While the raging turmoil that is free agency news engulfs the rest of the NBA, Portland fans can take comfort in their flannel shirts, artisanal espressos, and views of Damian Lillard, their righteous franchise player, who doesn’t seem to be interested in anyone’s superteam narrative.
”I do want to win a championship but it’s other stuff that means more to me,” Lillard said Tuesday on Yahoo Sports’ Posted Up With Chris Haynes podcast. “It’s almost like I’m not willing to sell myself out for that.”
While that comment isn’t anywhere close to a hard-and-fast commitment to the franchise, it is a zag when many disgruntled stars on good-but-not-great teams are zigging into free agency and trade requests. Over the past three years, we’ve seen Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and Jimmy Butler force trades from the Pacers, Spurs, and Timberwolves, respectively, and we’re in the aftermath of Anthony Davis’s failed midseason attempt at fleeing New Orleans. Then there are the rumors of impending free-agency exoduses by Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving this offseason. Player movement is owning this moment in the league. That’s just not Lillard’s tempo—the rest of his team seems to feel the same.
If you’re against players joining forces in various cities or asking to be traded more than a year before their contract expires, then the Blazers are the squad for you. In August, guard CJ McCollum called superteams “disgusting,” saying he would never join one. Last summer, Enes Kanter (who was then a member of the Knicks but signed a one-year contract with Portland last week) made like every anonymous Twitter egg out there and said that the NBA has only five teams worth paying attention to, and that superteams are “ruining the league.”
While the Spurs are generally known as the league’s biggest group of contrarians—playing at a glacial pace and shooting midrange jumpers in 2019—Portland is setting up a counterculture of its own. The team has a unique cast of characters who all appear to be emboldened by the fact they don’t have to answer to a superstar’s wishes. (Then again, I find it hard to believe they would balk at the chance to get any available third star in Portland.)
Take the Blazers’ final game before the All-Star break, a hard-fought 129-107 win over the Warriors. Lillard and McCollum carried most of the offensive load, scoring 29 and 15 points respectively, but it was Jake Layman and Zach Collins who sparked the team’s emotional fire. Layman seemed to Monstar-zap Durant’s powers on his way to scoring 17 points off the bench and missing just two shots all night. Collins, meanwhile, played with an edge, one that drew ire from Draymond Green and the ever-chill Klay Thompson:
That exchange between Thompson and Collins prompted headlines like: “Who is Zach Collins, and why are the Warriors mad at him?” Ever since Collins’s Gonzaga days, he has been a per-36 numbers god, one that the Blazers hope will become their third piece. And though he has yet to fully break out, getting into it with Golden State during a three-block night is not a bad place to start. With an angry Collins, a proud Lillard, an anti-superteam McCollum, a burly Jusuf Nurkic, and a never-speechless Enes Kanter, Portland has become the eclectic team that the NBA needs and deserves.
In late November, I spent time with the Blazers and wrote about their two biggest assets: chemistry and continuity, both of which are palpable after just spending a few minutes inside their locker room. In lieu of a unifying identity, Portland has leaned into its smaller strengths. That brought the team success in the early part of the season, as the Blazers got off to a 12-5 start. Things have leveled off a bit since then, as the team’s their lack of depth and low production from wings continue to hold them back, but coming out of the break, they’re 34-23 and occupy fourth place in the Western Conference.
While the Blazers’ outlook is positive for the rest of the season, their embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Pelicans last postseason and the organization’s overall lack of playoff success still loom over the franchise. And the players are as keenly aware of that history as anyone. “In the past, they’ve been a great regular-season team, just haven’t been able to get over the hump in the playoffs,” Seth Curry told me in November. “Hopefully this year, whether it’s me or other guys, we get better come playoff time.”
There is a good-natured satisfaction that accompanies NBA teams that overachieve and succeed through homegrown means. But after the initial rush of success, those franchises often find themselves stuck in a purgatory of mediocrity. It’s why teams in today’s league are looking to more ambitious options (like trading for or signing a superstar) or pointed ones (blowing it up and tanking). The Blazers tried the former route in 2017. The Athletic’s Jason Quick reported that Portland offered Indiana three picks and a player who wasn’t Lillard, McCollum, or Nurkic in exchange for Paul George, but the Pacers didn’t bite. So over the past two seasons, the Blazers have been forced to work with what they have and make smaller moves—both good and bad—around the fringes. Their identity has fluctuated from scrappy underdog to near-elite team with expectations too big for them to meet, but rarely have they displayed the kind of fire they did against the Warriors earlier this month.
For now, brandishing this kind of identity may seem like grasping at straws; as long as the Warriors exist in their current construction, there’s not a lot of hope for the rest of the league. Even Golden State can’t last forever, though, and while Lillard is 28 and McCollum is 27, the rest of the players mostly fall in the early-to-mid-20s range. If reinforcements aren’t coming from outside, the Blazers will have no choice but to continue to make the most of what they have—which now includes embracing their burgeoning role as a dissenting team.