Prior to last season, the Portland Trail Blazers appeared to be in the beginning of a re-building phase after losing 4 starters to free agency following a first round exit in the playoffs. The team was built around all-star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who had spent 9 seasons with Portland and was a 4x All-NBA player. However, frustrations grew when the Trail Blazers had only won 1 playoff series during Aldridge’s tenure and he eventually opted to sign with the San Antonio Spurs.
It then became a top priority for General Manager Neil Olshey to lock-in rising all-star Damian Lillard who signed a 5 year, $120 million contract extension last summer. Lillard was rated one of the top point guards in the league but many analysts predicted Portland missing the playoffs due to the loss of Aldridge and lack of team support. Then the Trail Blazers decided to shock the league by finishing 5th in the Western Conference with a 44-38 record. They then went on to eliminate the Clippers in 6 games in the first round and even captured a victory against the 73-9 Warriors in the second round. Both opponents were missing their star player and Portland took advantage.
Damian Lillard was stellar throughout the season, averaging career highs with 25.1 points and 6.8 rebounds while finishing on the All-NBA Second Team. It was pretty weird how he somehow did not make the all-star team but Portland had no problem with their franchise player getting extra rest while also having more motivation and something to prove to the rest of the league. Lillard has not only grown into a top player in the NBA, but has grown as a leader on and off the court. His ability to lead both vocally and by setting an example has elevated the play of his fellow teammates. His loyalty and community work has also made him a very popular individual in the city. As long as the Trail Blazers have Lillard, they will remain contenders.
A big reason that Portland has been able to exceed expectations is due to the play of the 2016 Most Improved Player. After spending his first 2 seasons primarily coming off the bench, C.J. McCollum increased his scoring average from 6.8 to 20.8 points per game while also averaging career highs in field goal percentage (44.8%), 3 point percentage (41.7%), rebounds (3.2), assists (4.3), and steals (1.2). With McCollum’s elevated play, the Trail Blazers had one of the league’s deadliest backcourt duos. The Trail Blazers showed their support and trust by rewarding him with a 4 year, $106 million contract a few months ago. McCollum is excited to be here as well, stating “Since I arrived in Oregon I’ve considered it home and look forward to building something special, not only on the court, but in the community as well.”
The Trail Blazers have also developed a solid supporting cast around Lillard and McCollum. Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee shined in the starting line-up and Ed Davis brought a new surge of confidence and energy off the bench. This past summer, the Trail Blazers also added Evan Turner and veteran champion Festus Ezeli. With a core of young prospects, they also remain one of the youngest teams in the NBA. While the sky is the limit for each player on the team to improve, the Blazers are still one or two pieces away from becoming championship contenders.
The Western Conference remains competitive, with the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors predicted to finish at the top. Beating either of these teams in a 7 game series is highly unlikely for this current Portland squad, so developing the young core will remain the plan for Neil Olshey and Head Coach Terry Stotts. If the Trail Blazers are to become serious contenders in the near future, they will need to add another star player either through the draft or free agency. Portland currently owns all of their future first round draft picks after trading away their 2014-2016 first rounders. While it is uncommon for blockbuster/deadline trades to happen in the NBA, there are always big names entering free agency. Acquiring a big man capable of taking over offensively would be the perfect fit in the Trail Blazers system.
Last season was a positive sign for the Trail Blazers, especially for a franchise who has had their fair share of bad luck over the years. This dates back to 1983 when they passed on Michael Jordan to draft big man Sam Bowie. MJ ended up having a “decent” career while Bowie battled injuries and failed to live up to his potential. In more recent years, the Trail Blazers also faced some bad luck when their #1 overall pick Greg Oden also failed to have a successful NBA career due to nagging knee injuries. To add insult to injury, the #2 pick Kevin Durant emerged into one of the league’s best players. Then all-star Brandon Roy was forced to retire early due to knee injuries. It’s hard not to imagine what the Trail Blazers would be like if Roy and Oden had stayed healthy. If there is one positive butterfly effect, it is that they had a high enough draft pick to select Damian Lillard and label him as the new face of the franchise. Portland has their building block, so now it all comes down to developing the team and heading in the right direction. Keep an eye out, the Trail Blazers WILL be a team to watch for the upcoming years. Their season tips off on October 25th when they host the visiting Utah Jazz.