After a disappointing finish to their season, losing in six games to the Denver Nuggets, the Portland Trail Blazers appear to be at an offseason crossroads, with questions about roster and coaching changes lingering over their future.
Following their 126-115 Game 6 loss in which they blew a 14-point second-half lead at home, the frustration was evident in the Blazers’ postgame media availability.
“I mean, we didn’t win a championship, so obviously where we are now isn’t good enough,” Damian Lillard said. “I don’t know what a shakeup looks like or what changes will be made or could be made, but obviously as is, it wasn’t good enough. We came up short against a team without their starting point guard and shooting guard (Will Barton and Jamal Murray). … Obviously, where we are isn’t good enough to win a championship if it’s not good enough to get out of a first-round series with two of their best three or four players not on the floor.”
Lillard was spectacular in the series and put together one of the greatest postseason performances ever in Game 5, a 55-point eruption that featured a playoff-record 12 3-pointers. But reflecting the Blazers’ predicament, it wasn’t enough as Portland lost that game in double overtime.
In Game 6, Lillard appeared to run out of steam — along with taking a blow to the head — shooting just 1-of-9 in the second half, including 1-of-5 in the fourth quarter as the Nuggets pulled away late. It was a tough end to a series in which Lillard set a mark for most 3s made in a playoff series (35), and also became the fourth player in NBA history with 200 points and 60 assists in a series, joining LeBron James, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson. And he did it all in six games.
The Blazers have been the rare picture of stability in today’s NBA, with Terry Stotts the fourth-longest-tenured active coach with one team, leading the Blazers since 2012. Only Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra and Rick Carlisle have been with their teams longer. The Blazers have had the battery of Stotts, general manager Neil Olshey and star Lillard in place for the past nine seasons.
But Stotts’ future is in question, with plenty of chatter about the possibility of a coaching change in Portland.
“My job security? I’m under contract for two more years. I’m sure, just like the end of every year, we’re all evaluated. Players, coaches, management — we’re all evaluated. So we’ll see what happens,” Stotts said. “We’ll see what happens, but all I know is I’m under contract for two more years.”
Under Stotts, the Blazers have made eight consecutive postseason appearances, the longest current streak in the NBA. They’ve lost in the first round in five of those eight appearances, reaching the Western Conference finals in 2019, when they were swept by the Warriors. He’s one of two coaches in Blazers history with 400 wins, along with Jack Ramsay. He’s also the only coach Lillard has ever had.
“For our season to end on our home floor is disappointing. That’s as far as I am right now,” Lillard said. “I’m not thinking about none of the other s— like change or whatever, man. We’ll see what happens, but I haven’t even thought that far out.”
Lillard’s commitment to the Blazers has been unwavering, with him doubling and tripling and quadrupling down in that regard publicly over recent years. Lillard is 30 and signed a four-year supermax extension in 2019, keeping him under contract with the Blazers through the 2024-25 season.
“We didn’t make excuses and we still don’t make excuses. Disappointing ending, this isn’t what we wanted, but we don’t hang our heads. Just came up short,” Lillard said. “We didn’t do what was necessary to win a series and gotta keep fighting, keep working and keep coming back to battle. Regardless of how it ended, we’re always going to have our heads held high, have class and go about it like real warriors. We lost, they were the better team, congratulations to them. It’s back to the drawing board for us.”
Alongside Lillard in the backcourt for the past eight seasons has been CJ McCollum, a player often mentioned in trade scenarios but one Olshey has adamantly said he wouldn’t trade. McCollum expressed disappointment in his performance in the series; he averaged 20.7 points on 46.2% shooting but missed a few critical shots in both Games 5 and 6. Asked about his future, McCollum politely declined to engage the question.
“My job is to get better. Work on my game to improve so that I can help the team,” he said. “My job isn’t to worry about those things.”
Nurkic, though, was quite candid about his apparent frustration, saying he was unsure if he would be back next season. The 26-year-old big man has a partially guaranteed contract next season and said he would take some time in the coming days to consider what might be next for him.
“In the right situation, yes,” Nurkic said when asked if he wanted to return to the Blazers next season.
What is the right situation?
“We’ll see. I don’t know yet,” he said. “Because this is not it.”