The Portland Trailblazers were the darlings of the NBA last season. Everyone predicted they would be a lottery team, and a bottom-tier one at that. Instead, they shocked the league with a 44-win season, and even pushed their way to the second round of the playoffs. Going into the summer and this NBA season, the tune on them had shifted 180 degrees: they were now being anointed as perhaps the most dangerous team of the non-Warriors/Clippers/Spurs group in the Western Conference. That jump hasn’t transpired. Rather, the Blazers sit at 13-18, mere percentage points above the Nuggets and the Kings (THE KINGS) for the 8th seed in the playoffs. What happened?
To start with, I don’t think Portland is quite this bad. The only rotation player they lost from last season was Gerald Henderson—certainly not a significant piece. The Blazers replaced him with Evan Turner, who is an awkward fit and a poor acquisition, but certainly not bad enough to cause a collapse of this magnitude. Their team doesn’t possess worse talent than last year, and the defense, while awful, should correct itself. The real issue with the Blazers is the precise lack of changeover on their roster. The cause of this stagnation was an over-estimation of the team’s success last season.
Look, Portland was a solid team in 2016. 44-38 is a good record, and making it to the second round of the playoffs is nice for any team that isn’t a true contender. But there were warning signs everywhere that those results were flukes, or at least exaggerations of actual ability. The Western Conference was mediocre last season. Only four teams won more than 50 games, and the Blazers were fifth—there were no teams between 44 and 53 wins. Just one season earlier, the 48-win Thunder actually missed the playoffs entirely because the West was so strong. Some teams had to fill the void that the collapsing Rockets, Pelicans, and Grizzlies made, and Portland was the most prominent of these. This isn’t condemning the Blazers at all: they stepped up when other teams fell back. Kudos to them. But their management should not have taken that as a sign that their 2016 roster was good enough to contend in the Western Conference a year later, in a totally different landscape. Contributing to their confidence may have been the Blazers’ run in the 2016 playoffs.
The Clippers were a far superior team to the Blazers last season (and are again this season). They have greater talent up and down the roster, fit better together, and just win more games. The Blazers won the playoff series against the Clips because the Clippers lost their two best players after the fourth game (Chris Paul was injured during that game), when the series was tied 2-2. Injuries happen, and, again, the Blazers took advantage of another team’s weakness. In the second round, they stood toe-to-toe with the 73-win Warriors for much of the series before succumbing in five games. Despite the loss, the star-power of their backcourt appeared undeniable-- the Blazers seemed destined for a rapid rise.
The Blazers have been awful this year. Not just bad, or disappointing. Truly awful. They possess the worst defense in the league (again, I don’t think that’s quite where they will end up), below such talent-deprived teams as the Nets and 76ers. While they have played uninspired ball for much of the season, the chief reason for Portland’s decline is the upswing in the rest of the NBA. The Western Conference has bounced back this season: Houston has been potent enough to enter the realm of pseudo-contender, and the Jazz, Grizzlies, and Thunder are all very good teams. Even the bottom of the conference such as the Timberwolves and Lakers is somewhat stronger this season than last. The Blazers, with primarily the same roster and utilizing similar strategies and tactics as last season, have been figured out, and teams aren’t afraid of them anymore. Unless they manage a major shake-up internally in the coming weeks, they are going to be very active around the trade deadline.
What does this have to do with the Clippers? Well, there have been people arguing for years now that the Clippers core was stale—that they need to change things up, mostly through trades. That talk has only increased since the Blake Griffin injury last week. The discussions are much the same as those surrounding the Blazers, just along different lines. Instead of arguing whether Portland can be a real playoff team, it’s whether the Clippers’ ‘Core Four’ is talented enough and tough enough mentally to win a championship. Famously, the Clippers current core has never made it to the Conference Finals. This is used as a knock against the team and the players on it, a sign that maybe it’s time to move on.
The differences between the Blazers and the Clippers, however, are massive. Instead of a one year playoff push based on luck and good timing, the Clippers are an established powerhouse, a team that has made the playoffs five consecutive years, and won 53+ games in the last four. The hardest leap to make in the NBA is from good to great: from winning 44 games to winning 55. The Clippers made that jump almost immediately after Chris Paul came to town, and haven’t fallen off that level despite some shaky play at times. Is it possible that there is a trade out there that might make them even better? Of course there is! But it is hard to win trades in the NBA, and even more difficult to trade superstar players--for those are the only Clippers’ players who could bring back significant assets of any kind—without making the team worse in the short term. They have the proven talent on their roster to win, they merely require good fortune to fall in their favor, especially health.
Portland is also a young-ish team, one that, as discussed above, isn’t in a championship window-- and therefore doesn’t need to contend immediately. The Clippers’ best player, on the other hand, remains Chris Paul, who is almost 32 years old, and not a young 32 at that. If they are going to achieve a championship, they will win it with him at point guard. Therefore, trading Blake Griffin for Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, and picks, or for any other combination of young (and not ready to win) players, doesn’t move the Clippers forward. The Clippers simply aren’t going to receive a player as talented or as explosive as Blake (or DeAndre Jordan) in a trade. Listening to trade offers is fine, as is inquiring towards dream acquisitions (Paul George), even if they are unlikely to happen. But for the Clippers, passivity, letting this squad ride it out, is likely the best option.
Fans rarely like complacency in their sports teams. There are always upgrades to be made: great players to be acquired, and undesirables to be shipped out. If you aren’t a fan of the defending champions (and occasionally even if you are), you aren’t going to be perfectly satisfied with the situation of your team. Sometimes, as was the case with the Blazers over this summer, this is justified. Neil Olshey and the Blazers’ front office should have attempted to overhaul their roster in a much more comprehensive manner than just adding Evan Turner. They didn’t, and their team has paid the price this season. Doc Rivers hasn’t been a flawless general manager by any means, but his moves this summer have been terrific thus far. The bench is better than ever before, and even has a little bit of depth. There is no need for the Clippers to make a trade, at least not right now.
This issue will be revisited this offseason—Chris Paul, JJ Redick, and Blake Griffin will be free agents, as will other rotation players such as Raymond Felton, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Marreese Speights. With so much of the team up in the air, the results of this season will have a huge impact on the future of this roster going forward. But for this season, the Clippers are going to ride or die with their current roster.