The Portland Trail Blazers may have to face the harsh reality this is the best it gets.
Only one team can win the NBA title, and the Blazers simply aren’t good enough to be the one. They have been swept by that team in two of the past three years. Still, they reached the Western Conference finals for the first time in the Damian Lillard era, meaning their season lasted longer than 26 others. If at some point they cannot look back on this as their victory, they may be in for a career of disappointment.
“We put together a great season and we put ourselves in position to go to the Finals,” Lillard said after Monday’s series-ending loss to the Golden State Warriors. “Every other team in the league would wish they could be in our shoes, not only making the playoffs but playing for an opportunity to play for a chance to go to the Finals, and we just ran up on a team who has been there the last four years.”
An opportunity to play for a chance to go to the Finals. There is so much to unpack in that phrase, and within are some difficult questions for a competitor like Lillard. Is the opportunity alone good enough? Because what are their chances, really?
Kevin Durant and C.J. McCollum had a fascinating conversation about this topic prior to this season, when the former asked the latter about his concerns with the rich Warriors getting richer this past summer: “Why are you mad about this stuff?”
“Bro, I’m in the league,” said McCollum. “What do you mean why am I mad about this? I’m in the Western Conference. I’ve got to play you m——f——s all the time anyway as it is, over and over again. We done got eliminated by y’all a few times.”
“I mean, you know you guys aren’t going to win a championship,” added Durant.
That is the smuggest way possible to state what this Warriors superteam has meant for many a roster, but that makes it no less true: No matter how much these Blazers improve collectively, it may never be enough to reach the mountaintop.
McCollum left that conversation believing his Blazers could still win the title, and to a man his teammates left this year’s sweep at the hands of the Warriors — sans Durant and DeMarcus Cousins, no less — believing they can still take that Finals step with a pinch more improvement here and a dash more consistency there.
“We have to figure out ways to get over the hump,” McCollum added Monday.
They must convince themselves of this, because otherwise what’s the point? Strip away the possibility of winning a championship, and what motivation is there for getting back in the gym this summer and beginning their ascent again next season?
The Blazers have done this better than anyone. They were swept by a lesser New Orleans Pelicans team in the first round of the 2018 playoffs. That is enough to make most teams re-evaluate their endgame, but the Blazers stayed the course.
Most prognosticators pegged Portland to fall back to the pack, suggesting the front office should move either Lillard or McCollum and try a different path forward, but the Blazers quadrupled down on this core. Lillard extended his range to counter the threat of trapping defenses, McCollum expanded his arsenal for making teams pay when they double his co-star, and general manager Neil Olshey found creative ways to reconstruct a roster around them despite self-inflicted salary cap restraints.
The result was Portland’s best season since Scottie Pippen and Arvydas Sabonis wore the red and black. They won 53 games and reached the conference finals.
And it still wasn’t good enough. Not even close.
The Blazers can convince themselves that next year will be different. Stud center Jusuf Nurkic, who missed the entirety of the playoffs, will presumably be back from his broken left leg. Zach Collins showed enough in his second season to suggest he could make a leap toward becoming a formidable cog. Maybe that’s enough to avoid blowing big leads in their final three playoff losses. This is their half-full glass.
Half empty, the Blazers got swept by a Warriors team that didn’t have Durant or Cousins for the entirety of the series and didn’t have Andre Iguodala for Game 4. They traveled the least bumpy road to the conference finals, avoiding the Houston Rockets in Round 2, and they still required career-best efforts from Lillard and McCollum to knock out their first two opponents. The pounding of the playoffs once again took its toll on their two undersized stars, and half their rotation — Al-Farouq Aminu, Enes Kanter, Rodney Hood and Seth Curry — can walk in July.
This was their mountaintop.
We can argue again whether it’s best for the Blazers to break this team up, but all indications are they will quintuple down, offering Lillard a supermax extension that will make him the face of their franchise through 2025. And maybe it’s time that we accept it is good enough to field a team that is beloved by their city and each other.
The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers have spent the past couple years prioritizing assets over culture, and it has gotten them no closer to a title than the Blazers got this season. They may well get their rings before Portland, and that is the ultimate goal in this sport, but when it comes at the expense of a miserable season for all involved, maybe there is more honor in going down with your crew.
There is reason to admire Portland for hoping beyond hope that the tide will turn in its favor, so long as it keeps putting in the work. Maybe everyone else’s idea of what it means to be a winner will water down the rest of the league. As superstars bounce around in pursuit of something better, there’s always the slim chance that the team prioritizing continuity and camaraderie will ultimately emerge victorious.
What Lillard told ESPN’s Zach Lowe to start the year still rings true: “I'm gonna be in my 11th year or something here, I'm gonna stick with it, and we're gonna make the Finals. ... I've treated people the right way. I've put in the work. And because of that, if it doesn't happen, I can live with it. I'll have enjoyed the ride. It's worth it."
It’s something to which we can all relate: You may never be the best at what you do, but you can maximize your potential, and Portland did exactly that this season.
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