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  • The Blazers' early playoff exit raises questions about the team going forward. So what does the future hold for Damian Lillard and Co.? The Crossover examines.
By Rob Mahoney
April 23, 2018

The manner of Portland's playoff exit is an invitation for philosophical debate. What does a reliable playoff contender really look like? What does that sort of team need to advance in the postseason, year after year? Introspection is a necessary part of the NBA process, but to lose four straight playoff games in the way the Blazers did raises larger, structural questions. This wasn't just an upset. This was an upset in which the favored team, not for lack of trying, failed to summon any effective means to respond. This was an upset in which the No. 3 seed was swallowed whole.

Most stunning in all of this was how methodically the Pelicans robbed the Blazers of their dynamism. A single mismatch—the inability to guard Anthony Davis, a flaw that 28 other teams share—compromised what had been one of the better defenses in the regular season. Dedicated pressure forced the ball out of the hands of Damian Lillard, overloading Portland's mechanisms for secondary playmaking. There is a reactive urge to question whether Lillard and C.J. McCollum, the Blazers' best players, have too much overlap in their games to offer the balance Portland needs. It's not an unreasonable question, though it seems reductive in light of how the Pelicans picked them apart.

The Blazers were flustered to the point of collapse in their first-round series because they had too few shot creators, not too many. Jusuf Nurkic was never quite in control of making reads on the move. The Pelicans had so little respect for Evan Turner that they didn't bother rotating to cover when the ball swung his way. Al-Farouq Aminu knocked down his open looks, though his taking 13 shots a game in the series was more bug than feature. Not every opponent could manage the style of defense New Orleans employed in this series to the same smothering effect, but enough of them could push Portland away from its best options to give the Blazers pause.

"Nobody thinks this roster is a finished product," Blazers general manager Neil Olshey said in his exit interview on Sunday. "It's a work in progress."

Where that progress comes from is an open question. Jusuf Nurkic will soon hit restricted free agency, bringing into focus the fact that a center Portland would have to pay to keep was essentially played off the floor in their first-round loss. It’s a familiar dilemma. A cap-locked team like the Blazers might not want to pay Nurkic some exorbitant sum, or might even prefer to lean on Zach Collins moving forward. Yet if they refuse, they lack the means to replace Nurkic without giving up some other valued piece. Good teams grow static from this sort of depth chart attrition. No one in Portland wants to take a step back, but even returning the same roster as last season could prevent some meaningful step forward.

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

And that's before accounting for Ed Davis and Pat Connaughton, both of whom can test free agency this summer for deserving raises. The problem in Portland this summer is essentially the same as it was in their lone playoff series: A lack of high-level players limits the team's flexibility. You could trade away Aminu, but at what cost? Defenders of his caliber are not easy to find and almost never come so affordably. You could deal Maurice Harkless, but where would that really get you? Harkless was a factor in the best basketball of Portland's season, and the team is short on wing versatility as it is. 

This is where the Lillard-McCollum chatter comes to bear. Portland could make smart, peripheral moves to get better to a certain extent—just as they did this past season. Some internal development can be expected. This is not a team that needs to be broken up, but it also hasn't made some incontrovertible case to be kept together forever. Maybe the conversation would go differently if Turner could be moved or Meyers Leonard had some interest around the league. That they can't brings the conversation back to Lillard and McCollum. The idea that one might need to be traded persists in large part because Portland lacks other transformative options, should it choose to go that route. There are only so many ways forward for this group as presently constructed.

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In his exit interview, Lillard drew a parallel between the current Blazers and the pre-championship Warriors—another team that built its offense around two star guards. "And then they just had really complementary pieces," Lillard said. "They just had guys that came in and did a little bit of this, a little bit of that. It was really done by committee. I honestly feel like our team is capable of something like that." A good deal of what separates the two is Draymond Green, a game-changing, All-NBA big who emerged, serendipitously, from within the roster. That is not typical. And had Green never gotten his shot or failed to make the dramatic impact he did, the Butterfly Effected Warriors might have turned out to be just another good team rather than an all-time great one.

The Blazers did many things well this season. They played a responsible, conservative defense that made opponents earn every score. They ran a cogent, low-risk offense built around what Lillard and McCollum do best. They rebounded well (no small thing for a team that relied on three-guard lineups), stuck to their systems through a complicated season, and improved as a matter of course.

Olshey warned against overreacting to four games, but the Blazers should also be wary of putting too much stock in three—the difference in record between Portland's No. 3 seed and the Nuggets at No. 9. That's a bad road trip. It's a tweaked ankle. The Blazers should be proud of their regular season finish and the clawing it took to get there. No matter the circumstances, their fight was impressive. Yet the No. 3 seed the season prior (Houston) was a 55-win team that nearly tripled the Blazers in net rating, marking a different tier from where Portland now sits.

"We continue to move forward, and we're gonna continue to have opportunities to do better things," Lillard said. "But you've gotta take situations like this and learn from it."

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