The Portland Trail Blazers are one of the biggest surprises in the Western Conference. They didn't get anyone into the All-Star Game, but that doesn't mean they don't have star power. In this week's FLANNS & ZILLZ, Paul Flannery and Tom Ziller discuss how Portland's doing it and what happens next.
ZILLER: Not only are the Blazers sitting at No. 7 in the West, but they smoked the Warriors coming out of the break and beat the Jazz in a barn burner on Sunday to claim a tiebreak. The Blazers! We knew Damian Lillard was damn good -- you wrote about his franchise player status before the season began -- but this team has been just full of surprises. What's been the biggest stunner for you?
FLANNERY: Before we dive into the weeds, let's stop and appreciate Dame a bit more. I remember something Terry Stotts told me when I was out in Portland reporting that feature. He said, "I don't want to concede anything. There's no way Dame's conceding anything."
It's a nice quote but I didn't use it because at some point you have to be realistic, right? Best-case scenario for me was 30 wins and a competitive season to go along with some nice strides in player development. At no point did I realistically expect them to contend for a playoff spot with a .500 record.
There's a lot of credit to go around, and we'll get into all of that, but for me this starts with Damian Lillard. It's not just that he's an outstanding player, which we all knew anyway, it's all the other stuff that went into the feature: leadership, setting an example, personality. You can be a great player and a half-ass franchise player, but you can't fake being the real thing. That's Dame. He's as real as it gets.
ZILLER: Absolutely. He's proven himself again and again, so this shouldn't be a surprise. But many of us are slaves to orthodoxy, and orthodoxy says that a good team that loses three of its four best players and replaced them largely with unproven kids gets a lot worse. I, for one, neglected that the one top Blazer who stayed is good enough and fierce enough to drag everyone else along.
I still can't believe he went a pick behind Thomas Robinson.
What I like best about this Blazers team is there is a built-in identity with Lillard and C.J. McCollum. So many rebuilding teams go through years of faceless anonymity, which makes them not only bad, but boring. I don't want to call these guys the Junior Splash Brothers because they deserve their own identity, but they are doing for Portland what Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson did for those Golden State teams of a few years back. It's a chance to say, "This is who we are and we're building from this point."
McCollum is way better than I anticipated, by the way. I thought he'd be a nice, even good player. Not a potential All-Star.
I like the rest of this team. Not love, like. They have an array of young, athletic bigs that are all useful in their way. I'm not sure any of them are cornerstone players though.
ZILLER: The frontcourt limitations are exactly what had us thinking 30 wins or so would be Portland's ceiling. I haven't seen a ton to dispel the notion that the Blazers have any long-term answers up front. Noah Vonleh isn't happening here any more than he was happening in Charlotte. Mason Plumlee is a good fit with Lillard and McCollum and Ed Davis is a good rotational big, but there's not quite enough punch up front. The Blazers know this. It does make me wonder how Enes Kanter would have fit had OKC not matched the offer sheet.
The good news is that Neil Olshey has built-in flexibility and has assets. He had a big role in the Clippers' front office when L.A. plucked DeAndre Jordan in the second round. Lillard and McCollum are young, and the former is locked in for five more years. There's PLENTY of time.
Plus, the Blazers have Allen Crabbe. They are in great shape.
FLANNERY: You and your Enes Kanter fixation are getting weird.
Allen Crabbe is like found money, but let's not forget they guaranteed his deal after he suffered what they called a "severe" ankle sprain during summer league. You can say that's a no-brainer -- he obviously has talent and was playing well in Vegas -- but that's still a decision that Olshey made that turned out to be exactly right.
Since LaMarcus Aldridge left, he's traded for Plumlee and Maurice Harkless and signed Davis and Al Farouq-Aminu. That's not bad work. Now, you can argue about trading Nic Batum for Noah Vonleh (I'm not philosophically opposed, for the record). There's the matter of that first-round pick they owe to Denver if they make the playoffs this year or next. That deal gave them two months of Arron Afflalo and also cost Will Barton, but it was totally defensible at the time, given they were making one more run with that team.
Overall, I think Olshey has done a really good job with this rebuild thus far. My question is, are they peaking too soon à la Phoenix from a few years back? This process should take years, not months. All of a sudden expectations get raised and things get strange. I'm not super worried about this, but what say you?
ZILLER: That's absolutely a concern, especially with a franchise owner as idiosyncratic as Paul Allen. I never really know what to make of the pre-Olshey period, where decision making seemed so erratic. In absence of certainty, I chalk it up to unstable leadership from Allen, whether that's fair or not.
So that's a concern. The problems in Phoenix stemmed from unsustainable over-achievement, suddenly shifting plans and -- let's be honest -- a mediocre talent base. If Portland makes the playoffs, there's something to be said for staying the course and building organically with young guys around Dame and McCollum.
One of the things I bet a lot of Blazers fans are wondering is how this team would look with Batum still on it. He's only 27 and the dividends haven't yet been great on the return.
FLANNERY: That's fair to ask. It's also fair to point out that Batum really struggled in his last season in Portland and Olshey traded him when he could get value back in return. It's all contextual. A lot of this depends on how Vonleh turns out and he's still so young that I'm nowhere near ready to write him off yet.
We've gone this far and haven't mentioned the job that Terry Stotts has done with this club. I've been a Stotts fan for a while, but I love what he's done this season. I have Stotts, Brad Stevens, Dwane Casey and Gregg Popovich on my Coach of the Year shortlist. This goes back to the identity thing again. That they have one of the top offenses in the league without a reliable frontcourt scorer speaks volumes to how he's used the strength of that backcourt.
You know, they remind me a lot of the Celtics where the whole is better than the sum of their parts, only with offense as the fulcrum as opposed to a blitzkrieg defensive style like Boston. Given that they have a franchise player in place in Dame, I like their upside just a bit more. If you could combine the best of both you'd have one hell of a team.
ZILLER: Stotts is good. That's the extent of my Stotts thesis.
You know who we haven't mentioned yet? LaMarcus Aldridge. His absence looms large over this team. I think it's interesting that the team is average without him considering how central he seemed to the team's success. Yes, a lot of that is tied up in all the praise we heaped on Lillard earlier. But ... I don't know. The team is worse without Aldridge but not nearly as much worse as you'd predict, and I feel like that has to say a little something about Aldridge.
FLANNERY: I think what it says is that while Aldridge is a bona fide All-Star, he is not necessarily a franchise player. The Blazers had their run with him and didn't get out of the second round. Now they are having a go without him and they have not completely fallen apart. That's OK. Aldridge is still a very good player. And some of that is geography. If they were in the East, they likely would have gone further and we wouldn't be talking about them as also-rans. Unless you are LeBron James, everything in this league is contextual.
It's difficult to say the Blazers are better off without him. They clearly are not right now. But that may change ultimately if Olshey can find a frontcourt star and Dame can continue working his magic. I would not bet against either of those things.
ZILLER: That's all very fair, and there's the additional point that they were REALLY good before Wes Matthews went down last season. I suppose San Antonio's fate over the next couple of seasons will do more to provide clarity on Aldridge's true impact.
You think this is the summer Olshey tries to get a star big man, or is more patience in order? You mentioned the Celtics earlier -- these are two teams who could be competing for the same guys.
FLANNERY: I think time is of the essence for the Blazers, given that their best player is reaching his prime. You only get so many chances. What's interesting about teams like Portland and Boston and so many others, is their situations dictate their free agent attractiveness. We've been talking for the last few years about how markets mean less in this age than they used to. Portland's ability to attract big-time free agents will be a major test of that belief.
The window is opening and that's an exciting time for any team. Maximizing that opportunity is the hard part. Fortunately for the Blazers they a great player, a savvy GM and strong coach. That's a perfect combination. Now they just need a little luck.
ZILLER: And more Allen Crabbe.
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Video Game Stats: Anthony Davis torched the Pistons on Sunday