The Portland Trail Blazers are truly the victims of their own success … again. The Pelicans eliminated Portland in a vicious sweep. The Blazers can’t blame a devastating star injury or fall back on a six-game loss in which a few coin-flip games went their opponent’s way.

No, truly, the Pelicans outright smacked the Blazers in the mouth, and then kicked them repeatedly when they were down. They suffered a Brow-beating, experienced the brutal Jrue-th and were served a heaping dish of Playoff Rondo. They even caught a Niko Mirotic series. Literally the only way it could’ve gone worse is if Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum had suffered a major injury.

In the aftermath, GM Neil Olshey could have gone with A.) “Clearly changes have to be made and I promise you, Blazers fans, we will make changes.” … B.) “Obviously disappointing, but it starts with me and I know we can get where we need to go” … Or even C.) “This is tough but I’m confident we’ll grow from it.”

Instead, he went with … D.) “Aw shucks, what a tough matchup.”

You gotta admit, it takes stones to come out after the six-seed without their second-best player wipes the floor with you and basically say “it was just a bad matchup, and actually we had a great season.”

This is the deal with Portland. The Blazers are a bubble team masquerading as a serious squad. Each spring, they run off one prolonged win stretch somewhere between January and April, and play under or slightly-above-.500 ball the rest of the time.

Need proof?

2015-16: 18-4 between Jan. 10 and March 1, 26-34 the rest of the time.

2016-17: 17-5 between March 2 and April 10, 24-36 the rest of the time.

2017-18: 22-5 from Jan. 16 through March 18, 29-26 the rest of the way.

Now, those games count just as much as the rest of them, and the Blazers won them the same as any team does. But it’s odd that so many of their wins are isolated to these short stretches. They are often accompanied by schedule stretches when they face injured teams, which, again, is not their fault. You play who’s in front of you. But the result is that these things never even out. The Blazers finished in the third seed, but were a game away from sixth. If the season goes another month, who knows where they end up.

But it didn’t, and so Portland was saddled with the expectations of the third seed. There have been efforts in recent days to hammer the Blazers’ proximity to the competition, as if to say that the 3-seed shouldn’t really be favored by all that much. But they were the belle of the ball over the past 45 days. They were talked about for their ability to match up with Golden State, for Lillard’s MVP candidacy (which was legit).

There were those who picked the Pelicans to win the series (including, in full transparency, yours truly), but no one picked them in a sweep. That was inconceivable going in. For the Blazers to fall apart like this reveals a lot of their fundamental problems.

THE ISSUES

  • Their spacing is compromised to an alarming degree. The Pelicans schemed out Lillard and McCollum and forced the Blazers role players to try to hit with jumpers; they couldn’t.
  • The Blazers’ defense was smoke and mirrors. They dropped Jusuf Nurkic in the pick and roll to stay home on shooters but that meant driving lanes and open space for Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo off the pick. The scheme worked in the regular season, it was torn to pieces in the playoffs, and when the Blazers tried to adjust, it just made things worse by opening up perimeter shots.
  • And then … there’s the cap.

Evan Turner is on the books for $18 million next year. Mo Harkless, whom the Blazers needed healthy at the end of a great individual season, is on for $11 million. Meyers Leonard, who played eight minutes in this series, is on for $11 million as well.  Nurkic, who is looking for a big-money extension in the offseason, shot below 50% as a center in the playoffs, and was a minus-29 in 93 minutes. Ed Davis was their third-best player this season, and he’s also a free agent.

It’s a catastrophe, with no hope in sight. Tearing it down isn’t feasible. Keeping it together doesn’t inspire confidence. Where does the leap come from? From Nurkic? From Lillard, who had a career season and played surprisingly solid defense? From McCollum, who had a career year as well? The Blazers were almost entirely healthy the whole year. This was the season where everything went right for them, and they were swept by a lower seed in the first round.

Tanking and blowing it up will be the discussion, but it’s not feasible. You could trade both Lillard and McCollum, and the Blazers’ cap sheet would still likely be a mess. Might as well keep the band together and hope to catch lightning in a bottle or hope for a black-swan event to change their fortunes until the contracts are off the books.

That’s maybe the worst part of all of this. You can’t even make a road map for Portland; the Blazers are in the spot that the Sixers were in before the Process. Hanging in there, never thriving, never falling apart, with a fat cap sheet and little upside.

Other than that, though …

LESSONS FOR BETTORS

Terry Stotts is now 11-27-2 in the playoffs ATS.

The Blazers went 44-36-6 ATS on the season, but just 24-27-5 outside of that stretch between January and March when they caught fire. In other words, they weren’t a profitable investment except in that narrow window.

It’s likely the Blazers look to maintain the stats quo this summer, but until we see their exact plans, any Blazers futures are total stay-aways. If Portland elects to trade McCollum (or Lillard), then certainly it will force a total re-examination.

Credit:

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

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