The Portland Trail Blazers are currently 17-10, tied for 4th place in the Western Conference. Here are some observations about the team through the first two months of the season.
The Portland Trail Blazers have turned a lot of heads with their recent run of play, winners of five straight, climbing to 17-10 on the season to find themselves once again, in the midst of a furious Western Conference playoff race. Injuries to the team’s second and third best players, C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkić, have been well documented, and frankly, nobody would have blamed the Blazers if they had slipped a few spots in the Western Conference standings while McCollum and Nurkić were recovering. However, it’s truly a credit to every level of the Blazers’ organization that they find themselves in the position they’re in right now. Head coach, Terry Stotts, has had no problem trusting the depth that Damian Lillard implored President of Basketball Operations, Neil Olshey, to acquire in the off-season.
Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. have been game-changers on the defensive end of the floor, and Enes Kanter has held his own as a starter in Nurkić’s absence. A second-round draft pick in 2018, Gary Trent Jr. has really blossomed as of late, averaging 19 points on 45% shooting from deep in February. As usual, Damian Lillard has made his presence felt, as his performances down the stretch this season have been nothing short of spectacular. If you take a look at Lillard’s clutch-shooting splits, in late-game situations (final 3 minutes) where the game is either tied or the Blazers are down by at most 5 points, Lillard turns into a superhero. He’s shooting 10/13 from the floor and at times, single-handedly willing the Blazers to victory, underscored by the fact that the Blazers are a +18 in the 11 minutes they have played in situations like this. There’s a reason it’s called “Dame Time,” and the leadership and pure will to win he’s shown this season needs some more praise.
Portland also has to be thrilled by a few of the performances they’ve gotten from some of the fringe rotation players on the roster that have been called into action over the past couple of weeks. Anfernee Simons is proving that his jumper is legit, reaching the double-digit points threshold in each of the last seven games while still doing most of his damage from behind the three-point arc. Harry Giles earned some praise from his teammates after grabbing 7 rebounds and posting a +11 plus/minus number in just 14 minutes in a 4-point win over the 76ers last week. Even last year’s first-round pick, Nassir Little, has turned in some eyebrow-raising performances of late. His 30 points on 5/7 shooting from deep was the lone bright spot for Portland in a blowout loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on February 1st. Then just last night, Little served up a not-so-nice facial on Oklahoma City’s Isaiah Roby, while also flashing that smooth-looking jump shot as he went 3/3 from beyond the arc.
It’s a credit to coach Stotts and his staff to trust these players, develop them, and put them in positions to succeed. But also, from a team-building perspective, you have to admire the job Neil Olshey has done in his 9th season with the Blazers. Solid young players on team-friendly deals are key ingredients for a small-market organization like Portland to exceed expectations. Olshey has done an excellent job fleshing out his roster with high-level, low-cost role players, who are hungry to prove that they can contribute more.