The Portland Trail Blazers are Still Closer Than You Thought

I’ll be the first to admit it: I was dead wrong about the Portland Trail Blazers.

After their embarrassing showing against the New Orleans Pelicans last postseason, I thought it was time for them to blow things up. Damian Lillard was obviously a top-five guy at his position, but I had questions about his ability to lead a squad. CJ McCollum balled out, but I just didn’t see him as the ideal partner to Dame on the defensive end. I had next to no faith in Jusef Nurkic, a post brute who struggled to finish and defend in space.

Beyond those three, there was nothing to feel good about.

Breaking up that backcourt and trying to find a wing not-named-Evan Turner to pick up the slack seemed smart. Heck, anything that wasn’t keeping this group together looked good compared to running things back.

Once it was clear that the Blazers would indeed return the same squad, I dug in. I didn’t think they’d make the playoffs, much less a serious run.

51 wins, an iconic series clincher against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and a mid-range barrage in a Game 7 against the Denver Nuggets later, I had to eat an unbelievable amount of crow. (And crow doesn’t taste good.)

Now, here we are. The Blazers were eliminated by the Golden State Warriors in four games. The end game was predictable (I actually got this one right), as were the hot takes that rolled in afterward.

Where was Dame?

The Blazers blew three double-digits leads in this series! Chokers!

I mean, sure. That stuff isn’t great. Yet another sweep doesn’t look good on Dame’s resume.

But not only did this team have a fantastic season, they made a strong case that they aren’t far off from the West’s elite.

Damian lillard is a bonafide superstar

May 5, 2019; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) reacts after hitting a three-point basket against the Denver Nuggets in the first half of game four of the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Don’t let the last five or so games skew your mind. Lillard has been burdened with an incredible offensive load all season. Matching up with Russell Westbrook, then being trapped into oblivion by the Nuggets is a tough road to travel. Passing those tests only to be matched up with Stephen freakin’ Curry (and continuing to get trapped into oblivion) is cruel and unusual punishment.

Do not miss the forest for the trees here. Lillard is an absolute stud.

He didn’t have a career year statistically, but his numbers (25.8 points, 6.9 assists) were only matched by the NBA’s elite class. Opponents had to account for him 35 feet from the basket, yet he had no issue tossing in deep daggers from Curry range. He showcased more craft in the pick-and-roll than ever, generating well over a point per possession as the ball-handler.

The minor-but-important trend from this season was his comfort against traps. Stifling defense from Jrue Holiday and traps from New Orleans’ bigs left Lillard helpless and ineffective during their series last year.

This season, Lillard busted those traps with tight push-throughs and attacked the basket with a new fury.

Those are the kind of improvements on the margins that allow guys to make the star-to-superstar leap. Those traps eventually left the Blazers in a tough spot against the Warriors, but that says more about their big men failing to make plays (and the all-time eliteness of the Warriors) than it does about Lillard.

CJ McCollum is a necessary wildcard

May 20, 2019; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) and Trail Blazers’ guard CJ McCollum (3) approach each other after losing to the Golden State Warriors 119-117 in overtime in game four of the Western conference finals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Lillard can obviously carry a ton of weight, but he can’t do everything.

Enter one of the NBA’s best Robins.

McCollum once again shined in a secondary role this season (21 points, 3.0 assists). His ability to take pressure off of Lillard has always been valuable, but it was on full display during the postseason.

With the Nuggets particularly blitzing the life out of Lillard pick-and-rolls, closing duties suddenly shifted to McCollum. He mostly delivered, highlighted by his Game 7 masterpiece (37 points, 9 rebounds, on nearly 59 percent shooting) and capped off by his mid-range dagger over Torrey Craig.

McCollum’s scoring ability is impressive, but the way he scores is important. Lillard feasts from deep and at the rim. The role players feast from deep or at the rim.

McCollum can score at all three levels, and his mid-range mastery is an especially needed postseason counter.

A Short-Roll Threat is needed

Mar 25, 2019; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic (27) talks to teammate guard Damian Lillard (0) during a double overtime game against the Brooklyn Nets at Moda Center. The Portland Trail Blazers beat the Brooklyn Nets in double overtime 148-144. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

It was obvious during the Nuggets series, then it became painfully clear against the Warriors. The Blazers need their own Draymond Green, a guy that can make trapping defenses pay with quick decisions in short-roll situations.

So, yes, the Blazers really missed Jusuf Nurkic. Just like we all said they would.

Beyond his career-high scoring (15.6), rebounding (10.4) and general tough-guy contributions, Nurkic’s passing ability (3.2 assists) was an underrated part of the Blazers’ regular-season success.

Teams couldn’t afford to trap Lillard or McCollum whenever Nurkic was involved. Nurkic had the vision to sling dimes all over the floor or finish at the basket against weak or late rotations.

With him out of the picture, the Blazers had to rely on a one-armed Enes Kanter, getting-better Zach Collins and where-the-heck-did-that-come-from Meyers Leonard. All three have their offensive strengths, but playmaking is not one of them.

Getting Nurkic back in the fold may be enough to give the Blazers the multifaceted attack needed to challenge in the West. A lower level trade to bring in a scrappy, playmaking 4 (James Johnson, anybody?) could make things that much easier.

It’s clear that the Blazers have a strong foundation in place: The Lillard-McCollum duo anchored a deep playoff run. Coach Terry Stotts proved most of his regular-season adjustments and schemes can successfully transfer to the postseason. The pressure they applied, as well as the leadership they displayed, allowed The Others to fill in the gaps.

Now that we know this team is good enough to make a deep run, the narrative should shift.

If they can improve on the margins, another deep run next season shouldn’t catch anyone off guard.