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Same, but Different

Even after an embarrassing playoff exit, the Trail Blazers chose to stay the course over breaking up their star backcourt. The results? Portland may be better than ever before in the Damian Lillard–CJ McCollum era.

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In the back hallways of Staples Center, just to the right of the doorway leading into the visiting locker room, Jay-Z’s “Change Clothes” blares through a speaker. The area is typically where one or two players from the road team stretch as they wait for tipoff. Before their game against the Los Angeles Lakers in mid-November, the Portland Trail Blazers’ Nik Stauskas, Wade Baldwin, CJ McCollum, and Evan Turner have turned it into a clubhouse. The players are almost drowning out the music with the sort of raucous chatter that’s usually reserved for the winning locker room.

The Blazers would go on to lose that game, finding themselves on the wrong end of a classic LeBron James performance—44 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists. But the visiting locker room was far from somber afterward. In one corner of the room, Damian Lillard and McCollum gleefully chatted up a media member; in the other, Turner styled his hair and talked about what books he’d been reading.

Lillard was the last one to speak to reporters. As he put on a sheer, short-sleeve cream-colored shirt and a gold chain, he talked extensively about his relationship with Lakers assistant Brian Shaw, and, after praising Al-Farouq Aminu’s defensive flexibility, told a story about what Aminu has meant to the Blazers.

“I never forget we had a game in Miami like [three] years ago,” Lillard said about Aminu, whom the Blazers refer to as “Chief.” “He had 16 points in the first half, and he was the best player we had on offense, and in the second half, he got one shot. […] After the game, I didn’t know until I looked at [the box score], I was like, ‘This dude is killing it and we didn’t even let him get the ball.’ But if I hadn’t noticed it, he would have never said anything. I think that sums up who he is. […] It’s the best part about him.”

It was a small gesture, but Lillard’s kind words seemed to encapsulate the spirit of the Blazers this season. They’re not cursing each other out or challenging the front office at practice. They are simply going about their business and, Wednesday’s blowout in Milwaukee notwithstanding, thriving. Seven months after being blown out of the first round of the playoffs and being read their last rites in many a blog post, the Blazers are now a half-game behind first place in the Western Conference with a 12-6 record. Their secret to success? A consistent core, steady improvement, and good chemistry.

Or, as Lillard puts it: “We actually like each other.”

Amid the never-ending soap opera of transactions and trade rumors it can be hard to see the power of continuity. Talent will almost always win out; it’s why the Sixers were willing to trade a perfectly good team for a potentially great one two weeks ago. But listen in on any NBA locker room and you’ll hear all about the advantages of knowing the ins and outs of your teammates’ games. If one or two possessions can dictate the fate of a game, then being able to execute every one of them with the same four guys can be pretty important.

The Blazers, now in Season 4 of the Lillard-McCollum era, know how to do exactly that (at least in the regular season). As the NBA nears the quarter mark of the 2018-19 season, Portland has a top-10 offense and a defense just outside the top 10. It also has a 3.8 net rating, which is one point higher than last season, when they finished third in the deep West.

“We are better than all the teams everyone was hyping,” Turner said.

Portland Trail Blazers v Washington Wizards
Damian Lillard
Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

Since LaMarcus Aldridge left in the summer of 2015, the Blazers have largely looked the same. The combo of Lillard, McCollum, and Aminu have averaged the most minutes on the team in each of the past four seasons. (Jusuf Nurkic technically edged out Aminu for the third spot in 2016-17 by 0.1 minutes but played only 20 games in Portland following a trade from Denver.) The only other teams in the league who can claim the same type of consistent three-man core are the Warriors (Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green—plus Kevin Durant the past three seasons) and the Wizards (John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter Jr.). The Blazers’ consistency stands out even when it comes to the changeover from last season to this one. Portland, which slid Jake Layman into the first unit at small forward, is one of two teams (along with Charlotte) to start the same lineup for every game this season. And the duo who manned Layman’s position last season, Moe Harkless and Turner, are still with the team. (Harkless is again battling injuries, while Turner has found a second wind to his Blazers run as a sixth man.)

Portland’s roster has not only remained consistent in a league changing all around them, but the players it has settled on get along, too. Seth Curry, who signed a one-year deal this past summer, says it’s because “we’re all around the same age.” Indeed, aside from Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr., both of whom are 19, the Blazers group is more or less a bunch of 20-somethings, with Turner, 30, the only “veteran.” To the Blazers, this matters. It’s why they’re able to hang out outside the court, as some did at a Raiders-Browns game in Oakland earlier this season. They also say it helps them play better. “It makes it a lot easier,” Curry said. “It’s weird, but it works in our benefit.”

The birthdays of Curry and Lillard, both 28 years old, are separated by a month. Their kids are pretty close in age, too—Curry’s daughter, Carter, was born in May, while Lillard’s son, Damian Jr., was born in March. “We’ve been able to talk about that stuff and relate to each other,” Curry said.

Stauskas, who also signed a one-year deal this summer, can’t rave enough about the culture in Portland; he says the difference between the Blazers and other teams he’s played for is like night and day. “We have no drama in the locker room, no beef, no story lines in the media,” Stauskas said. “We’re relatively quiet for having two guys who are star-caliber players. We have no drama compared to the rest of the league.”

While the Wizards contemplate blowing up their star backcourt, the Blazers have continued to get better at playing together. While McCollum’s raw numbers have mostly plateaued, his ability to go off for 30 points or more a night remains (he’s got two such games already this season). Lillard, meanwhile, is posting numbers right in line with last season, when he was named to the All-NBA first team. And though calls for the duo to be separated heated up after their latest playoff exit, they’re actually playing more together this season (about six more minutes a game, to be exact), as coach Terry Stotts has chosen not to stagger his two best players. So far, they’ve improved their two-man net rating from last season, from 4.9 to 7.4.

The commitment to their core has paid dividends elsewhere on the roster, too. The Blazers signed Nurkic to a four-year, $48 million deal this offseason—a fair value for the team, but the type of contract (sizable money to keep one of its own players) that’s gotten Portland into cap trouble recently. Nurkic, however, has made good on the investment so far, shooting a career-high 52.5 percent from the field while posting a net rating of 8.1, the highest of any Blazers player averaging more than 20 minutes a game. Turner, once one of the worst contracts in the NBA, has become the linchpin of the second unit; and if you swap him into the starting lineup (which has a 4.1 net rating) for Layman, you get the league’s second-best five-man combo with at least 50 minutes played (27.3 net rating!).

Elevating the talent they already have has also factored into the way they play off each other. “Nobody is above the other person,” Lillard said. After the Warriors lost a third straight game on Sunday, Kevin Durant told reporters that coach Steve Kerr’s postgame message was to “play with joy. Just trying to get that joy back.”

Nearly a week before that, Stauskas brought up the joy he gets from playing with the Blazers. “I don’t know if other people get a sense of it, but I get a sense of joy playing with these guys,” he said. “I think we genuinely enjoy playing with each other, and when that’s the case, when guys are actually having fun playing together that results in the ball moving, everyone touching it, everyone being engaged, everyone communicating, and those are things that make a great time.”

For all the Blazers’ early-season success, it’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room. Or, in this case, the unibrow that haunts their dreams. The embarrassing sweep suffered at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round of last season’s playoffs still hangs over the Blazers. No matter how well they do in the regular season, the question of “can they do it in the playoffs?” will always be there to undercut them. It was certainly in the air after the Bucks chewed them up in a 43-point win on Wednesday (which, to be fair, was the second game of a New York–Milwaukee back-to-back and the fifth of six straight games on the road.)

But this season is already different. This is the Blazers’ best start since the 2014-15 season, when the team went onto win 51 games (tied for ninth most in franchise history). That group lost in the first round of the playoffs, but they rolled over the starting lineup of Lillard, Aldridge, Wes Matthews, Nic Batum, and Robin Lopez and looked like contenders until Matthews ruptured his Achilles.

Stotts, the Blazers’ coach the past seven seasons, is hesitant to chalk up all of this season’s early success to continuity alone, citing Lillard’s and McCollum’s consistent improvement plus the rotating cast of contributors as reasons for their early success. Zach Collins, the franchise’s crown jewel of a draft pick, has already doubled his scoring average from his rookie season. Nurkic is getting to the line more often and shooting a much-improved 77.4 percent from there. And, as Stotts noted, they’re getting more surprise one-off performances from the likes of Stauskas (24 points in an opening-night win against the Lakers) and Caleb Swanigan (a double-double in a win against the Pacers in late October).

“Dame and CJ have been Dame and CJ, but already we’re getting contributions from different guys offensively that have helped us win games,” Stotts said. Portland has also continued the defensive improvement that surprised everyone last season. Back in 2016-17, they were one of the 10 worst defensive teams in the league. Now they have a shot at a second straight season with a top-10 defensive unit. “Last year, for whatever reason, we just got off to a poor start offensively and our defense stemmed the tide,” Stotts said. He chuckled, “Which nobody could believe.”

Think-pieces and Trade Machine links outlining how the Blazers can land the star that will magically bring them over the top will continue to follow them, no matter how well they play. (ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported that the team contemplated firing Stotts after last season’s end, and that they do still want to pair McCollum and Lillard with a third “impact player” at some point.)

But for now, Portland’s players seem to think they are already in good position to keep rolling as the season wears on—and that this time, they’ll be ready to peak come playoff time. “We don’t need to make a splash, we’re just really consistent,” Wade Baldwin said.

Aminu agrees: “I think there are some teams where it’s not as good as we have it here.” Just how good remains to be seen come next spring, but it’s tough not to admire what the Blazers are doing already.