Trail Blazers
Mar 18, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) brings the ball up the court in the fourth quarter of their game against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena. The Trail Blazers won 113-97. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

By Jesus Gomez

Seasons can typically be classified as successes or failures for most franchises. Goals are set and they are either met or aren’t. It’s rare to see a team skirt those definitions and both exceed and fail to live up to expectations in the same year, but that’s what the Portland Trail Blazers did.

Before the season, Portland was considered an up-and-coming squad capable of making some noise. That clearly didn’t happen. By mid-season, the Blazers were just another bad team in the West, fighting for a playoff spot. Yet, that adjustment in expectations played to their favor. Regrouping and making the postseason felt like a small victory in the end.

Now the question remains: which version of the Blazers is the real one? The one that showed a remarkable lack of effort early in the year, or the one that, with the addition of Jusuf Nurkic, put together a run late in the year? It’s hard to answer that, but it’s what General Manager Neil Olshey has to figure out.

Zooming out, there’s little to be excited about. The Blazers finished with a .500 record and only made the playoffs because the West wasn’t deep this year. They were swept in the first round, which clearly indicates that they are a long way away from contention despite having one of the largest payrolls in the league. The defense remained bad for the second season in a row. The free agent additions failed to make an impact and several role players took a step back in their performance.

Taking a more nuanced view, however, things don’t look as dire. The Blazers have a bloated payroll, true, but are still one of the youngest teams in the league. Internal development is possible. They closed the season strong, going 18-8 after the trade deadline. Not coincidentally, that’s when they landed Jusuf Nurkic, the defensive presence and tertiary scorer they needed. With him on the team, the defense improved to top-10 status, which shows it might not be a lost cause.

As for the poor early-season showing, injuries played a part. So did complacency. Anyone who watched the team saw it, including General Manager Neil Olshey.

“I don’t know that internally we changed our perspective,” he said in a media session, according to Oregon Live, “but I think the players just naturally start thinking ‘well we’re a second round playoff team.’ And I think everybody got comfortable that we would just pick up immediately where we left off.”

That won’t happen again, not after the reality check they had this season. But the Blazers were not really a second-round team last year. They simply benefited from terrible injury luck for the Clippers. And, even at their best, they might still not be one now.

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Some of the ingredients are there. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum make for an electrifying backcourt, combining for 50 points per game. They both have the ability to create their shot and score inside and out. When they are on, the Blazers looked like the Warriors on offense, if you squint a little. They scored almost 112 points per 100 possessions with both on the court, a mark that would have ranked second in the league.

Yet, as great as they are on offense, they are equally limited on defense. That has forced Portland to play defensive specialists at the forward positions just to avoid being a complete disaster on that end. It didn’t really work for most of the season, as the Blazers ranked in the bottom third in the league in defensive efficiency. Worse yet, it put a cap on the team’s scoring potential, preventing Portland from being elite on offense.

Nurkic seems like part of the solution, but it’s unclear how much he can raise the Blazers’ ceiling on his own. He was stellar in Portland, providing the type of two-way play that the team desperately needed. When he shared the floor with Lillard and McCollum, Portland was a juggernaut. But he only suited up 20 nights in his time there and is generally untested. He played over 20 minutes a game for the first time in his career this season. He might not be consistent enough over a long period of time to truly be a savior.

So the Blazers are still trying to figure out where they fit in the league’s hierarchy. They have two bona fide stars, an exciting young center and a handful of talented but flawed role players. That seems like enough to once again make the postseason, which is nothing to scoff at for a team two years removed from huge roster turnover. The front office has avoided bottoming out, which was the immediate goal. The path to real relevance, however, remains unclear.

Olshey has tagged both Lillard and McCollum as off limits in trade talks. They have no cap room, so big additions are not expected. They do have three first round picks, though none in the lottery. Their older veterans are mostly one-way players and their younger prospects have limited upside, so much so that Olshey is touting the untapped potential of five-year veteran Meyers Leonard. Unless Nurkic really is a top-10 center in the league, the Blazers might be first round fodder again.

Portland will enter the third year of a unique rebuilding effort. They have the payroll of a contender, yet this season has left no doubt that they are still not close to that level. They seem to be focusing on talent retention and relying on marginal improvement, which is a sound strategy, but one that requires patience.

The good news is that there won’t be predictions of an immediate big leap forward this time around. The burden of great expectations has largely been lifted. The young, talented Blazers won’t disappoint next season, like they did early this year. They can only pleasantly surprise.

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Jesus Gomez

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