The notion that the Green Bay Packers ‘wasted’ the prime of all-time great quarterback Aaron Rodgers has irked me as a fan of the Packers. Rodgers has had more playoff losses come from the last play of that certain game than not. He’s always had a stellar offensive line and at least one All-Pro caliber receiver to throw to for just about all his tenure. He now has a running game after years without one. The Packers’ defense has stabilized into competence at the very least, but not good enough to get over the hump. That was a big reason why they couldn’t get past the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game earlier this January.
Yet there surely were seasons that Aaron Rodgers dragged the Packers single-handedly into places they didn’t belong. The 2016 season is a prime example. After starting the season 4-6 with a running game so barren that Rodgers trailed converted wide receiver Ty Montgomery by just 88 yards for the team’s most rushing yards on the season and a secondary so decimated that poor LaDarius Gunter was forced to shadow cover the great Julio Jones, which went about as well as the Hulk trying to fight Thanos in ‘Infinity War.’ Despite it all, Rodgers still carried that team to the NFC Championship, where they got routed by Julio and crew by a final score of 44-21. That Packers team had no business being there, but in a results-oriented business, success buys you time. Rodgers dragging that team (and the next couple of Packers teams after that in seasons where Rodgers didn’t get injured) into the playoffs bought then-head coach Mike McCarthy and the late general manager Ted Thompson extra seasons despite hindsight suggesting they should’ve been gone long before.
Which gets us to Portland. It would’ve been very easy for the Portland Trail Blazers to fire now-fired head coach Terry Stotts in the summer of 2018 after the Anthony Davis-led New Orleans Pelicans wiped the floor with them in a dejecting four-game sweep despite being the lower seed in that series. Reports suggest Stotts nearly was in fact canned after that series but survived the flames after Lillard went to bat for him. Lillard’s faith in Stotts was repaid with a trip to the Western Conference Finals, but they were swept there too against a Kevin Durant-less Golden State Warriors squad despite holding a lead in every fourth quarter of that series.
Things have stagnated drastically since then. It isn’t much of a surprise; the Blazers have a predictable, pick-and-roll-laden offense without a competent defense to back it up. Portland’s possessions were consumed by pick-and-rolls at the 7th-most frequent rate during the regular season, according to NBA.com. They have been in the top ten in that department in every season since the 2015-16 season. Now, it does make sense to play to your players’ strengths, and Lillard is one of the best we have in the league today at slicing defenses in the pick-and-roll, but more variety has been needed, especially without much of a defense to hold the Blazers’ offense down. Since the 2015-16 season, the Blazers have finished with a top ten defense just one time and that was the year they got swept by the Pelicans in the first round. This season they finished 29th in the NBA in defensive rating. If you’re asking yourself if it is bad that only one team was worse than you in something, I’d like to entrench in your brain that yes, that is very very bad.
To be fair, the Blazers have tried to bolster their defense. Trading for Jusuf Nurkic to anchor the rim worked out at first, but he hasn’t been anywhere near the same on that end since breaking his leg. They signed Derrick Jones Jr. using their midlevel exception in the 2020 offseason, but he (strangely) got worked out of the rotation. The Blazers traded two first-round picks for Robert Covington, but I never understood that move either. Covington had routinely been hunted in his previous playoff expenditures. Despite averaging more than a steal and a block a game, Covington is not an elite 1v1 stopper, which is what the Blazers. Trading two first-round picks for him was like an NFL team asking a safety to go shadow an opposing team’s best wide receiver. The fit just wasn’t there, and Covington’s arrival did not help the Blazers’ defense much at all, which is a shame because just a couple of players who would’ve been available with Portland’s first-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft (Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart, to name a few) could’ve helped in this regard immediately while still having the talent to develop. Trading Gary Trent Jr. for Norman Powell seemed like a lateral move in this regard too. Once Jones Jr. starting racking up DNP-CDs, there was no one left on Portland’s roster that they could count on to get stops. It was all too evident in the Blazers’ first-round series against a decimated Denver Nuggets roster. Sure, it is difficult to stop presumptive MVP Nikola Jokic, but once he’d get Jusuf Nurkic in foul trouble (which happened in every game the Blazers lost in this series), there’d be nothing left to stop Jokic from steamrolling through everybody, freeing up opportunities for his teammates. It would be one thing to get burnt by Jamal Murray; Facundo Campazzo, Monte Morris, and Austin Rivers doing it to ya is completely unacceptable.
That leads me to the Blazers’ front office. I don’t feel like GM Neil Olshey has gotten enough heat for the Blazers’ yearly underachieving outside of Lillard. So many pieces on this team are redundant: what do Norman Powell and Anfernee Simons provide that they don’t already have in Dame’s backcourt running mate in CJ McCollum? How is it satisfactory to think a Carmelo Anthony – Enes Kanter frontcourt can get enough stops against anybody to think it’s a good idea to pair them together. With how valuable first-round picks are, is Robert Covington really worth two of them? I haven’t even mentioned how Olshey signed Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, Maurice Harkless, and Al-Farouq Aminu to big, cap-draining deals in the summer of the cap spike in 2016. His drafting has often missed the mark for me as well. Trading up to acquire Zach Collins in 2017 has turned out to be a great move (he traded the picks that became Justin Jackson and Harry Giles III to get Collins); it isn’t Olshey’s fault that Collins has been perpetually injured. But drafting Anfernee Simons, for as talented as he is, as a turbo-charged scoring combo guard when you already have two players starting in that mold was puzzling instead of emphasizing defense. Do you think Robert Williams III, Mitchell Robinson, or De’Anthony Melton wouldn’t be useful there? Olshey did also draft Gary Trent Jr. in the second round, but still. The 2019 Draft wasn’t exactly rosy either. Five-star top ten recruit Nassir Little fell farther than he probably should’ve in that draft, but the book on him was that he was a very raw prospect. A team that looks at itself as a contender doesn’t have time to develop raw players like Little, especially since the Blazers don’t have a G League team. Keldon Johnson, Kevin Porter Jr., Daniel Gafford, and Terance Mann all got drafted after Little, and all except for Porter Jr. (who would also be quite redundant on this team) contributed towards their teams’ efforts of competing in the postseason. The urgency to surround Lillard with players that fit around him and fix the glaring holes of the roster has been nonexistent. Terry Stotts did not do enough to get the job done as the head coach, but he also always had to deal with a flawed roster from the start of seasons. That isn’t his fault. Olshey has to do better or else he’ll be the next to go (if he even gets the chance that Stotts didn’t get).
The Blazers are down their 2021 first-round pick but will have all their picks after that. The Blazers are already capped out with contracts due to Norman Powell and Zach Collins or risk losing them for nothing. Only Anfernee Simons could have positive trade value on their roster outside of CJ McCollum, but there aren’t many paths to getting an upgrade at the talent and fit without dealing extra assets alongside McCollum himself. If McCollum’s trade market proves cool, would Portland seriously consider their franchise icon in Damian Lillard? It probably wouldn’t come without Lillard himself asking out, but he’s been hell-bent on staying in Portland up to this point. I don’t think it’s impossible, however. It would be a crushing blow if that were to happen. But no one would blame Lillard for making that move. Portland has done little to nothing right to bolster his surrounding cast. The path to a championship looks as arduous as walking a tightrope that is connecting two cliffs with miles of separation in between. It might (likely?) never come for a player who has given his all for that team and that city.
The Trail Blazers need change. The change probably should’ve come a few years ago but is coming now. More should be forthcoming. Damian Lillard has dragged the Portland Trail Blazers into the postseason for multiple years now. The Blazers need to give him a better cast to help him compete deep into the playoffs. Failing to do so will mean squandering the great gifts and talents their franchise icon possesses.