Breaking up is never easy. Even when the outcome was inevitable, feelings are bound to get hurt. Whether it’s in the romance department or professional world, separation is one of the unfortunate hurdles of life. The Portland Trail Blazers have arrived at a rather big one: A point in the franchise’s existence where it’s time to make a program-defining decision. Sitting on the outside looking in regard the Western Conference playoff race, the Blazers have an important decision to make.
Do they maintain and hope for improvement from within, or is it time to blow up their core and begin to rebuild?
It sounds ludicrous to say out loud. The team has a pair of All-Stars in point guard Damion Lillard and shooting guard CJ McCollum. Portland has made the playoffs in each of the last six seasons in a contentious Western conference. Given the patience executed by the Blazers’ front office, you’d like to see the franchise rewarded for their approach.
Instead of mortgaging draft picks for the future, Portland opted to keep its nucleus, attempting to surround their all-stars with complementary pieces. Adding former all-star Carmelo Anthony and defensive stalwart Hassan Whiteside is a testament to the Blazers’ proactive approach. But with a 18–26 record around the midpoint of the regular season, the window of opportunity in ‘Rip City’ appears to be coming to an end.
The devil is in the details… or the statistics, in this case. As of mid-January, the Blazers are 14th in the NBA in points per game average with 111.5. Defensively, they give up 113.9 points per game — 21st in the league. Portland has been unable to keep up with the other Western juggernauts like the LA Lakers, Houston Rockets and LA Clippers.
Now other up-and-coming rosters are beginning to emerge as contenders in a crowded conference. The Blazers, who were once in the middle of the pack, now find themselves pondering team chemistry and their existence. With most of the competition ahead of them having more than two go-to options, the Blazers’ reliance on Lillard and McCollum hides the lack of talent surrounding the duo. Leading in both points and assists, and providing indelible memories for the franchise, Portland must decide if it can win with Lillard and McCollum as the only key cogs to the team.
Yet, when you look at other rosters across the league, you’ll see that terrific twosomes are on the decline. Take the Raptors, for example, who forged their identity with Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan for several seasons. The Raptors became consistent winners, set new regular season records and made decent runs in the playoffs. Nonetheless, they were unable to get over the hump. Most would call LeBron James the G.O.A.T. as opposed to a “hump,” but he was a big blockade to the Raps nonetheless. Then in the 2018 offseason, LeBron left the cold of Cleveland for the warmth of LA, creating a sudden power shift in Eastern conference. Unfortunately for Portland, adding King James into an already chaotic mix in the West has complicated matters. For the Raptors, instead of sticking with what works, they took a risk by sending DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for Kawhi Leonard. However, that gamble paid off when Toronto won the NBA championship.
What does this all mean for the Blazers? It’s time to do some risk assessment. After contemplating a breakup of Lillard and McCollum, now might be the time to finally push that button. Portland seems no closer to being a title contender than it has in the recent past. While we’ve highlighted some of the team’s most recent additions, the roster is still in need of help. Carmelo Anthony is a fraction of the player he used to be. Whiteside has proven inconsistent from game-to-game. Jusuf Nurkic is still recovering from a gruesome foot injury, and Rodney Hood, Zach Collins, and Skal Labissiere have missed significant time year due to injury.
Head coach Terry Stotts is in his eighth season for the Blazers, suffering just a single losing season in his tenure. As much as Stotts will be applauded for maintaining a formidable structure, the lack of postseason success could lead to him wearing out his welcome. In today’s NBA landscape, being mediocre is worse than being terrible.
With the changes to the NBA’s lottery structure, there’s no guarantee that middling teams will have a chance to pick the next great superstar from the college ranks, either. Lillard (30) and McCollum (28) are still in the midst of their prime. With plenty of good basketball still ahead of them, you have to wonder if that should be with the Blazers, or another franchise.
When considering whether to break up the Blazers, the heart of the question lies with the idea of getting rid of Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum. The pair are the Blazers’ most valuable assets, the Blazers could see a handsome return of young pieces and draft picks that would reshape the franchise. The move would destabilize the Blazers’ backcourt, but would give the team ammunition to fill out the roster, adding some depth. In this day and age where having one or two stars isn’t enough to make it to the NBA Finals, Portland has fallen behind the arms race in the Western Conference. They also could use an influx of depth to lessen the strain on Lillard and McCollum. To get rid of one of the two, would open the doors to the possibility of a rebuild.
There is nothing wrong with rebuilding or altering the strengths of a franchise. Countless teams have witnessed moderate to significant improvement after pulling the trigger on a trade such as this. It’s never easy to let go of people how have such a profound impact on making their team a contender, especially when they had the option to leave in free agency. That loyalty will never be forgotten by a franchise or their fans. That said, if winning a championship is the goal for all 32 NBA clubs, each team owes it themselves to make the best decisions in the interest of achieving that goal. A break up always gnaws at your conscience in the immediate aftermath. But when compared to staying in a fruitless relationship, severing ties can be the most rewarding option — at least somewhere down the road.