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Ripped Up City: The collapse of the Portland Trail Blazers

Damian Lillard for the Portland Trail Blazers. . (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
Expert
26th April, 2015
2

Seven weeks ago the Portland Trail Blazers had the fourth best record in the NBA.

They were a top ten offence and the third best defence in the league. Portland was a team thriving in the mould of the 2011 Mavericks. Like the champion Mavs, the Blazers were built around a tough, smooth shooting big man and an explosive scoring guard with an aversion to defence.

Nic Batum filled the Marion role of versatile wing, and in a positionally-inverse way Wesley Matthews was Portland’s Tyson Chandler, the defensive anchor and heart of the team. The Blazers were one of the best teams in the NBA, a cohesive unit rounding into its prime with a future even brighter than its promising present.

On the morning of Thursday March fifth, there were very real worlds in which 2015 would be the year that Portland would win its first NBA title since 1977.

By the end of that night all those possibilities had died. In a cruel underrated irony, Wesley Matthews tore his Achilles against Dallas, the very team that the Blazers were hoping to emulate. It was a gunshot wound to Portland’s heart and they’ve been bleeding out ever since.

After the Matthews injury Portland collapsed on defence, plummeting from third in the league to 24th. They were 41-19 when Matthews went down and then finished the season a meek 10-12, with only three of those wins against teams with winning records.

The attrition didn’t stop with Wes though, as LaMarcus Aldridge, Batum, Arron Afflalo, Dorell Wright and Chris Kaman all missed time with various maladies.

The Blazers literally limped into the postseason and now they’re on the verge of getting swept. They have the worst point differential of any team in the playoffs and have rarely been competitive against a clinical and unforgiving Memphis unit.

The Grizzlies have been unsympathetic to Portland’s plight, battering the Blazers in their three games with an average winning margin of 11.7 points.

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Memphis, a team that ranked 21st in offence after the All-Star break, has scored against the Blazers at a rate that would have been third in the league during the regular season.

Meanwhile, the Blazers are scoring an anemic 97.8 points per 100 possessions (which would have ranked 27th on the season). This hasn’t been a series; it’s been a funeral procession.

Portland’s collapse serves as an unfortunate microcosm of how fleeting success in sport can be, and how suddenly and violently justified optimism can disintegrate into aimless hopelessness. Seven weeks ago Portland was a legitimate title contender with a core of four stars all under 30 and in their prime, or in Lillard’s case only scraping the surface of it.

Now the Blazers stand on the verge of being ignominiously despatched from the playoffs for the second year in a row off the back of two uncompetitive series (last year’s five game defeat to the Spurs was quietly a bloodbath; all four Portland losses were by 14 points or more).

A core that looked rock solid two months ago is now defined by troubling question marks.

Although admittedly slowed by a slew of injuries, Nic Batum is coming off one of the worst seasons a ‘good’ NBA player has had in recent memory. Remarkably, for a team with such a bad bench the Blazers were actually marginally better this season with Batum off the court.

It’s unlikely that Wesley Matthews will ever be the same; few NBA players have ever fully returned from an Achilles tear. If the sudden and vicious declines of Elton Brand, Chauncey Billups and Kobe Bryant following the same injury are anything to go by, Matthews’s future is troublingly bleak.

It’s not quite time to panic about Damian Lillard but the past year has raised a few questions at the very least. Lillard shot a mediocre 34.3 per cent from deep this year and he’s an atrocious defender – the Blazers drop from the sixth best defence in the league with Lillard off the court to 25th with him on it.

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The Blazers are only 2.3 points per 100 possessions better with Lillard on the court, a number that pales in comparison to his elite point guard peers Westbrook (6.6 points better), Irving (9.2), Curry (17.8) and Paul (20.9).

The man they call L.A. is the biggest concern though. At the start of March it was unthinkable that LaMarcus Aldridge would leave in free agency this offseason. He was the clear face of the franchise and his bold decision to defer thumb surgery at the risk of his future health seemingly signalled his commitment to the Blazers.

Now however, there are serious rumblings about him bolting to his home state of Texas to either Dallas or San Antonio. Aldridge’s departure would be crippling; another dagger to the hearts of Blazers fans to accompany the still healing wounds left by the knees of Greg Oden and Brandon Roy.

I saw the Blazers in person in Portland in early January, as I wrote about here. The team I saw that night meshed devastating efficiency and purposeful swagger better than any team in the NBA outside of Oakland.

They looked like a team that could win a title. What was even more remarkable than the on-court product though was the reverence in the building for the players. This was the best, most likable Blazers team since 2000, and you could feel exactly how grateful the fans were to be watching them after the debacle of the Jail Blazers and the Oden non-era.

The optimism in the building was as boundless as it was contagious. More to the point, it was justified.

Now all that is gone. Boundless optimism has given way to a reality of pessimism. Portland fans are now left to question whether their third-best player will ever be the same, whether their second-best player is as good as they thought he was, and whether their best player is even going to be around in three months.

In seven weeks the Blazers have transformed from one of the best feel good stories in American sports to one of its sternest cautionary tales. Such is sports that the tide has turned against Rip City so suddenly and viciously.

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Their purpose is no longer to fulfil dreams; it’s to serve as a reminder of how quickly aspirations can be crushed. So enjoy the ride while it lasts fans of Golden State, Cleveland and Houston, because Portland has taught us that a halting, shattering stop is only ever a breath away.