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Portland’s Tanking Project Is Going Awfully Well

Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers lost in Houston on Saturday. Due to a scheduling quirk, this was the second time in two nights that these two teams met on that floor, and the Blazers lost the two games by a combined 36 points. For casual hoops fans, this rings weirdly in the ears. At no point this season have the Rockets intended, in general terms, to win basketball games. The Blazers, on the other hand, opened this season with a new coach and a veteran roster and their usual admirable if ill-fated determination to force their way to the top of the Western Conference. Things must’ve gone very badly indeed if in the final two weeks of the regular season they’re getting thrashed around by a squad that at least at the executive level would prefer to win as infrequently as possible.

Yes, things have gone poorly. Damian Lillard was lost for the season in early January, when he elected to finally undergo surgery to repair a painful and long-lingering abdominal injury. C.J. McCollum was dealt to New Orleans ahead of the trade deadline, breaking up one of the NBA’s best backcourts and signaling what head coach Chauncey Billups insists is nothing more dramatic than a quick retooling. That’s a useful distinction, at least where it honestly relates the intentions of the people doing the shuffling. A “rebuild” generally implies a fuller demolition and a longer timeline for recovery. The reason to prefer the term “retool” is because it implies that the reshaping of the roster should not signal a lowering of expectations.

But there’s some wiggle-room on timelines with both concepts. The play-in tournament was supposed to provide incentives for teams in the bottom half of each conference to continue competing, but the Blazers figure to do most of the real moving and shaking this summer, and part of that will mean maximizing the value of their draft picks. Losing, for Portland at least, appears very much preferable to winning. The team’s Deal Zone haul reflected a desire to make big trade and free-agency splashes during the off-season, and it has become clear since the deadline that the team’s front office has not been swayed at all by the dubious rewards of the league’s goofy Consolation Cup playoff.

How clear? Saturday’s loss in Houston dropped the Blazers to 2–13 since the trade deadline. A whopping eight of those losses have come by at least 30 points. Portland’s net rating since the all-star break is an appalling minus-21.6, more than twice as bad as the second-worst team in the league. Both their offense and their defense rank dead last in the league by efficiency over that span. The highlight of their post-deadline season, and possibly the last unambiguously good thing Blazers fans will witness before October at the earliest, was a fan making a long putt during a break in play:

The schedule has had absolutely nothing to do with it. Portland’s last four losses, by a combined 104 points, have come against teams that were a combined 112 games below .500 at tipoff. The Blazers went from two games up for the 10th seed at the deadline to now 12th and dropping, four games back of the play-in with eight left to go. There’s ambivalence about a no-hope playoff berth, and then there’s turning around and sprinting as hard as possible in the opposite direction, as you would from a live grenade.

The few guys left on Portland’s roster who could be described as “good” have been mothballed. Anfernee Simons, whose production jumped by nearly 10 points per game this season, has been shut down since the first week of March with knee discomfort. Center Jusuf Nurkic, somehow managing a positive net rating on the year, hasn’t played since late February. Josh Hart, whose arrival in Portland via trade coincided with a three-game winning streak, and who scored 44 points on 21 shots in a win over Washington in mid-March, has been inactive for a week with left knee soreness. Eric Bledsoe, another veteran acquired during Portland’s roster overhaul, sustained an achilles injury sometime after being traded from the Clippers, but before ever taking the floor for the Blazers. The roster is now totally unrecognizable. Leading the Blazers in minutes since the break is undrafted rookie Trendon Watford, and in total points it’s undrafted two-way player Brandon Williams.

The team is doing what it can to position these marks as exciting developmental leaps, but even Lillard can’t pretend this is worth much for a team losing games by dozens of points every other night. Asked what has been encouraging about the back half of this lost season, Lillard shifted immediately into ruthless GM-brain: “I also think we’ve taken some steps back as an organization, obviously with the moves that we’ve made, but we’ve also positioned ourselves to do something that we haven’t been able to do since I’ve been here, which is we’ve opened up money, we got picks, we got a $22 million trade exception, we got a $6 million trade exception, we got the full mid-level, we got the biannual. We have an opportunity, and we got flexibility. There are guys we can bring in that can make us a team that can compete for a championship.” This is precisely what it looks like when an organization has decided that absolutely nothing that happens on a basketball court over the remainder of a season has any value whatsoever.

This isn’t all that condemnable. The player draft, even with all the lottery uncertainty, provides a powerful reverse incentive for teams that cannot realistically push for playoff glory. Portland’s own 2022 draft pick is lottery protected, meaning they’ll keep it if they miss the playoffs, and therefore can strengthen it by losing. They’ll be on Lillard’s timeline for as long as he’s under contract, and the team will want him under contract for as long as possible, both as a sentimental favorite and for the layered benefits of employing a real-deal superstar. The stockpile of tools Lillard referenced for hope may not sound sexy, but money and trade fodder give the Blazers a much more realistic shot at competing again during whatever’s left of Lillard’s superstardom than the fun-to-imagine but distant chances that Watford or Williams or Greg Brown will develop into foundational players. A couple do-or-die games against fellow also-rans, for the prize of a short and brutal playoff series against a contender, won’t and probably shouldn’t change the organizational math.

But spare a thought for Blazers fans, whose hopes will rest on Portland’s front office successfully doing what it has tried and failed to do for years, which is marshal the available resources and finally construct a true contender around the most beloved Blazer in generations. However much sense the team’s direction might make in the big picture, the chances of redemption are still remote, and the basketball in the meantime is breathtakingly, horrifyingly bad. If the play-in is good for throwing a lifeline to certain foundering outfits, it has failed to prevent one of the most brazen and gruesome short-term tanking projects the NBA has seen in years.

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