Damian Lillard swears up and down that the season isn’t over. I think he might be in denial. I want to believe him. As a hardcore fan, when he says it isn’t over, I’ll confess, there is a tinge of hope that swells up in me. I want it to be true. But, there is also a stirring feeling, deep down, that this season is DOA.
About a year removed from the Trail Blazers making their first western conference finals berth in a decade, they find themselves chasing of all teams, the Memphis Grizzlies for the 8th seed. Who would have thought at the beginning of the season that could ever be a possibility. But, then again no one could really, until now, ascertain how much the Jusuf Nurkic injury last season, really hurt the Blazers. Well, we could, but we didn’t want to admit it. Whiteside was supposed to be the stop gap, Hood was returning, Collins was supposed to take the next step up and finally become the Blazers starting power forward, etc, etc.
The strain of a massive overhaul of players, the pitfall of injuries, and poor coaching strategies, have left the Blazers in a zombie esque state, on the outside looking in at the playoffs. Losing the length and defensive versatility of Aminu and Harkless hurt the Blazers. They went from a top 5 defense in the NBA down to 16th. What is to blame, injuries? Chemistry? Coaching? All the above.
The Blazers have had one of, if not their worst season involving injuries. Pretty much every Blazer has taken turns with the injury. The latest of course being Lillard with a groin injury. The Blazers are currently without 4 starters. The Blazers came into the season relying on Anfernee Simons and Zach Collins to make Neil Armstrong esque leaps. Didn’t happen. Pau Gasol never played and was waived. The Blazers put their faith in Carmelo Anthony. He looks more like he belongs in a retirement home than on a basketball court. They put their faith in more young guys. Gary Trent Jr is a bright spot in a nuclear winter of a season, I’ll give him that. Gabriel is too young. Swanigan was traded away for a reason. Little isn’t used enough to be effective.
As bad as the injuries and insufficiency in player personnel are, coaching has to carry an equal portion of the blame. I like Stotts. He is a likeable guy. But, come on. An isolation offense with no ball movement or player movement for that matter has been a headache away from an aneurysm to watch. Not to mention an unsuccessful zone defense that is leaving shooters wide open at the arc and often times implodes, allowing easy baskets at the rim. How long must this go on before Stotts realizes, it isn’t working and tries something new?
The Blazers are barely hanging onto 9th place in the western conference, percentage points ahead of the San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans’s Pelicans and 4 games behind the Memphis Grizzlies in 8th seed. The Blazers have a pretty easy schedule for their last 24 games of the season, but then again so does New Orleans. I’ll admit thew Blazers have a chance to still 8th seed from the Grizzlies, who have one of the toughest remaining schedules, but the feeling is fleeting. Lillard will be out 3-4 more games. And, if the Pelican’s game Friday is any indication of how the Blazers will fair without him, well…ouch. The Blazers never led against New Orleans. It was hard to watch. I know. I was there. It was a suck fest of epic proportions. The Pelicans bombed the Blazers from afar, and Zion Williamson got Shaq esque love from the refs…touch him and it was an immediate foul. The guy next to me left at halftime, along with many others who could no longer bring themselves to watch. In the fourth I could hear a kid behind asking his dad if the Blazers were going to make the playoffs. The dad responded, “Don’t get your hopes up son.”
Lillard though isn’t giving up just yet. He seems to think the Blazers can still make it. He claims no team wants to face the Blazer in the playoffs right now. I bet the Pelicans do. In fact at this moment, I’d wager any team would be glad to get the Blazers in the 1st round. Hey, Jusuf Nurkic is supposed to be coming back soon right? Zach Collins? There is still 24 games. I so want to believe Damian Lillard. Like the Pelicans game, as a true fan, I will stay till the end, suffering and all. I have to. It is in my nature. But, alot of fans are already headed for the exits. I am trying to tune it out, but I can already hear the ushers at the door, issuing that finalizing statement where the reality that the season is truly over sets in, “Thanks for coming, see you next season.”