Heading into the season, two things felt relatively certain in the Western Conference: that the Golden State Warriors would rule it with an Infinity Gauntlet–ed fist, and that the arrival of LeBron James in L.A. would mean that one team that played in the last postseason would get bumped from the bracket. One of the most common picks to slip down the standings? The Portland Trail Blazers.
Portland returns seven of the top 10 players from a roster that won 49 games (only a slight overperformance in relation to its expected record based on point differential, according to both Basketball-Reference and Cleaning the Glass) and the West’s no. 3 seed. Losing reserve big man Ed Davis and third guard Shabazz Napier hurt, but the Blazers still brought back a core that played about 75 percent of the team’s total minutes last season and generated more than 80 percent of its points, assists, and shots. Amid whirlwind changes in the Western landscape, Portland held fast, betting on continuity and a track record of positive, if not transcendent, performance.
So why did Vegas ding the Blazers to the tune of a 41.5-win over/under total and a projected 10th-place finish this season? Well, in part because they didn’t change much; a beefy balance sheet larded with bloated contracts signed in the heady summer of 2016 prevented Portland from shopping for big-ticket talent.
More than that, though, it’s because the last time we saw the Blazers, they were being publicly destroyed by the New Orleans Pelicans. The way Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Nikola Mirotic, and Co. pillaged Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic—the sheer brutality and totality of it—is the sort of thing that tends to stick in your mind. And yet, the Blazers enter the season’s first meeting between the two teams Thursday with a better record after a 3-1 East Coast road trip. Portland is right on the heels of the sprint-and-smash Pelicans in the top five of the offensive efficiency charts, while boasting a significantly stingier defense and the league’s fourth-best net rating.
Thursday’s game will provide a shot at a measure of redemption for Lillard, who earned All-NBA first team honors last season, but was held to 35 percent shooting by the Pelicans in April’s four-game sweep. The 28-year-old is off to a roaring start, ranking third in the league in scoring at 29.6 points per game on sparkling 50-38-93 shooting splits. Lillard’s combination of high-volume creation and increased shooting efficiency has put him in rarefied air; the only other players who have posted both a usage rate and an effective field goal percentage over a full season as high as the ones Dame’s currently sporting are Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry.
Lillard has become one of the sport’s premier 3-point bombers and off-the-bounce creators, but the Pelicans’ length, speed, and physicality all but erased his pick-and-roll playmaking last postseason. He’s shown this season that he’s still plenty capable of dealing in the screen game when opponents bring two defenders to the ball ...
After getting destroyed by it last postseason, looking forward to seeing both how Damian Lillard handles the Pelicans' aggressive pick-and-roll coverage, and how well his bigs help him out by rolling, popping and cutting. Dame's been dealing when two come to the ball so far: pic.twitter.com/Q6QcukOFts— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) November 1, 2018
... but the Blazers have yet to face a defense topped by long, active guards like Holiday, Elfrid Payton, and E’Twaun Moore and backed by mobile marauders like Davis, Mirotic, and new addition Julius Randle. Lillard can make quick decisions ahead of rotations and fit passes into tight spaces, but he’ll need his teammates to make New Orleans pay for ramping up the pressure. The good news: Portland looks better equipped to do that now than it did in April.
Second-year center Zach Collins has given the Blazers sensational minutes off the bench behind Nurkic, opening eyes as the sort of futuristic 7-footer every team’s looking for. He’s shooting 22-for-31 inside the 3-point arc and 6-for-12 beyond it, while holding up as a defender in space and backtracking to protect the rim, nearly tripling his block rate from a year ago. Through the season’s first two weeks, the Blazers have performed significantly better with Collins on the floor than off it, especially on the defensive end; his marriage of defensive mobility and increasing offensive polish might make him Terry Stotts’s ideal antidote to the Pelicans’ fast-moving frontcourt.
If the Pelicans force Lillard off the ball, the Blazers will need to knock down shots off the service he provides; in the playoffs, Lillard averaged 13 potential assists per game against New Orleans, but his teammates converted only 4.8 of those passes. Enter third-year small forward Jake Layman, who is shooting 36.4 percent from 3-point land (and getting about one back-door dunk a night) as Portland’s surprise fifth starter, and bargain-bin additions Nik Stauskas and Seth Curry, who have opened their Blazer careers a combined 21-for-44 from 3-point land. None of the three will top an opponent’s scouting report, but all provide credible shooting threats that make defenders think twice about abandoning them away from the ball.
When opponents force the ball out of the hands of Lillard and McCollum, Portland will need a consistent ball handler capable of getting the team into its sets and hunting scoring opportunities while keeping a steady hand on the wheel. That’s where Evan Turner, now largely shifted from an ill-fitting role as a complementary wing into a more comfortable slot as Portland’s second-unit point forward, comes in. The ball’s back in his hands—his touches and total time of possession are both way up from last season to this one—and, as he did under similar circumstances in Boston, he’s flourishing, averaging 9.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in 24.4 minutes per game. The Blazers offense has not only stayed level in Turner’s minutes, but has scored at a slightly higher clip with him at the controls.
Better bench production has reduced the burden on Lillard and McCollum and has made Portland more dangerous. But the Blazers are still not their best selves quite yet: Nurkic’s play remains fitful, McCollum’s only just started to warm up after a chilly shooting start, Al-Farouq Aminu’s missing three out of every four 3-pointers, and key 3-and-D forward Maurice Harkless continues to battle knee discomfort following arthroscopic surgery this spring. But despite an offseason that made it look like the Blazers were standing still, they look deeper, stronger, and more versatile than last year’s model. With the possible exception of the Indiana Pacers—who, by the way, the Blazers just beat in their own gym—Portland looks like the best team hardly anybody is talking about.