to be more than they should have. Harkless and Aminu aren’t starters on a championship team. Derrick Jones Jr…. He started for Portland for half the season but couldn’t touch the floor in the playoffs? Kent Bazemore, Anthony Tolliver, Mario Hezonja, Evan Turner, the list goes on.
To be fair, the moves this season were a step in the right direction. Norman Powell is the two-way guard the Blazers have desperately needed and Robert Covington can be a great piece as well for what he does on both ends. But the Blazers are still missing that major difference-maker. That all-league defender, or pure catch and shoot weapon, or that player that can play multiple positions at such a high level that they create major matchup problems.
It’s clear what Portland needs to do. We all see it. The question is, can Olshey finally pull the trigger? If not, it might be time Portland gets them someone that will.