The Portland Trail Blazers got stomped by the Milwaukee Bucks by a score of 127-108 on Monday. That's nothing new for a Portland team that has rarely sniffed true contention over the past decade. During the Damian Lillard era, the Blazers have finished above .500 against teams with a record of .500 or better only once, during the 2018-19 season, which also happens to be the last time this team won a playoff series.
It's a fitting statistic for a frustratingly mediocre era of Blazers history. Having Lillard has kept the Blazers afloat for years. He's helped them make the playoffs eight times. Once there, he's more than held up his end of the bargain with a number of stellar performances. But ultimately, when the Lillard-era Blazers run up against true championship-caliber competition, they lose.
Lillard has never shied away from the Sisyphean task the Blazers have laid before him. Every year at this point on the calendar there are teams trying to pry him away from the only NBA home he's ever known, and every year, he makes it clear that he's not interested in going anywhere. The 2023 deadline has been suspiciously quiet on that front. Bleacher Report's Chris Haynes reported in January that the Blazers are still trying to improve the roster around Lillard. Josh Hart is seemingly on the table. Jerami Grant may or may not sign an extension. Such rumors might hold grander stakes for a better team. For Portland, they might be the difference between 38 wins and 43.
For the time being, Lillard doesn't seem to mind pushing that boulder up the hill, and the Blazers have never been inclined to stop him. NBA teams rarely consider moving stars in their prime who want to stay put. It's easier to remodel everything around them and hope the latest cosmetic changes are enough to distract from the rotting foundation. Maybe a new coach will fix this? No? How about a redesigned, wing-heavy roster? Surely that'll get things back on track.
Thus far this season, it hasn't. Since starting 9-3, the Blazers have gone 17-25. They have the NBA's ninth-worst net rating since then and its fourth-worst defense for the season as a whole. Swapping out smaller guards like C.J. McCollum and Norman Powell for heartier wings like Grant and Hart has thus far done little to solve this team's underlying defensive flaws. There's not much evidence to suggest at this point that Chauncey Billups is a better coach than Terry Stotts, and lest you believe there is a blockbuster trade on the horizon that could fix this, remember that Portland owes a first-round pick to Chicago that has protections that last until 2028. Therefore, for the time being, The Blazers can't even trade a first-round pick without removing those protections. Doing so means handing the Bulls a possible lottery pick in June.
There will probably be more lateral changes in the coming days and the coming months. Portland will likely replace Hart with their mid-level exception in July. Perhaps the Blazers will trade for a center more mobile than Jusuf Nurkic. It's hard to take the idea of such moves too seriously in the greater context of Lillard's career. He's played on almost every kind of team at this point. He was part of a traditional guard-big star tandem with LaMarcus Aldridge early on before transitioning into an offensive juggernaut with McCollum for the bulk of his prime. Now the Blazers have attempted to strike more of a balance between offense and defense, and it has thus far yielded uninspiring results. Lillard has now played for two coaches, two general managers and two owners. The results have never really changed. The only untouched variable in the equation is Lillard.