Having been born and raised in the Portland, OR area the Portland Trail Blazers have been engrained in my DNA as much as tolerating rain, the smell of coffee and listening to people talk about how great their homebrew is. This fan hood has brought a lot of joy in my 23 years of life while they have accomplished above league average success. But during this time the franchise has also endured plenty of injuries, arrests, early playoff exits and frustration. The 2014-15 season felt like a mini roller coaster of events that had a lot of parts that have become all too familiar with the Blazer fans over the past 15-20 years. With the Blazers 21st 1st round playoff exit in franchise history (That’s 21 out of 45 seasons…meaning 46.67% of Blazer seasons have been 1st round playoff exits-seems high right?) still fresh in memory but with enough time in between that I can look back and not bang my head against the table I will take a look back at the season that was.
All things considered the 2014-15 campaign started with as much optimism as any year in recent memory. The franchise was coming off the furthest playoff run in 14 years with Damian Lillard giving us the climax of one of the most clutch moments in NBA Playoff history (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mejFtEY5faU I use whatever excuse I can to watch this over and over again). The most glaring weakness of the roster (depth) had seemingly been addressed with the veteran additions of Chris “Zombie Man” Kaman and Steve “OG” Blake (pictured to the right with his high school AAU crew). With the entire core back from the previous year things were looking up and some were quietly thinking this squad could win the Western Conference or even contend for the NBA championship. This was gonna be the year dawg.
Championship Caliber Start (30-8 on January 11th)
Portland had a brutal schedule to start the year (5 of the first 6 opponents ended up winning 45 or more games) in which the Blazers went 3-3 with some tough losses at home to Golden State (The game where it was impossible to inbound the ball from the sideline in the last minute) and on the road to the Clips’ (J.J. Redick went 11-13 from the field for a season-high 30 points…wut). But after that loss to the Clippers the Blazers went on a roll and ripped off 9 straight wins. In the early months of the season things were clicking on all cylinders. The new additions were fitting in perfectly and the young players were growing into their games. The starting five were playing with confidence in each other and seemed to have grown a better understanding with an extra year of playing in Terry Stotts’ “flow” system (sidenote: I named the offense my 7th grade AAU team that I coach run “flow” so I can pretend to be like Stotts on the sideline and I’m only partially joking). All this culminated (after a 106-94 January 11th road victory over the Lakers… suck it, Kobe) in a 30-8 start to the season. One of the major takeaways from this part of the season was how in the biggest games Damian Lillard had developed his ability to take over games. Sure he had shown the clutch gene in hitting game winning shots but he was now showing the capability to take control of games and put the team on his back (seems weird to think back upon now). The two games that come to mind are the crazy 3OT win in San Antonio (where he scored his career high 43 points including 16 in the 3 overtime periods) and the overtime win in Oklahoma City (40 points, 11 assists including 9 points in the final 1:32 to bring Portland back from down 10 to force OT). A team’s chances to win in the playoffs only increase with a superstar caliber player and Damian Lillard was becoming ours. Now through January 11th the Blazers had the second best record in the NBA and the belief that this team could potentially win the West was growing with every passing day.
January 14th– March 4th (10-11): Weirdness, Terrifying Injury Scare and the Trade
The middle stretch of the season had a little bit of everything. There were good games, there were bad games, we had the all-star break (2 all stars for the second straight year!) and the trade deadline. It was the part of the season in the 2013-14 campaign where the team started to struggle a little bit before pulling things together towards the end of the year. During the 30-8 start the Blazers had enjoyed one of the easier schedules in the NBA but they were doing what good teams do in taking care of bidness. Starting in mid-January the schedule started to get tougher and for whatever reason the Blazers were not hitting outside shots like they had earlier in the year. And then on January 19th it looked like everything was about to fall apart when in a game against Sacramento LaMarcus went down with a thumb injury. In the following days the reports came out that he had torn a ligament in his left thumb, done for the year. You could hear all of Rip City collectively saying Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit. But then as quickly as it had happened LaMarcus simply decided “hold up, I’m gonna play through it” (not a direct quote). The leader of the team in the middle of a contract year was going to play through a TORN FUCKING LIGAMENT in his thumb. Ok but no way he is going to be effective right? He is essentially going to be one handed and he won’t be able to gobble up rebounds at the same rate? But then in his first game back he went for 26 & 9 in a victory over Washington. OK. And then went for 38 & 11 at Cleveland. OK. Then 37 & 11 at Atlanta. Wow…I guess he can still be useful then huh? With that crisis averted the Blazers grinded through their tough schedule and reached the all-star break at 36-17, Tied for 3rd in the West. The momentum of the early part of the season had deadened a little and Neil Olshey decided to try and inject some life back into the season at the trade deadline. So on February 19th the Blazers shipped their 2016 first round pick, Thomas Robinson, Will Barton & Victor Claver to Denver in exchange for Arron Afflalo and Alonzo Gee. And all Kendrick Lamar fans in the Portland area rejoiced (“Black Boy Fly” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BPAxrGT2emw). At the time it seemed like the right move. This team had a chance to go far and adding a veteran piece that was coming off the best year of his career certainly couldn’t do any harm. Giving up some young fringe players (albeit fan favorites T-rob & The People’s Champ) and a 1st round pick seemed like a reasonable price for the instant depth Afflalo provided. And after an overtime victory on the road in LA against the Clippers on March 4th (the really weird game that Batum took over. Lillard and Aldridge were a combined 13-43 from the field, Lillard had 5pts & 18 rebounds) that pushed the Blazers record to 40-19 all things were looking bright again for Rip City.
March 5th-April 15th (11-12): Down goes Wes, Limp to the Finish
For all intensive purposes the hopes of making a deep playoff run were completely dashed on a cold March 5th evening in Portland. This was when Wes Matthews went down for the season with a ruptured Achilles. “I’ve made that same cut hundreds of thousands of times in my life. I felt the initial pop, and I think you guys could tell on the replay, I looked back, and it feels like someone kicked you. I was praying that someone was back there. No one was back there”. Those were Wes’ comments after the game. One of the amazing things about the current group of Blazer players was how they had seemed to avoid major injuries. During the course of the 2013-14 season Terry Stotts only had to use 2 different starting lineups the ENTIRE year. It was like this crew was putting up a double middle finger F-U to their recent injury plagued predecessors. But on this night that changed and the team was suddenly without their emotional leader and 3rd best player. They managed to beat Dallas that night but in the final 22 games it was obvious how much they missed Wes on both ends of the floor. They struggled to go 10-12 and gave up over 100 points in 13 of those 22 games. It was easily apparent that this just wasn’t the same team without their starting shooting guard. But still managed to finish the year at 51-31 and secure the 4 seed (due to winning the division) in the almighty Western Conference. And on the last day of the season Memphis moved into the 5th seed ahead of San Antonio which meant we would avoid the defending champs who had smacked us around last playoffs. The playoffs had arrived and it was now or never.
Heading into the first round series with Memphis things weren’t exactly looking great. First off this was a terrible matchup of styles for the Blazers. Secondly watching any game against Memphis over the past 3 years had been about as much fun as getting firmly kicked in the nutsack. Not only were Portland 0-4 against Memphis in this season but were 2-8 against them over the past 3 seasons. But by the time I was on my way to a buddy’s place to watch game 1 I had worked myself into the fan mindset of LET’S DO THIS LILLARD AND ALDRIDGE ARE SPECIAL AND THEY ARE GOING TO GET SHIT DONE, WE DA BEST. But then Game 1 happened and we lost by double digits. Then game 2 happened and we lost by double digits again. Lillard was forcing up bad shots and the entire team looked frustrated by Memphis’ methodical and intelligent brand of basketball. They showed more fight in Game 3 which included the awakening of CJ McCollum (26 points & accidentally broke Mike Conley’s face) but ended up falling by 6. For all intensive purposes the season was over. No NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 hole in a series and it didn’t look like the Blazers were up for the fight to do so. Without Conley the Grizzlies looked more vulnerable and the Blazers took Game 4 at home 99-92 while finding the magic lineup of Lillard-McCollum-Batum-Aldridge & Leonard. And stuck to that lineup almost for the duration of Game 5 in what was probably the most competitive game of the series. CJ McCollum played the best game of his career and shredded Memphis for a career high 33 points but they ended up falling 99-93 and just like that the year was over. A season that had started with such promise and dreams of a potential championship had ended suddenly with a very brief 5 game playoff series. Now it is easy to just say things could’ve been different if we had had Wes Matthews. And it definitely could’ve been a closer series with his leadership, outside shooting and perimeter defense. But Memphis played so well and so confident with their style that they would’ve been tough to beat anyway. And after seeing what they just did to Golden State in Game 2 maybe we had just had the misfortune of playing the hottest team in the playoffs again (Houston 2009, Dallas 2011 & San Antonio 2014). But with the series loss to Memphis the 2014-15 season had come to a close with a nasty taste in Rip City’s mouth. But another 50 win season and playoff appearance isn’t one to scoff at. That is a very successful season (just ask Ricky Rubio) but the thought of what could have been is what lingers at the moment.
Without question this offseason will be one of the most important in franchise history. If all the options on player contracts aren’t picked up (Afflalo-player option, Blake-player option, Kaman- partially guaranteed) we would be looking at having four players on the roster (Lillard, McCollum, Batum & Leonard). But don’t for a second think that this wasn’t on purpose. Neil Olshey has made a point of trying to maintain as much flexibility with the roster as possible while still fielding a contending team. And after listening to his exit interview last week (link to the audio: https://soundcloud.com/caseyholdahl/neil-olshey-2015-exit-interview) there is nobody I would have more confidence in to lead the roster moves this offseason than Neil Olshey. That brings us to the LaMarcus situation. Free agency essentially exists for situations like his. He has given his heart and soul to the organization for 9 years and fully deserves the opportunity to look around and see what is out there. Keep this on the DL…but the world would not fall apart if he decided to leave. Sure he’s coming off the best 2 years of his career but he will be turning 30 in July. If the Blazers lock him up to a 5 year max contract do you think he will be worth that $25 million a year as a less effective 34 & 35 year old? But then again who knows what the salary cap (and what the worth of $25 million) will look like with the infusion of cash from the NBA’s new TV deal. Bottom-line he deserves this chance and whatever decision he makes will be fine by me. Ultimately this offseason will be exciting with a lot of potential moves. The roster could either look extremely similar to the one we had at the end of the season or could look completely different. That amount of variance seems rare in the NBA nowadays. But one thing is for certain and that is these next few months will be extremely exciting to follow. Only 49 days until the NBA Draft.