With Damian Lillard at the tail-end of his prime, the Portland Trail Blazers have patiently continued to build, and this might be their best team yet.
The high-water mark of the Damian Lillard era in Portland was the 2019 playoffs when the Trail Blazers ended up getting bracket luck and speeding all the way to the Conference Finals in what would be the final year of the Warriors’ dynasty.
By the time they got there, however, they were battered, as breakout starting center Jusuf Nurkic went was out after a gruesome leg injury. Still, with a cast of role players including Seth Curry, Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Rodney Hood and Zach Collins, a template was established for the best way to build around Portland’s excellent yet undersized backcourt of Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Though that was the final year for that group, general manager Neil Olshey was right to see during that run how good his team could be. As the 2020-21 season begins and Portland jumps out to a 2-1 start after a road victory over the Lakers on Monday night, the roster is the culmination of lessons learned from the 2019 run, Lillard’s development as a player, and much-needed player development successes.
What makes the Portland Trail Blazers different this year?
Start with Nurkic. Remember that Nurkic was on the losing end of a positional battle with Nikola Jokic in Denver before landing in Portland and rejuvenating his career. For only Mason Plumlee and two picks, the Blazers landed Nurkic, a smart, bruising player who they correctly predicted was a perfect fit.
The big man made Portland’s big two a big three. Portland’s pretty flare screens, pistol hand-offs on the wing and off-ball action for Lillard and McCollum don’t work as well when one of those guys has to handle the ball. Blending in Nurkic’s physicality and brilliance as a setup man brought the Portland offense to life.
The presence and health of those three make the Blazers an annual lock to finish in the top 10 in offense and gives Portland an anchor defensively as well. Around that, ideally, you want size, shooting, athleticism and versatility. Nobody would accuse past incarnations of the Blazers for being overly modern. That’s changed now.
The team’s high floor and continuity gives Portland’s front office, led by Neil Olshey, some flexibility in terms of who it targets for the rest of the rotation. After a lost season last year waiting for Nurkic, Collins and Rodney Hood to heal up, modernity is exactly what Olshey tried to find in 2020.
Fortunately for the Blazers, playing at less than full strength last season gave them the chance to see what they had in a few other pieces, especially Gary Trent Jr., one of the standouts of the whole Orlando Bubble. After shooting 42 percent from deep and being a statistically neutral defender (far better than most guys Portland’s tried there in the past), Trent is firmly in the rotation to start 2020-21. Against the Lakers, Trent was finally among the first players off the bench and answered with 28 points in a win.
Olshey’s first move of the offseason was to find his next Aminu and Harkless. That’s when he called Derrick Jones Jr., the freakishly athletic forward who had turned himself into a solid defender and rebounder in Miami’s player development factory.
“If I was to come there, I believe that me and Robert Covington could help the team a whole lot,” Jones said, adding that he hoped to be named defensive player of the year in the future. “On defense, I’m going to be guarding the best players. That’s what I want.”
In the end, Jones chose the Blazers and will earn nearly $10 million per season over the next two years. So far this season, he’s also been the starting 4 in Portland, and head coach Terry Stotts is siccing him on the opponent’s best offensive player every night. Jones has already done a solid job against both James Harden and LeBron James. Though he also told the Times that he wants to do more on offense, Jones so far has mostly focused on spot-up 3s, offensive rebounds and cutting. His athleticism and smarts as a cutter, honed in Miami, make him an even more interesting fit with the Blazers than Aminu was.
Next, Olshey gave up two first-round picks to acquire Robert Covington from Houston. Though last year’s playoffs showed Covington may be overrated as an on-ball stopper, he remains a strong team defender due to his size and length. In a system where Nurkic stays in the paint protecting the rim and players like Trent and Jones can be utilized as perimeter stoppers, Covington can fill a very valuable role, and he’s also a far better shooter than Jones, Aminu, Harkless or Anthony.
With those two slotting into the starting lineup and Trent, Hood and Anthony backing them up, Olshey has built the best forward rotation of Lillard’s career. Kanter is also back in a reserve role and Collins should be back on the court soon. Depth really has never been associated with these Blazers, but now they run 12 deep. To not even need last year’s preseason hype lord, Anfernee Simons, is a testament to Olshey’s work and Portland’s player development successes.
Many teams don’t tinker like this. They fail to keep the trust of their franchise player, or they decide it’s not worth spending (the Blazers paid the luxury tax last season), or they just screw up so badly that the team is never all that good. These Blazers have taken the baton from Dirk’s Mavericks, a relatively small market team never content to waste their superstar’s prime or stop striving to increase their chances at a championship.
With two undersized guards and a center who doesn’t really shoot as your best players, maybe there will always be a ceiling to what you can be as an NBA team in 2020. But it’s who Portland has leading its team and rather than endlessly spinning the top like they’re Cobb from Inception; the Blazers made peace with reality and tried to make the best of it. Players like Lillard only come around once in a generation if you’re lucky. Other franchises might think they tried their best to keep their stars happy and empowered, but it’s hard to find a small market that has done it as well as Portland.
What seems to get ignored about the path the Blazers have walked is that perhaps keeping a bunch of smart, hard-working people together who try really hard to make a good team great is precisely how you keep someone like Lillard happy and buy yourself more time to build a champion around him. Portland has never signed a bad, long-term contract. They make nearly every rookie wait a year before they get on the court. The offense and defense have looked mostly the same for Lillard’s entire career. It works.
But what Olshey, Stotts and Lillard proved the past 18 months since that Conference Finals berth is that you can strive for greatness without giving up consistent goodness. Keep your draft picks and pick mostly good players, and after a while, you’re bound to hit on a Collins or Trent. Spend only on proven, successful players, and there won’t be any albatross contracts on your books. Find a coach who has a great relationship with the star and runs good stuff on both ends and let him stick around so long as he keeps winning games. And once you’ve identified a set of role players that maximizes that star, do what it takes to lock in the best possible version of it.
Oddsmakers have Portland in the same realm as the Warriors to win the West. The Blazers are used to being underrated, but they’ve slogged through the underappreciated part of team-building, kept Lillard happy, and now find themselves with the best team they’ve ever put around him and more than a puncher’s chance to return to the Conference Finals.