General Manager Masai Ujiri had a decision to make. He contemplated firing Coach Dwane Casey. He considered making bigger moves to break up the roster. Was it possible for this team, this core, to truly contend for a championship, or even be a serious threat to advance deep into the Eastern Conference portion of the bracket?
Ujiri ultimately chose patience. He didn’t fire Casey. He didn’t trade Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan. Instead, he continued adding to the Raptors’ core and kept making draft picks, and Toronto had breakthroughs — first going to the Eastern Conference finals in 2016, then bouncing back from a second-round exit last year to have the best record in the Eastern Conference this season.
All of this is instructive when thinking about the current plight of the Portland Trail Blazers, in the wake of their own unceremonious departure from the playoffs Saturday night, when the New Orleans Pelicans completed a four-game sweep that turned what was a feel-good season for the third-seeded Blazers into a crisis moment for the franchise.
Like that Toronto team, Portland has had repeated playoff struggles. This year’s sweep has brought the total to 10 straight losses in playoff games for Portland, dating back to the final two games of the Blazers’ second-round series with the Golden State Warriors in 2016 (the Warriors also swept them in four games last year). And, like that Toronto team, Portland has a roster built around two ball-dominant guards — Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum — with role players dropped in around them.
The difference, though, is that patience doesn’t feel like it’s an option here. Instead, it’s a matter of what major change happens — or if several of them do.
The rumor mill has percolated for days with the possibility that Coach Terry Stotts could be let go in the wake of an ugly exit from this postseason. As this series went from bad to worse for Portland, those thoughts were also connected to General Manager Neil Olshey.
For years now, the debate has raged over whether Lillard and McCollum are a partnership that can lead to long-term success. With the way this series went, the talk of splitting them up has only intensified.
The futures of both Stotts and Olshey will likely be determined by owner Paul Allen, and it’s hard to tell exactly where he will come down. Stotts has consistently been highly regarded around the league for the way he’s gotten as much as it seems possible out of this roster, while Olshey deserves credit for drafting McCollum and making slick moves to bring in players like Jusuf Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless.
That said, this roster isn’t good enough. Anyone watching Portland in this series could see what the game plan was: take Lillard, in particular, out of the series and make his teammates beat them.
His teammates couldn’t do it. They couldn’t really come close.
Some of that is because of a remarkable effort by the Pelicans — who had the best player in this series in Anthony Davis, the second-best in Jrue Holiday and arguably the third-best in Nikola Mirotic. But some of it was because Portland doesn’t have enough shooting, and enough versatile pieces, around their guards to properly contend. And because of past heavy spending, there is no financial flexibility to go find those players in free agency.
Ujiri kept his team together and spent the next couple of years finding pieces to complement Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan similar to the ones the Blazers need. The result? The franchise is reaching heights it never has before and may be the favorite to make it out of the East this year given how the Cavaliers are falling apart.
First, Allen has to decide if he’s going to keep the same leadership in charge. Then the decision has to be made if Lillard and McCollum can be the faces of a team that makes deep playoff runs.
Part of the thinking here also has to consider what the Western Conference looks like. Unlike the East — where, outside of Cleveland, Ujiri hasn’t had much to worry about the past couple of years — the West is top-heavy with contenders. Portland really only made it to the third seed this year because the Oklahoma City Thunder (Andre Roberson), Minnesota Timberwolves (Jimmy Butler) and San Antonio Spurs (Kawhi Leonard) all had serious injuries.
Even still, look around the West. New Orleans clearly is on a better trajectory, if only because of the presence of Davis, who arguably is the league’s best player. Same for Utah, which has a much deeper nucleus to build from (plus cap space this summer). Even teams like the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers, who didn’t make the playoffs this year, could become threats to lure stars in free agency either this summer or next. The Denver Nuggets, with one of the youngest cores in the league, should continue to improve, as well.
That’s not to say Portland is a mess. Making the playoffs five straight seasons in the Western Conference is no joke.
But sometimes iterations of teams have run their course, and hard choices have to be made. That is the place the Trail Blazers find themselves in now.
How they proceed from here could not only determine the fate of both a well-respected coach and general manager, and whether they will be back in the job market. It also could mean that another pair of big names — Lillard and McCollum — could enter a potential trade market that already could include Leonard, not to mention potential free agents LeBron James, Paul George and Chris Paul.
These Blazers are reminiscent of those Raptors in so many ways. But unlike Toronto, which took the long view, it feels like change is coming to Portland.
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