The Portland Trail Blazers have entered the NBA All-Star Break on a hot streak, having won four games in a row for only the second time this season. Absent franchise superstar Damian Lillard—plus CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, and all the veterans traded away at the recent NBA trade deadline—the Blazers are looking more successful than they did earlier in the season, fully-stocked. This is raising eyebrows, and hopes, around Blazers Nation. That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
This looks like a whole different team since the new guys came in and Chauncey gets to coach the way he wants to. Do you ever remember a change like this going so well in the middle of a year? I don’t even recognize players by name or by the way they’re playing. But it’s working so well I’m gonna ask the question on everyone’s minds. Have they finally found their style? Are we seeing the beginnings of a new team? Turning over a new leaf was badly needed and I think they’re doing it right in front of our eyes. Playoffs or bust! And how about keeping these guys together next year instead of dumping them for cap money? Do you think we will?
As we covered on this week’s Happiest Dave and Dia Podcast Ever, I’m totally supportive of the effort and playing style of these “new” Blazers. They’re fun to watch. They appear to be maximizing their strengths and disguising their weaknesses. That’s far better than wading into weaknesses up to their knees every game, which is pretty much what they were doing earlier in the season. Bravo. I hope they keep it up. Everyone should cheer this development.
We need to draw a distinction between that and turning it around in any meaningful way. I don’t foresee this group coming back next year unaltered and suddenly contending, even adding Damian Lillard back into the fold.
We’ll start with the obvious: that four wins in a row constitutes a season-changing transformation for the Blazers tells you everything you need to know about how the season has gone. Four wins is a near-miracle for Portland; it’s your average weekend in Phoenix.
Victories over the Lakers and Knicks were fun, but claiming relevance from them is like saying, “I went to the dentist and he gave me a free toothbrush!” Cool, but everyone else who went to the office this week got one too.
Beating the Bucks without Giannis Antetokounmpo is mildly more surprising, while the Memphis Grizzlies win was the gold-plated trophy of the bunch. That was super-legit, a team effort punctuated by brilliant star play. If the Blazers could play like that all the time, they’d be onto something.
All of it together was like finding one rare, one uncommon, and two commons in a collector’s card pack. Nice enough, but not exactly world-ending.
The Blazers being able to repeat the experiment would prove its worthiness to an extent. Let’s say that happens. If they finish out the season strong, they’ll become one of the darling teams of the West, a team to watch. They’d be expected to run it back next year with a core of Anfernee Simons, Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, and Justise Winslow. With a half-season of success behind them, that wouldn’t look too bad.
The Knicks didn’t look too bad last season either. They were the darlings of the East, winning 41 of 72 games behind Julius Randle—who posted the best season of his career—plus emergent shooting guard RJ Barrett. They even added veterans Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier to the mix this season, solidifying the rotation.
Right now those same Knicks are 25-34. The league was ready for Randle and Barrett in 2021-22. Both have regressed. The added veterans haven’t been strong enough to lift the team past the crumbling pressure put on their stars. Their “one for all” togetherness has all but disappeared. Their defense is drowning in mediocrity. Tom Thibodeau, the reigning NBA Coach of the Year, is rumored to be on the hot seat. Meanwhile Stephen A Smith—the great cheerleader of the Knicks revolution—is publicly disavowing any association with them, leaving scorched earth behind as he goes.
All of these things—a veteran registering a fantastic year, a young star emerging, new camaraderie, suddenly-improved defense, coaching inspiration—also apply to this week’s Trail Blazers, just in miniature. The comparison to New York doesn’t make Portland’s resurgence unreal. It means you can’t trust it...especially since we’re talking about a few games, not even a full season like the Knicks put in.
You could also run this narrative for the Atlanta Hawks, by the way. And Atlanta had far more reasons for confidence through the Summer of 2021 than the Blazers will have in the Summer of 2022.
NBA mediocrity is a fairly simple achievement. [Insert obligatory asterisk and pour out a drink for the Sacramento Kings here.] Average teams don’t win and lose games in alternating fashion for an entire season. They look like world-beaters for a while, but can’t keep it up, giving back losses after earning wins, putting in so-so seasons despite their intermittent achievements. We’ve seen this with the Blazers for years.
We’ve not seen anything yet from this squad that would make you think they could succeed once the league caught up to them, especially in the post-season against good teams. They rebound well. That’s considered basic in this era. Nurkic and Simons are great. That’s two guys, one still inexperienced. Portland’s big style transformation has come in forcing turnovers and running, but those are the easiest advantages for decent opponents to take away. They’ve played two good defensive games—against the Knicks and Bucks—and gotten on a super-hot streak of three-point shooting. Those are sustainable ways to win, but they haven’t shown yet that they can sustain them. At least some of the evidence suggests they won’t.
Lillard is the big unwrapped present under the tree, of course. Blazers fans might eye this week’s success, look at the bright bow around Dame, and say, “Merry Frickin’ Christmas!”
Having Lillard back would be better than not. If the Blazers are serious about a new direction, though, getting him on the floor with these players is a must. There are too many unknowns to suggest otherwise.
If the Blazers intend to go more up-tempo, emphasizing defense, turnovers, and transition points, does Lillard fit into that system? It’s a strong departure from anything he’s done so far. Defense is an obvious concern with Dame back in the lineup, but offense might be too. Lillard is a halfcourt guard. Nukic and Simons have flourished as the ball has centered around them in the halfcourt. Inevitably, Lillard will bend that, adding a heavy variable to the equation. They might well adjust! It’s not automatic, though.
Small sample size and common sense argue for caution here, but there’s way more to it. There are way too many variables to bank on a given outcome, or even direction, at this point. Odds are that the assembled players in Portland will end up playing closer to their historical means than a half-hopeful future. Odds are not all of them will return next year, as it just doesn’t make sense.
The Blazers’ big hope still lies in whatever draft picks they retain this summer. What kind of player they select depends, in part, on what type of team they intend to build. That’s where this stretch could become valuable: setting a baseline for talent and playing style, so decision-makers are clear whether they’ll be building or re-building this summer. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess what significance this “turn around” has. Better to enjoy it while it lasts and appreciate seeing these players grow into new roles with the team and in the NBA.
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