It’s a rare situation the Portland Trail Blazers find themselves in.
Rarely does a team lose a playoff series thanks to three agonizingly close defeats and wind up feeling kind of, sort of good.
But then nothing about this season’s Blazers fit the mold. A rebuild project destined for the bottom of the NBA’s Western Conference ended up pushing the reigning champion Golden State Warriors to the limit.
The Blazers beat expectations by making their doubters the biggest adversary.
But the team faces a new foe as it enters the offseason: complacency.
“I think the next step is not accepting lets ‘just get there and compete,’ ” Damian Lillard said Thursday. “Now it’s, ‘Let’s get there and lets go win it.’ ”
Thus begins an offseason where the status quo, as good as it feels now, is not enough. The Blazers aren’t just going to stay among the Western Conference’s elite by accident.
And despite the tough test they gave Golden State, the Blazers are still at least a couple pieces away from being a championship contender.
Here’s a look at three pressing needs the Blazers face this offseason:
One: Sign coach Terry Stotts long term
Thankfully for Portland, one of the biggest moves they need to make is a mere formality.
Terry Stotts is a rare NBA coach who has both a keen basketball mind and the respect of his players. What he did with this year’s roster should have netted him the NBA’s Coach of the Year.
Stotts has a team option for next season, but expect a long-term contract extension to be done soon. That a deal hasn’t been reached yet isn’t due to any trepidation by the front office toward Stotts. Contract talks were always going to wait until after the season.
Lillard has said he wants Stotts in Portland for the foreseeable future. Coaching stability and a positive culture are rare in today’s NBA. The Blazers are set to have those for years to come.
Two: Strengthen the frontcourt
The Blazers are still a couple of pieces away from being an elite team. One of their most pressing needs is the frontcourt.
Ed Davis, Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee rose to the occasion in the playoffs. But that group would never have had a chance to shine if not for the L.A. Clippers being hit by bad injury karma. The Blazers’ frontcourt was overmatched in the first two games of that series.
And Thursday, Stotts talked of the need to be more consistent on defense. Despite the strides made in that area, Portland still finished the season 20th in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions).
Don’t expect President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey to stand pat. He enters the offseason with about $45 million in salary cap space, enough to make a run at a top-tier free agent.
Dwight Howard and Al Horford are high-priced unrestricted free agents. But Olshey might take a more conservative approach instead of betting all his flexibility on one player, especially someone as temperamental as Howard.
Instead of a big splash, expect Olshey to make a few ripples and bring in good-value players that fit well in the Blazers’ culture.
Three: Bring back the right free agents
Gerald Henderson is an unrestricted free agent. Meyers Leonard, Allen Crabbe and Mo Harkless are restricted free agents, meaning the Blazers can match any offer and keep those players in Portland.
Crabbe and Harkless had breakout seasons and are getting noticed around the NBA, so keeping them won’t be dirt cheap. But they are good fits on the court and in the locker room, so they’re worth bringing back.
Henderson and Leonard are tougher decisions. Henderson brings a steady veteran presence, but he wants to be a starter and will likely command about $9 million next year. He’ll likely find both the role and the money he wants with another team.
Leonard is coming off a major injury and hasn’t been the same player since his favorite coach Kim Hughes was fired before the season. NBA teams always overpay for size, so the seven-footer will get a big offer from someone. Just don’t expect it to be Portland.
The NBA offseason is always interesting. And it’s more intriguing when the focus is not on gearing up for the NBA Lottery.
Micah Rice is The Columbian’s Sports Editor. Reach him at 360-735-4548, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @col_mrice.