The Portland Trail Blazers start their season Wednesday in Sacramento. It’ll be the first game for Damian Lillard since he had season-ending surgery in January, and it follows a preseason with four losses and only one win that has some Blazers fans fearing the worst.
Mike Richman, the host of the “Locked on Blazers” daily podcast, joined OPB “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller on Monday for a season preview.
Dave Miller: Welcome to the show.
Mike Richman: Thanks for having me.
Miller: Thanks for joining us. Before we talk about the season that’s about to start, I thought we could touch briefly on last season. So, the Blazers lost Lillard to an injury, an injury that apparently he had been having or dealing with for years. Then they fired their GM Neil Olshey after reports that he had created a toxic work environment. They traded away C. J. McCollum and then they lost 21 of their last 23 games. What most stands out to you from last year?
Richman: Well, that they’re not wholly different from the way they ended last season. Now they’ve got a bunch of new parts, but they were a team that was, you know, really tumultuous with all of the sort of front office things that not only lost Neil Olshey, but the president on the business side stepped away very suddenly prior to the firing of Olshey. So, it was a rocky season and yet they’re running a relatively similar looking group back again with maybe a little more hopeful upside.
Miller: Well, so about that, I mean Blazers fans’ hopes when the team traded away McCollum and then tanked in the second half was that they would rebuild around Lillard and hopefully sign some real difference makers. How much did that actually happen?
Richman: Well, the trade (of) C.J. McCollum allowed them to acquire a draft pick that they eventually flipped to land Jerami Grant, forward from the Detroit Pistons, who is almost certainly the best forward they’ve had on the roster since Lamarcus Aldridge left. He’s a big get and a big addition and a serious upgrade. And they also used one of their free agency tools to sign veteran Gary Payton, the second son of Beavers and Northwest Legend Gary Payton. Those are two real upgrades. Peyton is injured so he’s not going to play at the beginning of the season. But I do think that they made some win-now moves. The challenge, Dave, is that they are on these competing timelines of being competitive in the moment, but also having another part of the roster that is sort of young and developmental, and it’s really difficult to have both of those timelines running concurrently.
Miller: When you’re thinking about the young and developmental part, who are the rookies or young players who have the biggest potential upside?
Richman: Well, they signed Anfernee Simons who just finished up his fourth year in the NBA, and is entering year five to a four-year, $100 million contract. Which, believe it or not, has started to look like a bargain, the way the NBA salaries work now, maybe not a true bargain, but at least like the going rate for someone of his caliber. He’s a 23-year-old with real upside to take steps forward. They also drafted 19-year-old Shane Sharp, a rookie who didn’t play college basketball, didn’t play his senior year of high school basketball and is a true mystery man. But at 19, he’s super skilled and the sort of scouting types that have seen him play are really excited about what he could be. And I think you gotta throw in Keon Johnson, a second-year guard who’s going to play a significant role in the beginning of the season, who’s still just 20 years old as well.
Miller: What did you see in preseason games? And I’ll ask you the opposite of this question too. But what do you see that made you most worried?
Richman: Their perceived strengths of being a really good offensive team were not there. They look a little disjointed, confused, not totally connected on offense, like they kind of are still figuring out what to be. And in the past, they have been, you know, a really good offensive team with a bad defense and it says, well, you know, the idea would be that sometimes you can’t cover up your weaknesses. So, you gotta lean into your strengths. What concerns me is that right now the Blazers are unable or have so far been unable to, sort of lean on those strengths.
Miller: How much of that seems to you, like just the growing pains of a slightly new set of folks playing together? I mean some people are back together and have been for a couple of years now, but how much of it is just figuring out the rhythm of a new team?
Richman: I think a great deal of it. I wouldn’t put it more than half. I’m not willing to throw out the exhibition season as just growing pains and kind of the nature of, you know, a new team and games that don’t matter where they don’t play the fourth quarter intentionally. But there is some truth to it that Chauncey Billups is coaching. You know, he coached a bunch of different iterations of the Blazers last year, thanks to trades and injuries. The addition of Jerami Grant, the inclusion of more Anfernee Simons, there are new parts, there are new parts to integrate for sure, but I saw what I saw. They didn’t look very good.
Miller: What looked the best? I mean, what are the positives that you saw, if any?
Richman: I think Keon Johnson has taken some real steps forward. He was a guy who looked like he was a borderline NBA player last year. He’s taken some real steps forward. He struggled at the very end of his preseason, but all throughout one game and say that the others he looked pretty good. And Shane Sharp has taken steps forward. He can be a special player. But it’s when his ability can catch up with the rest of the league. It’s hard to be a good player in the NBA at 19. There’s not much track record of teenagers really being impactful players.
Miller: Can his peak coincide with Damian Lillard still being close to his peak? You know, more than a decade older?
Richman: Peak, probably not. And I think that’s the sort of competing timelines. I was discussing peak, probably not. But if you think that at 32 in the way that modern athletes have played, that Damian Lillard has two, three more seasons of being one of the best players in the league. Certainly, the idea is that Shane Sharp can get up to speed and be ready to be a very good basketball player over the next two seasons. And then if you have that type of talent playing on the same roster, you’ve got a lot more options.
Miller: What are you expecting from Damian Lillard coming off his surgery and his time away?
Richman: I am not particularly worried about Damian Lillard as an offensive force in the NBA. He has consistently over the last half-decade, seven years, been one of the five or so best scorers and best offensive forces in the league. I think he’ll get back there and be that again. Whether he fits with the current coaching staff’s style and whether he’s going to mesh perfectly with his new teammates, I think those are questions. But his overall talent, I’m not worried about him falling off at age 32. I’m a little bit older than Damian. I like to believe that I’m still in my podcasting prime so certainly, he can play point guard at pretty high-level stuff.
Miller: Because podcasting is hard and physically demanding as everybody knows.
Richman: It’s a daily show, Dave, you know how it goes.
Miller: Let’s listen to a short clip from one of your recent episodes. I don’t think this needs any setup.
Richman (in an audio clip): I want to say this too. I’ve been pretty negative on this show recently because I have watched the Blazers play and they haven’t been very good and I like to keep it real. When I see them play poorly, I call it like it is. But the reason to be a Blazers fan, the reason to be a fan of any sports team, is to allow yourself to be hopeful and to enjoy the special things Damian Lillard is, the special thing about the Portland Trail Blazers. The fun part of the season is watching an all-time great play his trade for the team you love. So, if you are able, and many of you are and don’t need this pep talk. But I’ve seen the comments, I’ve read the tweets.
If you are able, allow yourself to appreciate how darn good Damian Lillard is. And appreciate the moments when he is the best player on the floor because sports life is fleeting, hold on to your joy. And if Damian Lillard, who, if you’re a Blazers fan, has brought you more joy than anyone else over the last decade, hold on to the moments when you can enjoy how special he is.
Miller: Mike Richman, I heard this both as good general advice for any fan anywhere, but also as a kind of warning early on for Blazers fans. In particular, basically to say, “Hey, if the Blazers beat the Clippers in late November, really celebrate that win because that may be the kind of thing that you hold onto for the season that maybe is as good as it gets.” Is that what you’re saying right now in the middle of October?
Richman: That’s a pretty fair read on it. Holding onto your joy is sort of the thesis of my show and also my belief as a sports fan. I’m a sports fanatic. Most teams lose. Every year, 29 teams lose and, in the NBA, very few teams win. Since 1983, 14 teams have won an NBA championship, that’s less than half the league in 40 years, nobody wins this thing. A handful of franchises win the whole thing. So you have to, if you’re going to lock in for the seven-month marathon of the NBA season, is take the highs and really appreciate them, celebrate them, enjoy them and like know that they bring you real joy because that’s the task of and the challenge of rooting for a team that really might struggle early in the season. It really might not find their footing until, you know, a month or so in, if they do at all. So, hold on to your joy when you have it.
Miller: Mike Richmond, thanks very much for joining us.
Richman: Thanks for having me.