In the future, the 2011-12 Portland Trail Blazers season will probably be remembered as one thing and one thing only: the Raymond Felton era. Felton has earned his spot in Blazers lore, and not in the way that either he or the team’s fans would have liked. Whether rightly or wrongly, Felton has become the accepted shorthand for everything that hasn’t gone as planned on this team. It’s his play that’s being credited with sinking the Blazers’ playoff hopes on the court, and his demeanor off it and various comments to the media are taking the blame for the locker-room implosion that saw one of the most long-standing and respected coaches in the league run out of town. Is it fair to blame Felton, acquired on draft day from the Nuggets for the rock-solid but aging Andre Miller, for the team’s first trip to the lottery in four years? Yes and no. He’s been the strongest negative force on the court for Portland this season, and it’s not particularly close. But putting the year’s disappointments solely on him, as many fans and analysts have done, is shortsighted and obscures some bigger, more pressing concerns going forward.
It’s easy to knock the Miller-Felton trade in hindsight, but as bad as Felton has been in his year as a Blazer—and he’s been terrible—I’d make the deal again tomorrow. Trading Miller was the right move for the franchise at the time. In June, when the trade was made, Brandon Roy was only two months removed from the now-legendary takeover of game 4 in the first-round series against Dallas. His sudden December retirement seems inevitable now, but nobody saw it coming that quickly last summer. In the minds of the front office and wide swaths of the Blazers faithful, there was still a chance that he’d be the franchise player he was becoming in 2009. The team was still being built in Roy’s image, and his sustained conflicts with Miller over the previous two seasons, as well as Miller’s advancing age, made it clear that he was not a long-term solution at point guard.
Felton wasn’t a slam-dunk to be that guy, either. But at 26, coming off a successful season split between the Knicks and Nuggets, and with one year left on his contract, there was almost no downside to giving him a one-year trial run. And when you look at Felton’s season as just that, an audition, the trade becomes much more defensible, even after having seen what we’ve seen from him this season. Sometimes a player gets a tryout and simply bombs. It’s better for the Blazers in the long term to learn now that Felton isn’t a permanent fit than after he hits the open market. Had he remained in Denver and played even passably in his contract year, he’d be a prime candidate to be handed a four-year, $50 million contract by Paul Allen in two months. That’s not happening now. The Blazers will now be able to wash their hands of Felton and start fresh next year with only one season lost.
On paper, there was every indication that Felton would be a good fit in Portland. He thrived in the pick-and-roll with Amar’e Stoudemire in New York last season prior to being traded. There was no reason to believe that chemistry wouldn’t also exist with LaMarcus Aldridge. The great Zach Lowe of SI.com had this to say following the trade:
Felton showed last season that he can be a pretty dynamic player, both in transition and on the pick-and-roll, when paired with an elite big man. He’ll get that in Aldridge. Felton might be even more willing than Miller to push the pace and weave in a faster style that meshes well with Gerald Wallace (Felton’s former teammate in Charlotte), Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews. Portland coach Nate McMillan loves to slow things down, but his roster has the kind of versatility that requires flexibility at the right moments. Felton can provide that, and the Blazers get to try him out as their point guard of the future without surrendering Batum or any other core assets.
And indeed, for the first two weeks of the season, it seemed as though the Blazers had found their guy. My PRS and Hardwood Paroxysm colleague Scott Leedy spoke to Felton and Aldridge after an early-season win over the Nuggets, their third straight to start the year. Each spoke glowingly of the other’s influence on the court, and in the early going, that rapport translated into wins. But as January bled into February, a rough patch for Felton snowballed into…well, into what his season is now. If we want to pinpoint precisely when things went off the rails for Felton, we can probably point to the Blazers’ January 16th victory over the Hornets, in which he had 2 points (on 1-for-8 shooting) and a whopping 8 turnovers. The win followed a three-game losing streak that took much of the shine off the Blazers’ 7-2 start. His play hadn’t been perfect before that, but he’d been mostly good enough, and his flaws could be easily overlooked because the team was winning. Once that stopped, it became harder to ignore the poor shooting, the lackluster defense, the turnovers, and the fact that he had clearly never bothered to get back in shape following the five-month lockout.
There are other perfectly reasonable scapegoats for the season. After a solid 2010-11 campaign, Wesley Matthews regressed considerably. His PER dropped by over a full point, from 15.5 to 14.3. The league average is 15. This means that Matthews went from a slightly above-average player to a slightly below-average one this season. He also saw a significant decline in True Shooting Percentage, from 58.2% to 54.3%. He also lost the ability to finish fast breaks—according to HoopData, Matthews’ field-goal percentage on shots at the rim in 2010-11 was 63.9%, and this season that number dropped to 49.7. Matthews is under contract for three more seasons, but scouts have deemed the four-year college player a finished product, so the best the Blazers can realistically hope for from him going forward is a return to last season’s production.
The other supposed impact player in Portland’s backcourt rotation, Jamal Crawford, also underperformed. The 2010 Sixth Man of the Year, signed to replace Roy’s scoring contributions and create instant offense off the bench, had his worst shooting season since his rookie year (38.4% from the field, including a career-worst 30.8% from three-point range), while posting the highest usage rate of his career. Add in minimal contributions from Armon Johnson (waived midseason to make room for Joel Przybilla), Elliot Williams (showing signs of promise before a dislocated shoulder ended his season), Nolan Smith (inconsistent on the rare occasions he did play, but in the Blazers’ defense, it’s not like Kenneth Faried was available when he was drafted), and Jonny Flynn (mostly garbage time until the last two weeks, when he was unspectacular), and the Blazers’ guard play as a whole can be pinpointed as the biggest reason the season turned out the way it did.
So why has Felton received the dubious distinction of the season’s all-purpose scapegoat? We can find the answer by re-reading virtually every interview he gave to any major media outlet this season. First, he was in shape and loving the up-tempo style. Then, his poor play was a result of his showing up overweight to training camp and don’t blame me, it’s the lockout’s fault. First, he was simply comparing McMillan unfavorably to Mike D’Antoni. Then, it was all the coach’s fault for not showing enough confidence in him. This brand of flakiness and lack of accountability gave too many Blazers fans flashbacks to the days of Bonzi Wells telling Sports Illustrated that fans don’t matter to players. Felton didn’t do himself any favors with his play, but it was his propensity for excusing said on-court performance with whatever explanation was convenient for him at the time that secured a future of spirited booing at the Rose Garden, no matter where he ends up.
In the minds of Blazers fans, the season that almost never happened is going to go down as the season where Raymond Felton happened. Ultimately, this was just one more reason why the Blazers were never as close to contending as fans and media thought. He came along at the worst possible time (the abrupt end of the Roy/Aldridge/Oden era), but accelerated the timeline to rebuild around Aldridge and Batum. Now that the experiment over, the team still has no GM, no permanent coach, a ton of cap space in the hands of an owner that none of us can trust spending it, half of a roster (if that), one elite player to build around, and still no elusive PGOTF. Felton is another guy who didn’t fit the bill. The journey to that answer to him was just especially entertaining, for all the wrong reasons.