How Far are the Portland Trail Blazers from championship contention?
For the Portland Trail Blazers their biggest off-season news involved a two-time NBA finals MVP.
In an appearance on CJ McCollum’s podcast, Pull Up, Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant belittled Portland’s chances of securing a title anytime soon.
“Yo, get out your feelings, yo,” Durant, told McCollum. “I suggest you just keep playing, man, and don’t worry about what goes on at the top of things”
The acerbic remarks were met by McCollum’s resistance. Citing a phrase popularized by Kevin Garnett’s championship howl, McCollum aired praise for his team and the possibility of ushering a championship parade through the streets of Portland.
Both sides of the discussion were spoken earnestly. Durant, part of what’s shaping up to be the most dominant team in recent history, has no reason to think Portland poses any threat in taking over the Western Conference. In the last four years, the Trail Blazers have flamed other in the playoffs time after time, twice at the hands of the Warriors.
McCollum however, the Blazers’ second in command, plays the part of the good teammate and spokesman. Yes, the Blazers were swept out of the playoffs in the first round, but faith remains in their potential to shake up the West.
In fact, the Trail Blazers, much like 13 other Western Conference teams stand at a crossroads. The Warriors have flexed dominance over the region for four years now, showing little sign of fatigue. Adding DeMarcus Cousins to their roster only further insured Golden State’s eventual late season push next year, forcing teams to once again game plan around how to tackle the Vegas favorites.
For Portland, building a contending team has been in the works for the better part of the last decade. Over 10 years of draft selections and regular season strategy have proved Portland a capable landing spot. The Brandon Roy/Greg Oden era began Portland’s first flirtation with long term success since the “Jailblazers” days, though it was curtailed by ill-timed injury. Welcoming Damian Lillard as a franchise man to accompany Lamarcus Aldridge was another short-lived success story, ending with the Blazers pushing the self-destruct button, dismissing four of their five starters on a 54-win team.
The NBA’s most north-westerly team has reinvented itself once again, this time around the Lillard-McCollum tandem. Among the most capable back court duos in the Association, the Trail Blazers have the basis for building a competent, championship caliber team. So, what’s stopping them?
To say passing the ball is key to victory would be like saying humans need air to breathe. At a certain point, both statements are better off taken as truth.
However, the idea behind the former statement has yet to resonate with the Trail Blazers. Lillard as a point guard comes equipped with his own gravitational forcefield. A threat from nearly anywhere in the half court set, he earns the respect of defenders who have to prioritize his ability to both pull up and score off the dribble.
Lucky for defenders that Lillard is about the only player of concern when the ball is in his hands. Last season Lillard averaged 6.6 assists per game. That up from his 2016–17 mark of 5.9 and surpasses his career mark of 6.2. He posted eight games in double figure assists (six of which were wins), topping out with 13 a win against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Though plenty of guards make passing a higher priority — Lonzo Ball, Ben Simmons, Rajon Rondo to name a few — Lillard shares the ball considerably well given his total offensive prowess.
But no matter how many assists Lillard racks up, the Blazers have the unfortunate problem of having a team full of terrible targets for his passes. Except for McCollum, of course.
In 2017–18 only 3 Blazers averaged more than 10 points per game. More than that, only 3 players attempted more than three 3s per game, two of whom are Lillard and McCollum. Next to pick-and-rolls, drive-and-kicks are the preeminent strategy in 2018 NBA basketball. Point guards have an increased onus to create commotion in their defenders to free up their assist recipients.
Unfortunately, the Blazers lack those recipients. Al-Farouq Aminu stood as Portland’s most capable archer outside of their starting back court. He shot nearly 37 percent on almost 5 3-point attempts each night. So, that’s exactly one beneficiary the Blazers have in drive-and-kick scenarios.
But what about other types of scoring? Portland’s 49.6 assist percentage was the worst in the league last year. That alone tells defenses how to best to shut them down. For comparison, the closest Western Conference team to Portland’s mark was the Oklahoma City Thunder (53.5), a squad driven by a vivacious passer in Russell Westbrook who similarly lacked suitable options.
Portland had 355 instances of a player scoring at least 10 points last season. Lillard and McCollum combined for 151 such occasions. Add Portland’s center Jusuf Nurkic to the mix and the total jumps to 215. Portland has a scary problem of getting adequate offensive contributions outside of their “big 3”. In the West, where depth is the moat that keeps unprepared teams from the castle gate, the Blazers are stuck trying to swim across.
Still jolly, good fun
For all of Portland’s offensive woes, their chances at contention are at least boosted by their core’s moral. Lillard, the team’s de facto leader, has been skipped over for All-Star selections. He’s been passed on for All-NBA awards. His playoff hopes have consistently fallen short on a team that has been on the fringes of competitiveness since he’s been in the league.
Yet, he stays positive.
As the face of the Blazers, Lillard is subject to all manner of questions about his commitment to the city. In December 2016, months after the Warrior’s gentleman’s sweep of Portland in the 2016 NBA playoffs, Lillard gave the city of Portland a vote of confidence, saying he plans, “on being a part of [the Blazers] for my entire career.
Two years later, this time in July 2018, Lillard radiated the same confidence.
“I’m not unhappy,” Lillard said. “I love where I live. I love the organization. I love our coaching staff. I love where I am.”
Buying into Portland’s entire package, from his gorgeous Lake Oswego estate to the roster that keeps filibustering success, is an incredible admission from Lillard. Already 28, Lillard signed with the Blazers through the 2020–21 season, at which point he’ll be a 31-year-old unrestricted free agent.
His loyalty to a middle of the pack Western Conference team is unparalleled, especially with players willing to jump ship at a moment’s notice. For comparison, look no further than Devin Booker, the Phoenix Suns guard seven years Lillard’s junior. Earlier this season, Booker’s unrest hinted at him leaving the desert assuming Phoenix failed to right the ship as they did for so many seasons. Drafting DeAndre Ayton instilled confidence in Booker, but that he was so quick to give up on the organization that selected him speaks to the NBA’s transient nature.
Lillard, on the other hand, has kept Portland from scrambling in the way that countless other teams have in recent years. Knowing that he’s around for the duration of his peak years gives Portland the chance to better assess their game plan for conquering the West.
Lillard, and McCollum for that matter, have come to prominence at the worst possible time. In any other timeline without the Warriors, the Blazers would have made at least one conference finals since 2012. Running into a pair of peak Warriors teams in 2016 and 2017 directly derailed a team that is otherwise on par with perennial Western Conference powers like the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers.
But it’s not just Lillard and McCollum who speak highly of the house that Portland built. Much of the Blazers’ roster seems to stay in high spirits, a key component for constructing a title contending team.
Unfortunately, the Blazers have faltered in returning some of those supportive pieces. This off-season Shabazz Napier, Ed Davis signed elsewhere, leaving the Blazers without two integral rotation members. Napier was coming off his best campaign of his four-season career, posting averages of 8.7 points, two assists and a steal per game. Davis led the league in boards off the bench.
On the continual journey to contention, the Blazers have somewhat underperformed this off-season. Their biggest move was adding Seth Curry, the youngest Splash Brother coming off an injury last season, to a short-term deal in hopes that he hits a stride next season. Portland wholly failed however to address their abysmal floor spacing, likely pointing to another early playoff exit in 2019, if that.
Though Durant calling to question McCollum’s title chances with Portland on McCollum’s podcast was a party foul, he was right. Portland has the positive culture that makes championship contenders but lacks appropriate on court personnel. Lillard and McCollum have at least a few years to keep the Blazers from the depths of the West, but time is certainly running out.