Just like that, the Portland Trail Blazers' season is over. Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday stomped them one last time on Saturday, combining for a preposterous 88 points as the New Orleans Pelicans swept their way to the second round with a 131-123 victory. The Blazers, who won 49 games and earned the third seed in the Western Conference, are now left to wonder how to weigh this horror-movie series against their 13-game winning streak that stretched from mid-February to mid-March.
Portland played by far its best game of the series in Game 4 -- CJ McCollum had 38 points on 15 for 22 shooting, Al-Farouq Aminu made five 3s and scored 27 points on 11 for 20 shooting -- but it surrendered 42 in the third quarter and Davis and Holiday were the two best players on the court yet again. Save for something truly crazy happening in the next week or so, the Blazers going out like this is the most shocking development of the first round. They had one more regular-season win than the Pelicans, and New Orleans had an ever-so-slightly better net rating. Most reasonable people thought this would be a long series. Most reasonable people were extraordinarily wrong.
This, of course, raises all sorts of questions about Portland's future. Here are five of them:
Is Stotts' job safe?
A week ago, this was a ridiculous question. Maybe it still is. Based on the Blazers' improvement on defense and post-All-Star surge, some awards voters had Terry Stotts on their Coach of the Year ballots. Stotts is renowned for his offensive system, and he turned a roster without true defensive stoppers into the league's eighth-best defensive team in the regular season. Imagine what he might be able to do with a two-way star wing player or a dominant rim protector.
If we are playing the blame game, I would look at the front office before Stotts and his coaching staff. Nonetheless, there are rumors that he could be on the market, with the Orlando Magic reportedly interested in poaching him. Perhaps owner Paul Allen and general manager Neil Olshey will simply decide Stotts' playoff record (12-28 in his career, 11-24 with Portland) and the team's 10 straight postseason losses mean that someone else is needed to take the Blazers to the next level.
On one hand, six of the losses on this streak were against the Golden State Warriors. On the other, it took until the elimination game for Portland to figure out how to score against New Orleans' defense. I suspect firing Stotts would be a mistake, but the team could go this direction if it decides against a roster overhaul. Which brings us to…
Could McCollum be on the move?
During the Blazers' February-March streak, the break-up-the-backcourt faction of their fan base was quieter than ever. Lillard was playing like an MVP, McCollum was playing like an All-Star and their supporting cast was hitting enough 3s to give them ample room to operate. The other side of the court was still somewhat concerning, but both guards have made progress on defense and it was hard to argue with the team's results.
Now, after a series that saw Lillard shoot 35.2 percent and both he and McCollum struggle defensively, the noise has never been louder. Olshey called this line of thinking a "false narrative" that is "created by media types that don't know anything about our team" just a couple of months ago, and while I'm not sure they must be split up, I do wonder how exactly the front office is going to improve the team if they keep them together.
Lillard and McCollum proved this year they can be the driving force behind a team that won close to 50 games. If Portland had athletic wings and versatile big men to make up for their defensive deficiencies, the guards could theoretically be the two main playmakers on a truly elite team. The problem is that it does not have those awesome wings and bigs.
As presently constructed, the Blazers are not on the verge of going from good to great. While they are not old, they are not young enough to expect significant internal improvement. And while they don't appear to have bad chemistry, these poor playoff performances have to make things feel a bit stale. I agree with The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor that a Lillard trade is just about unimaginable. The front office, then, has to answer a couple of questions:
- Is there a McCollum trade that would allow the organization to help balance and optimize the roster to be a contender two or three years from now?
- If you don't trade McCollum, what is the path to providing him and Lillard with another star teammate or a more complete supporting cast?
I'm not totally sure that the answer to the first question is yes, but I don't have any kind of answer to the second one.
How do you solve a problem like Nurkic?
In Paul Flannery's wonderful recent Damian Lillard story at SB Nation, Olshey described center Jusuf Nurkic as "the highest variance player in the league." Nurkic looked like an All-Star in the 20 regular-season games he played after Portland acquired him from the Denver Nuggets last season. This season, though, he was inconsistent game to game and even quarter to quarter. Nurkic is a skilled offensive player, but he hasn't proven he should be the Blazers' No. 3 guy. He can be imposing around the basket on defense, but he was a liability against both of the Pelicans' frontcourt players, which limited his minutes.
After this series, it is tough to picture Portland being excited about making a long-term investment in Nurkic, who is a restricted free agent this summer. If it doesn't, though, then it will have to watch him walk. Losing a talented 23-year-old is not ideal for any team, let alone one that is trying to break out of the murky middle of the Western Conference.
What about the rest of the free agents?
Ed Davis was a per-minute powerhouse this season, and he will be an unrestricted free agent. Pat Connaughton and Shabazz Napier will be restricted free agents. It is unclear how much the Blazers will be willing to pay to keep these guys, and their 2016 spending spree has left them way over the salary cap for the foreseeable future. Which brings to perhaps the most important question …
What does ownership want?
Allen shelled out a ridiculous amount of money in 2016 so Portland could add Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli and retain McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless and Meyers Leonard. The spending spree looks ridiculous in retrospect, and if Olshey does consider trading McCollum, you'd have to think either Turner or Leonard's contract would be attached in any potential move.
I'd love to know just how much Allen holds Olshey responsible for the team's current state of affairs. The Blazers are in a tough spot because their core seems to have a clear ceiling and they lack the financial flexibility to upgrade it. They lack that flexibility largely because they still owe Turner more than $36 million and Leonard more than $21 million over the next two years.
Given Portland's payroll, It would be perfectly understandable if Allen is sick of first-round defeats and finds this sweep unacceptable. Maybe he wants to see some sort of Toronto Raptors-style "culture reset." Maybe he will give Olshey a mandate of either shaking up the team or making a coaching change. Maybe he will think about a change in management. I cannot predict what Allen will do, but I would be surprised if he is cool with the status quo.