It may have ended in disappointment, but the Portland Trail Blazers just had a season that should hearten every aspirational mid-market NBA franchise that's had to stare its own limitations in the face. When people say rings shouldn't be considered the only markers of team success, this Blazers campaign is exactly what they're talking about.
Consider where it began, how it unfolded, and where it ended.
Portland was swept out of the first round a year ago, running its postseason losing streak to 10 games. The team's players and coaching staff spent months stewing over what went wrong while facing persistent questions about whether their personnel simply weren't suited to the rigors of playoff basketball. Kevin Durant told CJ McCollum to his face that the Blazers had no chance to contend for a championship.
However, the front office opted to stay the course and bring back a virtually identical group, including head coach Terry Stotts. The bet on continuity paid off: Familiarity bred a top-three offense, Damian Lillard got better (again!), Jusuf Nurkic made a significant leap at both ends of the floor, and the timely addition of reclamation project Enes Kanter - coupled with the gradual emergence of young big man Zach Collins - helped the team keep chugging along after Nurkic's broken leg seemed to spell the end of hope.
Lillard and McCollum both emphatically slayed their playoff demons: Lillard with an incendiary first round capped by a legacy-shaping, series-winning 3-point bomb; McCollum with a brilliant second round in which he frequently took over lead ball-handling duties and was the best player on the floor in a character-revealing Game 7 road win.
Kanter rewrote his own narrative by proving he could hang against playoff offenses, and by submitting a slew of gutsy outings while playing through a separated shoulder and on an empty stomach while observing Ramadan. Rodney Hood erased the bitter taste of his disastrous playoff run in Cleveland last year with some massive contributions off the bench. Role players - from Collins to Al-Farouq Aminu to Moe Harkless to Evan Turner to Seth Curry to Meyers Leonard - all stepped up at various points and authored their own signature playoff performances.
A favorable bracket helped, sure, but the bottom line is Portland reached the Western Conference finals for the first time in nearly two decades, and the road to that milestone was paved with feats of heroism, theatricality, durability, and genuine surprise; the kinds of moments and memories that some championship winners aren't lucky enough to claim.
Even in getting swept out of the conference finals by their (and everyone's) Bay Area bogeymen, the Blazers went down swinging. They built leads of 17, 18, and 17 points in Games 2, 3, and 4, respectively, before running out of steam against a fresher and more talented Warriors team. Failing to hold onto any of those leads certainly stings, but it doesn't take anything away from the unqualified success that was Portland's season.
The question now is, where do the Blazers go from here?
The good news is their nucleus is locked in for at least the next few years, and the players who comprise it are all in their primes. Lillard is 28, McCollum is 27, and Nurkic is 24. We don't know what Nurkic is going to look like when he returns, but having those three is a recipe for competency, at the very least. Finding the right roster balance around them is where things become difficult. They're already taking up about two-thirds of the salary cap, and that ratio could become even more lopsided. Lillard is reportedly expected to sign a four-year, $190-million super-max extension this summer, according to Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes.
Lillard would earn close to $53 million in the final year of the super-max deal, his age-34 season. That might make the organization and its fans a bit squeamish, but it's hard to find a palatable alternative for a small-market team and its beloved homegrown superstar. Lillard figures to live up to the deal on the front end, and even if the back end looks rough - even if his on-court value over the life of the contract doesn't quite justify the cost - Lillard's impact on the Blazers and the city of Portland is unquantifiable. He's more valuable to them than he would be to another team.
The extension wouldn't kick in until 2021, so the cap ramifications technically wouldn't affect Portland in the near term, but the front office would still have to make decisions with that megadeal in mind.
As it is, the Blazers have $126 million in guaranteed salary committed for 2019-20, just a shade below the projected luxury-tax line. They'll likely be wary of taking on long-term money this offseason since the promise of actual cap space looms in the summer of 2020, when misbegotten deals for Turner, Leonard, and Harkless all come off their books. That cap space will be doubly important if Lillard signs the extension; 2020 could be Portland's last opportunity to add an impact free agent to the Lillard-McCollum-Nurkic core. In other words, this is shaping up to be a quiet summer in Rip City.
Aminu, Kanter, Curry, and Hood are all unrestricted free agents. Given how they played down the stretch of the season and in the playoffs, it's going to be difficult to retain any of those guys, let alone all of them.
Aminu should be the Blazers' top priority from that group. On top of being the only one of the four whose Bird rights they own, he is by far their best wing defender, and they'd have no realistic way to replace his combination of defensive versatility and outside shooting. (Even though he often hamstrung Portland's offense as his shot fell apart in the playoffs, he's hit 35.3 percent of his threes across four seasons as a Blazer.) It would be nice to have Hood and Curry back, but they've likely played themselves out of the small raises Portland can offer them. The same goes for Kanter - who is extraneous, anyway, with Nurkic returning and Collins making a case for more minutes.
Jake Layman will also be an interesting restricted free-agency case. He had a nice mini-breakout this season, and in theory he offers a lot of the things the Blazers need from their patchy forward corps, but his inconsistency got him excised from the playoff rotation. Still, so long as he doesn't get an outsized offer sheet, Portland should retain him. He's big and athletic, a swift and intelligent cutter, and a passable spot-up shooter. (The shooting was his biggest area of improvement this season and should continue to get better.) He has the tools to be an above-average defender. And at 25, he fits their timeline nicely.
For now, barring a stunner of a McCollum trade, roster moves are all going to be of the unsexy variety. The Blazers can use part of their mid-level or taxpayer's mid-level exception (depending on how things play out with their own free agents) to bring in some reinforcements. Adding a bit more playmaking on the wing should be a priority, as should bolstering their shooting if Curry leaves. Portland also has the 25th pick in the draft - along with intriguing, amorphous young players such as Anfernee Simons and Skal Labissiere - to potentially help address those needs. There just isn't a lot of wiggle room.
As Lillard, ever the pragmatist, told Haynes: "We just have to continue to improve with the guys we have. And then if it presents itself where we can get some guys in that can maybe take us to the next level, then look at that. I think that's all we can do."
There are worse places to be as a franchise. If Nurkic is able to approximate his pre-injury form, and the rest of the Blazers stay healthy, there's no reason they can't win 50 or more games once again.
Of course, that doesn't mean they're going to be able to replicate what they did this year. They could be even better next season and still not reach the conference finals in a West that features the dynastic (with or without Durant) Warriors, the still-excellent Rockets, the rising Nuggets, the defensively dominant Jazz, LeBron's (possibly restocked) Lakers, the Paul George-led Thunder, the perpetually solid Spurs, and a Clippers team that figures to add at least one marquee free agent this summer. You can bet that each one of those teams is looking at this year's Blazers and feeling confident it can go just as far, if not further, in 2019-20.
Without the financial flexibility or market cachet to improve the roster through free agency, and with limited means to do so through trades, the Blazers probably have to rely on internal development. They need Collins to keep rounding out his game, and to become more viable as a power forward so he can play alongside Nurkic (which would mean more reliable 3-point shooting and less handsy defense on the perimeter). McCollum can still grow as a playmaker, bump up his free-throw rate, and look to relocate some of his pull-up two-pointers back beyond the arc to improve his efficiency. Lillard will find a way to come back with some new wrinkle in his game.
Even if all that comes to pass, there is a distinct possibility that this season was as good as it's going to get for this era of Portland basketball. And there is absolutely no shame in that. This team did what no Blazers team had done since 2000, and they did it with virtually the same group that had been summarily, humiliatingly bounced from the postseason a year earlier. They did it in spite of significant injuries; did it by winning one series on a buzzer-beating 37-footer and another with a 17-point comeback in a road Game 7; did it while overcoming a four-overtime slugfest, a patchwork front line, a transcendent Nikola Jokic, and all the doubt and redemptive possibility baked into every game, every possession.
Aside from a championship, there really isn't much more you could ask for in a season. The next few months could be quite a comedown.