Think Out Loud

A midseason check-in with the Portland Trail Blazers

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
Feb. 22, 2024 4:52 p.m. Updated: Feb. 22, 2024 9:26 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, Feb. 22

Portland Trail Blazers guard Anfernee Simons passes the ball against the Detroit Pistons during the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, in Portland, Ore.

Portland Trail Blazers guard Anfernee Simons passes the ball against the Detroit Pistons during the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, in Portland, Ore.

Howard Lao / AP


After the All-Star Break, the Portland Trail Blazers have just 28 games left in their season. With new faces on the court, the loss of beloved point guard Damian Lillard and TV viewership reportedly dropping by almost 50%, what is the future of the team? To give us a sense on how the season has played out so far and what is to come, we’re joined by Host of the “Locked on Blazers” podcast Mike Richman.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. After the All-Star Break, the Portland Trailblazers have under 30 games left in their season. It’s been a pretty dismal season. The Blazers are in second to last place in the Western Conference. Their young team has been plagued with injuries. TV viewership is reportedly down by almost 50% and in-person demand has been so anemic that some tickets are going for only $2. And if what’s often euphemistically called a rebuilding season, if that’s what this is, it’s not totally clear what the team is building. But Mike Richman always says that there is joy in Rip City, if you know where to look. He is a host of the “Locked on Blazers” podcast and he joins us once again. Welcome back to the show.

Mike Richman: Thanks for having me.

Miller: So a not very good team last year lost its best player, Damian Lillard. So no one was expecting the Blazers to be amazing this year. But were you expecting them to be second to last in the conference?

Richman: Yes. The short answer is yes. This is a team that pivoted to being incredibly young, like you said, they weren’t very good last year. They lose the best player of the 21st century and they kind of commit to this path. I think it was very reasonable at the beginning of the season to think they’d be one of the five worst teams in the league. They have the fifth worst record in the NBA. This is kind of what they signed up for.

Miller: They also signed up for the theoretical potential future of the franchise in Scoot Henderson, somebody who theoretically could be a replacement for Damian Lillard in the future. How would you describe his rookie year so far?

Richman: Turbulent? He hasn’t been very good. I think that there was some hope. Scoot Henderson just turned 20 in early February, but he started the season as a teenager. There was some hope that because he had spent two years, not in college, but playing in the professional ranks of the NBA G League, the sort of minor league of the NBA, that he would be a little more seasoned than your typical 19 year old. He’d be a little more ready than your typical 19 year old. It just wasn’t the case. He just hasn’t been very good.

Recently, over the last six weeks or so, he’s looked like a pretty normal rookie. He’s kind of been below average in the way that is very normal for young players to be below average in the league. But he started off historically bad, historically inefficient, and I think that kind of added to the murkiness of this season. The team believed he was going to be further along than he was. And it kind of slowed things down.

Miller: How much of this has to do with the shoes that if he wasn’t expected to fill now, the hopes for the shoes he would fill in the future?

Richman: I thought you were gonna ask about the shoes he’s been wearing that are Cheetos-themed. [Laughter] And I was like, I’m not bringing that up.

Some of it is that he’s supposed to be the heir apparent, right? Like, I think that’s absolutely a factor here. There’s the sort of heir apparent hanging over him, but he says that he doesn’t want to be the next Damian Lillard. He wants to be Scoot Henderson. And I think that is a noble stance to take, but I’m not sure if I believe it because I don’t think you can avoid the shadow that Dame left and still casts over the team, some seven months after he asked to no longer be on the team.

Miller: Well, let’s turn to one of the more interesting nights that the Blazers had at the Moda Center this year - when Lillard returned. What was that game like?

Richman: I compared it to kind of visiting your parents’ home after you’ve moved out, maybe some two to three years later. He was back in familiar confines, back in the place he helped to decorate, back in all of those things, but it’s just not home anymore. You’re returning back as someone who no longer lives there. You’re a visitor even in your own home. It was strange and maybe colder than I thought it would be. It was like it was emotional and special, but it was more transactional. There was like welcome back to Damian Lillard,  cheer for a minute-and-a-half. OK, let’s play a basketball game. And there were a couple tribute videos but it was strange to see him wear a different uniform, strange in the way that pro-athletes move on and they leave you and you just cheer for the laundry that they left behind.

Miller: Are you talking about your own emotions here? I mean, when you thought you would have more of a tug at your heart and it felt more regular and transactional, because this is actually just a business?

Richman: I am mostly talking about my own emotions there. I can’t speak for the sell out crowd that was there. The Blazers like to announce bigger crowds. So I laugh when I say it. But a full arena really gave him his moments. But to me, from just like a personal standpoint on press row, it did feel a little more transactional than I had expected it to.

Miller: Are there any good surprises for you this season in terms of consistent performance from any young players?


Richman: Before he got hurt, Shaedon Sharpe. He’s now likely out for the season. He’s having surgery to repair a core muscle injury. He was looking like a really special player at 20. I think he was the bright spot. He had a stretch in December where it was like, oh, this guy could be really good and that kind of helps make the losses go down a little bit smoother.

I think big picture stuff, the Blazers seem to have found a bunch of players who are decent. I think Jabari Walker, a second year forward, plays really hard and is a really good rebounder. Rookie Toumani Camara is a really good defender. I think Chris Murray, another rookie, has shown some potential there. I think they have a bunch of guys who could be decent, solid long-term NBA players, but it’s just so hard to move forward with your rebuild, retool, reimagination if you don’t have a star to kind of build the foundation around.

Miller: So let’s turn to that big picture for a second here. As I noted at the beginning, the classic phrase that not very good teams use is that they’re “rebuilding,” or at least people say that about them. Fans say that out of a sense of hope. No, we’re not bad, we’re rebuilding. But that does imply that there’s a plan. Do the Blazers have a plan or even just a path that makes sense to you?

Richman: So I think they have a path that makes sense in the abstract. Scoot Henderson is the third overall pick in the draft, a point guard who many consider to be a top tier talent when he was drafted. Shaedon Sharpe, who they drafted the year before with the number seven overall pick, is a shooting guard who could play next to Scoot in the backcourt, and has potential to be a very good player. That is the abstract notion of what’s next, this really good young guard duo that could be a part of the future for a long time because they’re both still 20 years old. But we haven’t seen it enough to have a clear picture of what is over the hill. We only have a guess of what is on the other side.

I think that’s been the challenging part of the season. There’s nothing concrete or nothing firm or nothing clearly outlined that says this is the path, this is what comes next. There’s a good guess. I think that’s a good guess. That’s an 80% likelihood type of guess. But there’s a lot of ifs and buts and maybes in between here and there.

Miller: What’s the time frame, the best case scenario, that you or that the team seems to be going for in the path you just outlined? I mean, for example, is it too much to hope that they would even make it to the playoffs next year?

Richman: Yeah. Yeah.

Miller: Which is a tough pill to swallow for Blazers’ fans. There hasn’t been a championship in decades but young fans here, they’re used to a team that’s actually been pretty darn good for a while, more or less making the playoffs, sometimes getting to the second round. Not bad for a relatively small market NBA team. When’s the soonest we could hope for anything like that?

Richman: Yeah, that’s challenging, right? I think, in general, if you’re like a college-aged person, you don’t even remember the Blazers being bad, but I think next year, they’re likely to not be very good again, barring something very interesting happening in the summer. But I think the year after that, that would be the fourth year of Shaedon Sharpe, that would be year three of Scoot Henderson, they’re gonna add some draft picks along the way. They’re gonna have some chances to trade and improve and all of those things. I think two years from now, half the league making the playoffs is totally doable. But I think getting anxious about them being good in the near term will sap you of some of the enjoyment of watching young players develop, because they’re not going to be a good basketball team next season.

Miller: Before we’re done, I do want to figure out where you are getting your joy right now. But I’m curious about the management’s picture right now. Willamette Week had a great article yesterday full of interviews with folks who are paying $6 or $5 or $2 for seats way up in the nosebleeds, a passionate group, but the seats are that price because not everybody is passionate right now. TV viewership is down maybe 50%, according to a recent report. How long can this go on before the organization starts getting worried and starts getting worried about not making money?

Richman: Yeah. I think that could come quickly, right? Like you would assume that ownership understood what was happening, that they understood that with the score of the game, as I like to say, they knew Damian Lillard was leaving, they knew they were gonna be young, they knew they were gonna be bad. And when that happens, typically you sell less tickets, people watch the games less and it’s just like, not as fun, right? So I would assume that they thought it was gonna be bad.

I think a 50% decrease in television viewership is enough to say, oh no, is enough to be legitimately worried about it and not enough butts in seats is enough to be worried about it. I don’t know that it would happen this summer. But I think that if you were to see another season of having to basically give away tickets and people increasingly not watching the product on television, then you start to see things get squeezed. The thing about running an NBA team is that it will probably happen to stuff behind the scenes that we’re not as familiar with. The salaries are kind of baked in. They’re gonna have to spend what they spend to pay the players. It’s the ancillary parts around the organization where you would see some cost cutting,

Miller: Having to pay for mustard.

Richman: Having to pay for extra people to sell tickets and having to pay for the good mustard, right? Like you might be stuck with the off brand yellow stuff.

Miller: Is Chauncey Billups, the head coach, the right coach for this young team going forward?

Richman: In my personal opinion, probably not, recognizing that he has been dealt a very difficult hand and recognizing that this year unequivocally, despite the record, has been his best year as a coach. I don’t think he is creative enough as an offensive mind to coach a really good team. And my criticism of him mostly is that there is a lot of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole type of stuff, where this is the way it should be done, so this is the way we’ll do it, as opposed to adapting more to what the unique skill sets are on the roster.

Miller: All right, we have a minute left, enough time for joy. One of your mantras is hold on to your joy. What is making you still excited to watch the Blazers these days, excited to be a fan?

Richman: Well, importantly, I developed the mantra, hold on to your joy because I am deeply pessimistic, as evidenced by the last 12 minutes of this interview. But one of the things that is helping me find joy is that there is more on bad teams to appreciate little moments. So when Scoot Henderson has six good minutes, you hold on to your joy. When Anfernee Simons has good back to back games, you hold on to your joy. When Deandre looks like an actual starting center for a week and a half, you hold on to your joy. You find the smallest moments to cling to because life and sports, the joy is often very fleeting. So I’m maybe not doing my best at following the mantra. But you really narrow your scope when you’re watching a team that struggles as often as the Blazers do.

Miller: Mike, it’s good talking to you as always. Thanks.

Richman: Thanks for having me.

Miller: Mike Richman is the host of the “Locked On Blazers” podcast.

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