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How to Enjoy and Embrace the Trail Blazers' Rebuild
It can be hard to stay invested during a season where you know the losses are going to pile up. Here's how to do it.
The above picture is one I took at the Trail Blazers' annual Fan Fest about two weeks ago, of general manager Joe Cronin being approached courtside by a couple of fans asking for an autograph.
That's where we are in the public response to the start of the rebuild. Friends I've talked to and fans and readers I've heard from are happy the Damian Lillard drama is behind them, relieved Cronin didn't get pushed into doing the Miami deal and excited about Scoot Henderson's potential. From training camp in Santa Barbara to Fan Fest to the two home preseason games to the general tenor of the conversation around the team that I've seen on social media in the past month, the vibes are good.
Of course, part of that is because they haven't played a game yet.
The truth is that starting over with a full rebuild is a lot more fun as a thought exercise than it is as a day-to-day existence. It's why I've always cautioned against people who thought the Blazers should have proactively traded Lillard to blow it up before he actually asked out. There's a compelling on-paper argument to make that it's the smart team-building move, and they happened to get extraordinarily lucky that a talent like Henderson fell into their lap at the No. 3 overall pick to start the next chapter. But I don't think most fans are fully prepared for what the next two-plus years are going to look like.
It's been a long time since the Blazers have been here. The late-season tank jobs of the last two years were, in both cases, a pivot brought on by injuries that derailed what had been seasons that started with postseason expectations. They made the playoffs every other year of the Lillard era but his rookie season in 2012-13. Even the tanking the year before he was drafted was the result of a trade-deadline teardown of a roster that was supposed to be competitive (the Raymond Felton-Jamal Crawford team that quit on Nate McMillan during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season). Before that, the Brandon Roy-LaMarcus Aldridge teams were in the playoffs.
You have to go back almost 20 years to find a season like this one, where everyone is going in knowing a youth movement won't lead to a lot of wins.
This week at training camp, head coach Chauncey Billups and the team's veterans like Malcolm Brogdon, Jerami Grant and Anfernee Simons have paid lip service to wanting to compete for the playoffs, and I don't doubt that they feel that way as competitors. No self-respecting player or coach is going to get in front of reporters and say, "Yeah, we know we're going to be bad this year, and probably next, but hopefully in a few years we'll be back in the playoffs." Their job on a night-to-night basis is going to be trying to win the games that are in front of them.
But the important people in the organization—ownership, Cronin and Billups—know exactly what the deal is. They're prepared for the Blazers to be one of the worst teams in the Western Conference, record-wise. They know how hard it is for teams this young to win games. Nobody's performance or job security is going to be judged in the short term on their record. And anyway, the organization probably needs to nail one or two more high lottery picks to put alongside Henderson and Shaedon Sharpe to really get this thing turned around.
That doesn't mean they're going to do what they did the second halves of the last two seasons, which saw some of the most egregious tanking that has ever taken place in the NBA, up there with the Process-era Sixers. They won't have to shut down their starters and play G Leaguers down the stretch to lose the amount of games they need to lose to get the draft pick they want. Teams this inexperienced are almost never good, and the Western Conference is deep. They'll have a good lottery position by default.
A week ago, I put out a call for mailbag questions. I answered the ones that touched on more specific topics like defense, the G League, the ROOT Sports/Comcast situation and Billups' job security in part one, which you can read here. But I also got a bunch of questions that were variations of "How do I stay sane following a rebuilding team?" and thought it would make sense to put my thoughts on that together in one place.
What stage do you think the Blazers are in this rebuild? i.e how many years away from actually “going for it,” it being a title? Do you think Jerami Grant will be part of the rebuild long term?
- Aaron S.
At minimum, this is going to be a two-year runway, probably longer.
To use the trendiest example of an up-and-coming team that rebuilt from the ground up and is getting a lot of "League Pass darling" buzz now: the Oklahoma City Thunder started this process in earnest after the 2020 bubble, when they traded Chris Paul to Phoenix. They had one young blue-chip prospect that they felt was their future (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander), and spent the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons bottoming out and collecting an ungodly amount of future draft picks by taking on other teams' unwanted salary. Last year, they were at least competitive enough to make the play-in. Now, they have a pretty enviable young core of SGA, Chet Holmgren, Jalen Williams and Josh Giddey, and most people think they'll be in the mix for a playoff spot in the west.
That's a three-year timeline to get back to relevancy. The Blazers aren't going to be as unwatchable as those first two years of the Thunder rebuild—they have too much proven NBA talent to do that—but they still need one or two more pieces that will be easiest to add through more high draft picks. If we're talking about a Scoot-Sharpe-Cooper Flagg trio in two years, suddenly the Blazers will be thought of nationally as the "new Oklahoma City." But they need some lottery luck to go their way, and their current young players need to develop the way they think and hope they will. Nothing is a sure thing, and it usually doesn't happen that fast.
A lot of it depends on Henderson, too. If he has a Ja Morant-like development arc (on the court) and it becomes clear by his second year that he's going to be a perennial All-NBA guy, that will change some things about how quickly they push their chips in and really go for it.
As far as Jerami Grant's future: I understand why people around the league are assuming they'll look to trade him soon, but I don't think that's necessarily the case. For one thing, you have to give that money to somebody just to get to the salary floor. For another—and this applies to the heavily speculated-about Malcolm Brogdon as well—you can't have zero veterans on a young, developing team. You need at least one or two adults in the locker room to set an example for the young players. The coaching staff can only do so much there—certain kinds of advice and lessons hit different when they come from a teammate.
The Blazers organization loves Grant as a player and as a person. He's a great "vibes guy," and you need those when you know you're going to lose a lot of games. Both Grant and the Blazers knew there was a possibility Lillard would request a trade when they agreed to the five-year, $160 million deal he signed at the start of free agency. From Grant's end, he'll be able to put up numbers like he did in Detroit, and particularly as a new dad, he probably isn't looking to move his family somewhere else in the middle of the season.
That's not to say the Blazers wouldn't be open to listening to offers if a contending team called about Grant. And if he were to go to Cronin somewhere down the line and ask to be sent to a contender, I think the front office would work to accommodate that request. Maybe that will happen at some point. Five years is a long time. It's impossible to know how the future will unfold. But for right now, I don't think either side is looking at this as a short-term partnership.
Hey Sean. I’m wondering how the Blazers are going to keep the vibes up. Yes, the last two seasons have gone south, but either they could be explained by Dame’s injury or they tried to be competitive for most of the season until the last few weeks. This year, it will probably be bad from night 1. It must be human nature to kind of check out after Christmas. How do the Blazers keep the vibes up to take advantage of learning opportunities knowing they are going to lose so many games?
- Alex P.
I totally get this. But take it from someone who's been covering the NBA for more than a decade: vibes and win-loss record are not necessarily related. I've covered teams that were talented and won enough games to get in the playoffs, but everyone on the team hated each other and no one respected the coach (my four seasons on the Bulls beat were the last two Tom Thibodeau years and the first two Fred Hoiberg years. I have some stories for another time).
This is actually going to be one of the big questions I'll be judging Billups on in his third year as head coach, since it obviously won't be wins and losses. If they're 15 games below .500 at the All-Star break, are guys still bought into the team concept or are they all on different pages chasing their own numbers? That's a product of coaching just as much as play calling or rotations are. We'll see how it goes.
While some folks out in Blazer land might be hoping for a run at the Play-in or something to that effect, I think we are in for quite a bit of losing basketball the next couple of years, and frankly I’m ok with that. I know it's been hard for some fans who just had to live through back-to-back tanking seasons, but this in my opinion is as close to a full rebuild as we have seen in recent memory from this franchise. For me, I am treating it as “year 0”—fun, exciting, but no expectations as far as winning. If I want that in my life I’ll watch Dame and Giannis get buckets on the Bucks. What advice do you have for fans on how to approach this season in terms of expectations so as to not get their hopes crushed?
Thanks, and love all you're doing!
- Justin S.
This is a great question. "Year 0" is a good way of putting it. You have to completely put wins and losses out of your mind. You almost have to rewire your brain to go away from that, because if you're expecting them to be competitive in the playoff or play-in race, you're not going to have a good time. The Blazers are going to have one of the worst records in the NBA this season, and they won't have to try to do it. I don't bet on sports and nobody should take gambling advice of any kind from me, but their over/under line for this season is between 27 and 29 depending on which site you're getting it from, and the "under" feels like a lock to me.
On the flip side, though, you shouldn't actively root for losses. I encountered a lot of that in my mentions down the stretch of the last two seasons—fans getting mad when their team won games because it would slightly hurt their lottery odds. I get it, but that's completely the wrong way of looking at it.
The start of a rebuild is a time to start building a culture, and the last thing an organization should want to do is have those formative years be creating an environment where players are expected to be OK with losing. My last year on the Bulls beat, I had Isaiah Canaan and Michael Carter-Williams, both of whom were on the Process-era 76ers teams. I remember having conversations with both of them at various points during that year about how miserable it was to go into every game during their Philly days knowing they had no chance at winning, and how toxic those locker rooms could get as a result of it.
You don't want Scoot Henderson and Shaedon Sharpe to be learning how to be NBA players in a situation like that, because it will teach them the wrong habits. If they win a few more games than expected because they're on the right development track, that's just as valuable in the long run as having a 14 percent chance instead of a 12.5 percent chance at the No. 1 pick.
That would be my top piece of advice—don't lose sleep either way about the final score. Focus more on finding your favorite player (there are a lot of new ones) and getting invested in his story and development. Is the Toumani Camara preseason hype real? Can Deandre Ayton change the conversation around his career after the way things ended in Phoenix? What does a full season of Matisse Thybulle look like? Can Sharpe translate his otherworldly physical gifts into being a night-to-night positive impact player that contributes to winning?
There are plenty of compelling things to talk about and watch for with this team, regardless of what their record is.
Beyond that, go to some Rip City Remix games at Chiles Center. You can get in for under $20 and see all the Ibou Badji and Rayan Rupert minutes you can handle. One thing I know about this fanbase is that they get unreasonably attached to young players, and now there are even more opportunities to see them for not very much money.
I became a premium subscriber last January in hopes of getting in on the ground floor for the next iteration of the team. Similarly, I was thrilled that the organization added a g league team and will be at half of the remix games this season. Are there any people on YouTube who break down film in a way that can explain modern basketball to a 40 year old dinosaur taught how to watch basketball under the crushing (and massive) fist of Jerry Sloan?
Thanks for all you do!
Friend of the program Danny Marang does some great film-breakdown work on the Patreon component of his Jacked Ramsays podcast. I also want to give a plug to my friend and old Hardwood Paroxysm (RIP) teammate Jared Dubin, who just relaunched his Last Night in Basketball newsletter and does really smart video stuff. Beyond that, Steve Jones Jr. and Nekias Duncan do a great job breaking down X's and O's on the Dunker Spot podcast. Mo Dakhil used to be a video coordinator for the Spurs and Clippers and does great work on YouTube. There are others I'm forgetting, but those are my go-to's.
Big shout out to you helping us navigate this off season and help keep us sane.
Is this the most excited you've been to cover the team in recent memory?
What are your expectations for this season and how will you judge this season as a success or failure?
I'm always excited at the beginning of the season. Eventually, the burnout hits, but that's going to happen in any job. We'll see how I'm feeling in January when they're 10-24 and I have to find compelling things to write every night. But to your point, I am more excited about this season than most others, just because it's going to be something different.
I'm excited to get in on the ground floor with Henderson. By the time I moved back to Portland from Chicago in 2017, Lillard was already established and had pre-existing relationships with local media members. He and I always got along well (still do), but I was playing catch-up to a degree. With Scoot, we all have a blank slate, and I'm looking forward to getting to know him and his family as the season unfolds.
I'm excited to have a few years off from the Star Trade Request Speculation Industrial Complex. It's a part of the league nowadays that's unavoidable, but it's exhausting to think about and talk about constantly. I look at what's going on in Philly right now with James Harden, and the whispers that are already starting about Donovan Mitchell in Cleveland, and my response is, "Well, not my problem anymore." It's going to start up again with Scoot eventually, because that's the nature of the beast. But not having to think about that with the team I cover for the next little while is going to be refreshing.
I'm excited that the Blazers finally have a G League team that they're going to use to develop some of their end-of-bench guys. I plan to be at as many of those games as I can make and I've got a bunch of story ideas already.
More than anything, I'm excited to keep growing what I'm doing here. I've had a lot of new subscribers come on board since the start of training camp and truly appreciate the support from everyone. I have some big things planned for year two that will be announced soon.