“You’re really going to do this?” is a question one canceled ABC drama character asks another right before they pack up their sedan and move across the country by themselves. It’s something my family not-so-subtly asked me when I told them I was moving to Chicago after more than a decade in the mountains. And now, the leading question is ringing through my head as the Portland Trail Blazers and Damian Lillard are at least acting like they’re actually going to try to compete next year following a “quick step backward.”
Interim GM Joe Cronin gave his exit interview after a year that could only be graded as “incomplete,” and said he was uncomfortable with the egregiously blatant tanking during the second half of the season, and that it won’t become the norm (per OregonLive):
“I still feel uncomfortable about it. We have a really competitive group. We didn’t want to lose ballgames. Sometimes it’s necessary. Sometimes you have to go with your youth movement ... This, theoretically is a really quick step backward. We’re not looking at two, three, four years of this. So, that makes it easier. But as far as the discomfort, the willingness to accept losing, that was really hard for us and continues to be.”
The team has been taking nothing but quick steps backward since making the 2019 Western Conference Finals, leading up to this year when they opted to trade away CJ McCollum and a bunch of capable players at the midway point of an injury-plagued season. Lillard sat out the majority of the year after having surgery to repair an abdominal injury. He could have, forgive me, gutted through it, but it was smart for a 31-year-old point guard who has never played less than 35 minutes per game in any of his 10 seasons and was coming off an Olympics where he got injured to shut it down and heal up.
While Cronin was joking when he told reporters that Lillard “knows more about trade exceptions than anyone in this room,” I don’t think he was kidding when he said, “We’ve pivoted to Damian helping us build this roster.” (He might’ve been right about the trade exceptions, though, because they’re the towing hitches of the NBA. “Yes, Brett, I heard you the first time you said your Jeep has a hitch, but I’ve never seen you tow shit. You don’t even own a boat.”)
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From a convenient lost season standpoint — and if you view it through Rose-Garden-tinted shades — the Blazers’ 2021-22 season is like the Golden State year that led to them landing James Wiseman with the second pick in the draft. Even though the GM is pitching a turnaround like he’s flipping a house on Flip or Flop, the only real similarities are a tired face of the franchise and a lost season.
McCollum isn’t coming back, Jusuf Nurkić was never Draymond Green, and the Blazers need considerable luck on lottery night to land the No. 2 pick. And even if they do, who’s to say Chet Holmgren doesn’t go the way of Wiseman. I’m a wildly glass-half-full Trail Blazers fan, and I can’t even envision an offseason that puts this team in contention in the West next year.
In my McCollum trade article/obit, I wrote “The optimistic part of my galaxy brain says maybe Lillard recruited a player during his time on the set of Space Jam 2 or at the Olympics over the summer.”
I’m still at that point because some under-the-table, out-of-nowhere deal for a superstar is the only path back to the top of the standings in an offseason bereft of quality free agents and disgruntled, under-contract All-Stars. Also, you can’t make a trade when you got rid of all of your trade assets (minus Lillard).
The sixth pick in the draft and the items they got in return for the deadline trades aren’t that alluring, and why would a team like Washington part with Bradley Beal for some loose change? Nurkić and Anfernee Simons are both up for new deals, so you can’t trade them.
A big reason Portland was willing to part with McCollum is because they wanted to free up cap space and playing time for Simons. To the Blazers credit, Simons was taking a leap until the team went full Process and concocted an injury for him to sit out the rest of the season. There was even a stretch when it looked like Portland was good enough to make the play-in without Lillard, McCollum, Norm Powell, and Robert Covington.
However, there’s a large gap between pushing the 34-48 Spurs for a 10 seed and vying with Phoenix, Memphis, and Golden State for Western Conference supremacy. Also, ask the Cavs and Lakers how well it went when they let their best player influence roster moves. That said, Lillard can’t be any worse than Neil Olshey or LeBron James, so maybe it’ll work out?
NBA fans have been clamoring for Lillard to get an opportunity to go Dame Time on the way to the Finals, and it’s fair to say that Lillard feels the same way. It would be awesome to see him exchange lightning bolts with the gods. We know he’s capable of mythical feats. That’s why I’m asking, “You’re really going to do this?”
You’re really going to try an impromptu restructure using hope, a couple lottery picks, and salary cap space? And you’re not going to get halfway through next year and suddenly realize that this isn’t for you and ask out? Chris Haynes is ready and willing to leak a trade request. The team tore down the roster to its foundation. If you let go, the organization can, as well, and it’s probably what’s best for both parties long term.
Short term, though? Fuck everybody. Dame is running it back. He’s not yelling “Anything’s possible!” in another team’s colors, so stop the photo shops and thirsty pleas on social media. Find a new angle.
Rip City till I die.