Every person is going to have their individual sticking point. The one thing that they’ll point to, keep coming back to. For most, it will be Brandon. If Brandon Roy’s knees had held up, if he he had meniscus left in just one of his knees, it would have been different. Others will go to Oden. “He was great when he was on the court,” they’ll say (which is an exaggeration brought about by the circumstances but he was very good). “If he had just been able to recover, he would have been the missing piece.” Some will point to a tough matchup with the Mavericks (which most fans wanted and were surprised when they lost) that caused an inspiring team to fall short. And some will pin it on coaching, management, ownership, this player or that. And the fact remains.
We are witnessing the fall of the Portland Trail Blazers.
It’s March 10th, and the Trail Blazers dropped to 19-21, two games back of the 8th spot in the Western Conference. By no means are they out of it. A five game winning streak likely puts them back in 8th. They are in the midst of a long road trip against tough opponents which makes things more difficult. But all of this belies how they’ve looked. And how they’ve looked is a ship taking on water.
They lost to the struggling Boston Celtics 104-86 Friday night, and at one point were down 40-17. It was one of those “There’s so much blood!” games where you want to look away, it’s so gruesome. They are 3-7 in their last 10, and 5-14 on the road. They have looked out of place, out of sorts, out of effort, and without much of anything in the way of basketball ability. One of their wins in this awful stretch came against the Spurs on one of those nights where Pop rests the Big 3. An inspiring win it was not.
Worse still are the non-court things in play. There is rampant talk that Nate McMillan has lost the group, that players want him fired, that guys are checked out. There’s dissension between those players playing out the year wanting to win and those playing out the year wanting to collect a paycheck and go home. All of the things you associate with a bad situation, that’s how this thing is described. The word “cancerous” has been tossed around repeatedly to describe the locker room. It’s as bad as it can get without gun play, according to most.
This, from a team that has always relied on the strength of its chemistry.
You need to try and remember where this team came from. Portland fans are so dedicated, so committed, so passionate. They’re one of the iconic fanbases of the sport. The Lakers are loud and many. The Celtics fans proud and abundant. But Blazers fans are, to be quite honest, lunatics. You love interacting with them because no one cares about their team as much as they do, takes the team into their hearts the way they do. You hate talking to them for this exact reason, but that comes with the territory. And the Trail Blazers era wrecked so much of that.
They were disgraced, they were embarrassed, they couldn’t get behind their guys. But then this new era erupted and there was so much to be excited about. A young group that had no reason to dissolve. Brandon Roy was the phenom, the future “jersey in the rafters” kid. LaMarcus Aldridge was never given the top billing but worked his way to be the kind of impact player Oden was designated to be from draft day. Oden was going to make it all come together. Those years when the Blazers were rising to near the playoffs and then making their first appearance were filled with nothing but hope and confidence that this Blazers team would be a Finals contender for the next half-decade. What could go wrong?
Ownership, too quick with the trigger on GMs who were good at their job. (Yes, multiple GMs in a three-year span, how does that happen?) Management too attached to ideas of players than production or what they can acquire at some points, and too rushed to bring in veterans at others. Injuries, of course. Dynamics. And a coach who always seemed to get more out of his guys than you could expect but not as much as you could demand.
And so it ends. A dream that was set on fire and left to slowly burn out, a reminder that being young and well-formed does not mean that team is destined for greatness, that it’s more than coaching, talent, and desire, that luck is often the determining factor in basketball fate. The trade deadline is five days away. While you’re waiting for that next move which is inevitably coming, if not a total blow-up, try and remember what this team meant, what they were supposed to be, and how good that made everyone feel. And use it to remind yourself that basketball can be melancholy sometimes. It can be disappointing. It can be sad.
The Blazers are on fire. But it’s not a disaster or a hilarious explosion or an egotist exploration.
It’s a funeral pyre.
God Save the Blazers.