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It’s The End Of Something In Portland

PORTLAND, OREGON - OCTOBER 20: Damian Lillard #0 and CJ McCollum #3 of the Portland Trail Blazers react during the fourth quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Moda Center on October 20, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
Steph Chambers/Getty Images

It was the dynastette that never was, the superteam that was always a third super player away, the team we all pitied because we saw that it was driving 75 down a cul de sac. And now, with C.J. McCollum going to New Orleans of all places for a package of Josh Hart, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Tomas Satoransky, and draft picks, the Great Portland Dream as we knew it is dying. Well, at least coughing up blood.

It isn’t dead yet, mind you. While Damian Lillard stands fast, the Blazers have a bit of intrigue about them, which is hard to say for a team that is behind the Pelicans in the Western Conference play-in-standings. That’s the thing here—the Blazers are allegedly trying to finish ahead of the Pels for the right to lose to Minnesota, but not if they’re sending their second most valuable piece to New Orleans to do it. Even with Lillard’s departure still in the conceptual stage (and Woj suggests that the Blazers’ plan is to rebuild around Lillard rather than move him), this is acknowledgement that the Blazers in the Lillard-McCollum configuration were more appealing in concept and savory in potential than revealing in execution.

Then again, that’s been the Blazers since they won their only title 45 years ago. They’ve made the playoffs 14 times in this century and been knocked out in the first round 11 times. Historically, that’s 37 appearances, 25 times for one-and-done. They were the quintessential dinner guest that arrived at 4:45 and left right after the salads were served.

They were exactly that in the Lillard and McCollum era as well. The Blazers won a nice chunk of regular-season games in the eight years and change that Lillard and McCollum were 1A and 1B, and they made the postseason every year. Their stays, though, were mostly just as brief and unmemorable as those before they arrived—12 playoff series in eight years, and their record in those last series of the year was a ghastly 6-32; they were built, it seems, for 86 games. In their best year, 2019, they got to the Western Conference final and were swept by the last excellent Golden State team even though the total margin in the last three games was a mere 16 points. They seemed, frankly, to be the living embodiment of the 147-140 double overtime loss to Denver last year in which Lillard went for 55 on 24 shots, and scored 20 of the Blazers’ last 22. Always amazing, never enough.

When the word broke that McCollum was being sent to the Gulf of Mexico, the assumption was that this was the start of the great teardown that would surely include Lillard. That may not end up true, as interim general manager/slimmed down Thanos impersonator Joe Cronin said five days ago, “No, I don’t think we have the appetite to tear it all the way down. We have too many good players and too many ways to get better without taking too big of a step back.”

Lillard’s status is muddled by his ongoing recovery from abdominal surgery, and the timeline for his return is a very tentative mid-March, but while Cronin still doesn’t have the full-time gig and has only been the interim GM for less than 60 days, having the green light from franchise owner Jody Allen to move McCollum suggests that Cronin could revisit Lillard’s place come the offseason. He at least had the presence of mind to acknowledge in his opening presser following the firing of Neil Olshey that the Blazers as constituted had run their course.

“The core challenge I think we’re facing is it’s extremely difficulty to go from good to great,” he said then. “To take that next leap that extra whatever percent it is, five, 10. We’ve had a solid team for years, we had a ceiling, how do we burst through that ceiling in order to really compete, and when we say really compete we mean walk into the gym every night and have that swagger to know that we are one of the best teams in the league, we have a very realistic chance of winning this whole thing. I don’t know if we have that swagger now or that confidence, sometimes you just know it, you have that pop in your step.”

They don’t. At 21-33, they are three games behind the Knicks and a game-and-a-half ahead of the Kings, but still not close enough to Orlando, Detroit, or Houston to gut the building (Chicago owns Portland’s first-round pick, but it is lottery protected which given the current standings means that Portland owns Portland’s pick). But Cronin clearly has the ability to shake whatever must be shook. Not only that, the Blazers just created a $21 million trade exception by moving McCollum, and ownsas much as $60 million in salary cap space this summer, plus multiple draft picks. As Woj put it in his Deadwood-telegrapher style, “Plan is to pursue high-end talent now, not retreat.”

In other words, the Blazers are in the process of being broken down and reconstituted to seek whatever swagger it is that Cronin thinks he can find. The only question anyone is desperate to get the answer to is whether the rebuild will be done around Lillard as the engine, or with Lillard as the bait. Whatever gets said today does not necessarily hold for the future. Regardless, Portland’s time on the far fringe of greatness seems done for the moment. Their prime directive now? Hold off the Kings, which is as paralytically depressing as it gets.

Whatever they do now, though, they’ll do it without McCollum, and one sort of hopes that whatever future Portland creates for itself in this new era of what will probably be the same old thing, McCollum’s is no less pleasurable to watch wherever he finally lands. He did his share of the work and was a proper contributor to the Blazers, and ought to be rewarded commensurately. It’s New Orleans, so hope should not spring as a mighty geyser, but maybe he gets something out of this on the back end.