The Portland Trail Blazers: Stuck in the Middle

Written by: Josh Gutbrod

Despite falling to Minnesota last night in a key divisional match up, the Portland Trail Blazers sit amidst the Western Conference playoff picture for the fifth consecutive season. The two constants across the stretch have been head coach Terry Stotts, one of the NBA’s best offensive minds, and star point guard Damian Lillard, one of the league’s best offensive players.

The offensive prowess has led the Blazers throughout the past few years, yet this year it is the team’s defense that is carrying them to victory. Lillard is still Lillard, posting per game averages of 25.5 points, 6.5 assists, and 5.1 rebounds. The star is also playing much better defense than in previous seasons, a definite weak spot in the point guard’s game. Throw in the consistent 21 points per game from CJ McCollum, and it’s easy to see why the team fails to fall below .500.

Yet despite it all, there’s a certain realism about the Trail Blazers that is pretty plain to see.  A certain understanding that the team is good enough to win, as it tends to be, but not good enough to be a legitimate contender. The supporting cast features pieces like Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard that pose little value to the team while on the floor. Outside of the obvious bad contracts, the other members of the supporting cast are predominantly player such as Pat Connaughton who are probably playing more minutes than they should. The team also has little to no cap flexibility, boasting the fifth highest total cap in the NBA.

The Portland Trail Blazers have become one of the most confusing teams in the NBA. The team is all in with a roster that seems limited. A roster than can beat anyone, but probably won’t. The Blazers simply don’t have the firepower to beat any of the top teams in the West, but play tough enough defense to beat everybody else. The roster does have a fair amount of young players, which if developed could change this discussion entirely, but for now that does little good for the Blazers. Its an odd mix, when you really look at the roster. Half of the players, such as Noah Vonleh and Shabazz Napier, are the types of young project investments you typically see on a rebuilding team. Yet deals such as Evan Turner’s $17 million contract, paying high to keep role players, would seem to be an approach set on winning now. The Trail Blazers are a troubled mix of rebuild and go for it all, almost as if GM Neil Olshey didn’t know which way to go after losing all of those starters back in 2015.

Olshey has constructed a team that just doesn’t make sense. It’s good, but it really isn’t. It’s young, but due to restricted cap can’t easily bring in veterans. Evan Turner is a terrible contract, but Al-Faraouq Aminu is a tremendous one. Olshey’s performance as general manager itself shows the problem. He’s either made great moves or horrible moves, and it all balanced out to create an average team.

I am not of the mind that Neil Olshey should be fired. He’s made some quality moves and saw the team go through losing all of that talent without failing out of the playoffs. Olshey simply needs to make up his mind. Jusuf Nurkic is a valuable trade piece, as one of the league’s more promising young centers, and the team controls its own first round picks for the upcoming years. The roster also features a couple of other desirable young players and features larger contracts that can be used to mix and match salaries in trades. The Blazers may not have the cap space to do anything, but with the hot starts of some of their young players this year, they may have the assets to pull off a trade or two to jump up with the other elites of the West right now.

Olshey needs to be aggressive while he can and make the most of the value his players are giving him. If the team is left as is, or largely so, it would likely not ever climb high enough to win it all. The team is finally playing defense, a first under Terry Stotts, and only needs some added offensive punch to go along with the backcourt to start seriously winning games. As confusing and contradictory as the build up of the roster has been so far, it can all be corrected with one move. All Olshey has to do is land a third scorer and all of this frustrating wading in place the team has done for three seasons will come to an end. The team just needs a consistent direction, and everything else will fall into place.

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