When Damian Lillard took over the Portland Trail Blazers in 2015-16, a “rebuild on the fly” mentality was adopted to keep the team competitive by plugging in players that worked to fill roles. Al-Farouq Aminu was pegged as a starting forward, Ed Davis was meant to be a reliable sixth man. The desire to go after known but steady quantities never left the thought of something more — Aminu and Davis are still more or less the players they entered as.
This strategy has also created a revolving door of players. Gerald Henderson to Allen Crabbe to Pat Connaughton, it’s become more of a “tag, you’re it!” way of dividing roles than a progression of a player working their way into something bigger. For really the first time in the solo Lillard era, the Blazers finally have that in Zach Collins, Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr. While the playoffs are important to a competitor like Lillard and to a team looking to profit, it doesn’t have to be the end all, be all measuring stick anymore. There’s finally something more to take into account: the growth of a young core.
The Blazers of the past couple of years presented one way of thinking about them: did they make the playoffs? That shows how the team’s focus rested solely in that season. Attention wasn’t on some outside development that could sweep the team, Damian Lillard’s greatness was enough. But as the Pelicans series showed, Lillard and CJ McCollum aren’t enough on their own. There’s now a pressing need for more in reflection of that series. But the need is also pressing as the Blazers watch Damian Lillard’s prime slowly tick down and without assets to bring in outside help.
That’s why I believe the youth’s performance should be a focus now. Progression from game to game or month to month leads to wondering of what comes down the line in Year 2 or Year 3. That kind of connection doesn’t exist with a one-year stopgap. While the short game would want a fast-tracked development for Collins/Simons/Trent Jr. for the sake of competing in Lillard’s prime, the long game is about the youth finding their footing and showing signs from season to season with an eye towards the future. Now success doesn’t have to just be about the team’s record, but what inner workings are taking to place the set the course for a bright future, too.
So should we really expect a playoffs appearance from this team? Maybe. The West got tougher and the Blazers got (at least) slightly weaker. That’s why there’s a certain “success” beyond the standings. It’s in what Collins can show in Year 2, with a bigger role now that Ed Davis is gone, building on his rookie year and putting his extra 20 pounds to work. It’s in what Simons and Trent Jr. showcase as rookies.
The internal development is more important than ever. And players like Jusuf Nurkic, Maurice Harkless and Meyers Leonard don’t shows signs of deviating from what they already are. Thus the youth takes ever more prevalence in terms of the Blazers’ near and distant future — they’re both the ones that could spring a turnaround while Lillard is still around and they’re also the ones that could be next in line as Lillard declines. What they show now is of importance for the Blazers next year, and the year after that and the year after that. It’s them building towards something. And it might be their team in a couple of years, after all.