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NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers face mounting concerns after first-round exit and a coaching change

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Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers shoots against Paul Millsap #4 of the Denver Nuggets in the first quarter of Round 1, Game 6 of the 2021 NBA Playoffs on June 03, 2021 at Moda Center in Portland, Oregon.

It all happened so quickly, demonstrating yet again how quickly business can change with a National Basketball Association franchise.

The Denver Nuggets defeated the Portland Trail Blazers in six games, capping off their NBA playoff series with an 11-point victory on Thursday. The Blazers couldn’t hold a 14-point lead in the second half and had a terrible fourth quarter. Damian Lillard, the franchise’s star, was seen walking into a dark tunnel at Portland’s Moda Center.

Lillard appeared to ask how long he should be loyal to the only team he’s played for in his nine-year career in an Instagram post. He told the media that the team needed to improve.

“We didn’t win a championship, so obviously where we are now isn’t good enough,” Lillard said after the loss to reporters. Head coach Terry Stotts, who fell to 23-44 in the playoffs, paid the price less than 24 hours later. Lillard quickly informed a few media outlets, including Yahoo Sports, of his preferred candidate: Jason Kidd.

It is the team’s fourth failure to advance past the first round of the NBA playoffs in five years. With public messages about the future surfacing, consumers and corporate partners should be wondering, “What is going on with Blazers?”

The roster requires extensive work, and ownership — Paul Allen’s estate — is under pressure to make changes. As of now, top basketball executive Neil Olshey remains in charge of the $1.9 billion franchise. He must act quickly.

Keeping the superstar happy

Lillard is one of the most dynamic players in the NBA. Off the court, he’s heavily endorsed, with Adidas and Hulu among his top sponsors. He’s well-known throughout the league for his clutch performances, which are frequently dubbed “Dame Time.”

He averaged a career-high 34.5 points per game against the Nuggets and put up a stat line for the ages in Game 5, scoring 55 points and making 12 of 17 three-point attempts. Nonetheless, the team was defeated in double overtime.

This season, Lillard earned $31 million. Thanks to a four-year, $196 million extension signed in 2019, that figure will rise to $39 million next season. Lillard’s contract is set to expire in 2025.

However, the six-time All-Star will turn 31 in July. The nagging injuries have begun, and the window of opportunity to win with Lillard is closing. Olshey has not indicated to opposing teams that he is willing to trade Lillard.

However, Lillard and his agent, Aaron Goodwin, could easily change that tone. According to a source close to Lillard, he will wait to see what the Blazers do this offseason before making a decision on his future.

A rival NBA agent, who has dealt with a similar situation involving a star player, believes Lillard should first assess how serious ownership is about winning. The Blazers’ willingness to pay the luxury tax, which carries steep financial penalties, is also a consideration.

However, after making public comments in which he solicited Kidd, the signs indicate that Lillard intends to stay.

Who will be the next head coach?

Kidd is currently an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Lakers, who won the NBA title last year. He has head coaching experience as well as a player title from his time in Dallas. He’d bring credibility to the locker room and, as both are Oakland natives, he’d instantly connect with Lillard.

The question is, can Olshey put his trust in Kidd? Can Olshey rely on Kidd to uphold organisational structure if this is his final coaching hire before leaving?

Kidd has been lauded for his work with the Lakers, and the general consensus is that he has matured. However, his track record as an NBA head coach isn’t exactly rosy. He clashed with management in Brooklyn and was chastised for the manner in which he took over in Milwaukee. When Kidd got there, another respected coach, Larry Drew, was on the job.

Chauncey Billups is another possibility.

Olshey has a strong relationship with Billups, the former Detroit Pistons point guard, from their time together with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2011-12. Billups is now an assistant with the Clippers and is well-known in the NBA. He’s a member of a point guard-led players group that meets to discuss basketball concepts, and he’s friends with NBA power broker Rich Paul, who recently added Billups’ agent Andy Miller to his sports group.

Other names have emerged, including ESPN NBA analyst and former New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy. Nets assistant Mike D’Antoni’s name has also been floated, but with a history of coaching nondefensive teams, he may be difficult to sell to the fan base.

But, even if he gets his coaching wish, Lillard will still need to see the Blazers make moves to try to improve the team’s defence, which was among the worst in the league. A top asset, such as guard CJ McCollum, could command a healthy return. McCollum will earn $30 million in the coming season as part of a three-year contract extension.

McCollum has been linked to the Cleveland Cavaliers as a possible destination. The San Antonio Spurs are interested in McCollum, but his name has yet to gain traction in their trade scenarios. If the Clippers fail to meet expectations, a Western Conference executive has suggested that they trade Paul George this summer. As a result, McCollum could be included in the Clippers’ package. If Miami is unable to secure a deal for Lillard, McCollum could be a viable option.

“It’s disappointing to come up short in the first round and have our season end on our home court,” Lillard said after the loss to the Nuggets. When asked about his plans for the future, he added, “We’ll have to wait and see what happens. I haven’t considered it that far ahead.”

Neil Oshley, General Manager of the Portland Trail Blazers, watches a game between the Portland Trail Blazers and the San Antonio Spurs at Moda Center on February 6, 2020 in Portland, Oregon.

Olshey’s future appears to be secure for the time being.

Until Stotts’ departure, there was a lot of uncertainty about the Blazers’ future.

Chris McGowan is the CEO of Vulcan Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Portland Trail Blazers and the Seattle Seahawks. Allen, Microsoft’s co-founder, died in 2018, and his sister, Jody, now has the final say. When it came to basketball decisions, Olshey only reported to Allen. But the picture is becoming more muddled.

Olshey is regarded as a solid executive who has done everything possible to work within the team’s budget while assembling a strong roster around Lillard. And he was crucial in keeping the franchise stable after former franchise star LaMarcus Aldridge left in 2015.

Bert Kolde, the Blazers and Seahawks’ vice chairman, has been mentioned both locally and by a former team staffer as the person who could insert himself as a loud voice in future basketball affairs. It’s unclear what Kolde knows about hiring basketball executives. However, Olshey’s name was included in the announcement to part ways with Stotts, so it appears he’ll get another shot at running basketball operations.

On the business side, McGowan also does not want the pressure of losing Lillard.

When a team rebuilds, it loses negotiating power with corporate partners. The Blazers will switch from NBC Sports Northwest to AT&T’s Root Sports as their regional sports network partner. For years, the team has been concerned about distribution issues, which have cost it audience reach. However, entering a new local TV deal without a superstar is not ideal.

Lillard is a huge financial draw, and his departure could be disastrous. There would most likely be fewer games broadcast on national television. It is here that the team’s jersey patch asset may suffer because less exposure makes that advertising real estate less appealing.

The good news for the Trail Blazers is that Portland has a devoted fan base. It was the city’s first major sports team, followed by the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer and the Thorns FC of the National Women’s Soccer League.

The Blazers have finished in the top ten in NBA attendance every year since 2007. According to ESPN’s NBA attendance, the team was fifth in 2020 before the pandemic struck. According to Forbes, the team generates more than $240 million in annual revenue.

Management is well aware of Lillard’s worth. A team executive, who did not want to be identified in order to speak candidly, told that the biggest risk to the franchise’s value declining is Lillard’s departure.

The executive went on to say that the team as it is now is clearly not good enough to win a championship. Regardless of who is to blame, the person stated that significant changes must be implemented.

Stotts was the first to make a move. Now, Portland’s fans, corporate partners, and the rest of the NBA are waiting to see what happens next. Most importantly, whether Lillard’s loyalty will keep the Blazers’ business afloat.

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