Blazers

Looking Back, But (Trail) Blazing Forward

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Coming off a disappointing end to the 2017-18 NBA season, the Portland Trail Blazers had countless questions.  Many people would write them off completely, myself included, when Jusuf Nurkic went down for the season. When they clinched the three seed, fans must have been nervous about facing a similar fate as last year.  But this team never stopped fighting and broke through.  The country as a whole now knows just how good Damian Lillard is and many other players silenced some doubters.  So what got them here, and where do they go next?

Star Year

The only logical place to start is Damian Lillard.  The league is overflowing with star talent at the guard position.  Steph Curry is a multi-time MVP and 3-time champion.  Chris Paul has earned the nickname of “Point God”, even as he slows down.  James Harden is a perennial MVP candidate.  Russell Westbrook averaged a triple double multiple times over the last three seasons.  This says nothing about other luminaries such as Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Bradley Beal, Kyrie Irving and countless more.

Casual fans, especially those who live on the east coast, often miss out on the western stars.   They do not get a lot of national television games, so they were not as informed about Damian Lillard.  He was already a 3-time all-star and All-NBA stud, but he did not get the national buzz he deserved.

Adding to those accolades only helps so much.  However, his escapades in the playoffs — specifically his jaw-dropping moments in the Thunder series — changed that.  He finished the first round with a buzzer beater like nothing most fans have ever seen. “Dame Time” and “Logo Lillard” became common terms among NBA faithful.  Lillard finally got some of the recognition he deserved.  Unfortunately, he ended up struggling in the Western Conference due to separated ribs and the inevitability of the Warriors.  His spotlight, however, has been earned without a doubt.

Other Standouts

While Lillard is the highlight of the season for the team, he wasn’t the only player who made their presence felt this year.  CJ McCollum looked every bit the star in his own right, averaging 25 points per game this postseason and stepping up in the second round when Lillard was struggling with his rib injury.  Enes Kanter changed the narrative on his career and got to poke some fun at his critics by reaffirming that you “Can Play Kanter”.  Especially early in the postseason, Kanter stepped up and brought a physical brand of offense that complemented the shooters on his team well.  He would eventually suffer an injury of his own, which stalled his progress.

Zach Collins, the second year center who has been forced to play behind Nurkic since being drafted, showed flashes of the potential that will keep fans salivating.  Seth Curry developed into a more consistent shooter all year long.  Fans were also able to see something they will call “The Rodney Hood Game”, which will likely never occur again.  In the same realm, Meyers Leonard, who hadn’t scored 20 points in a game since December 2015, had 25 in the first half of their last game of the season.  Overall, there were so many fun moments that the Blazers’ faithful will remember for years.  It further proved that while championships are the goal, memories often last longer.

Locking Down the Future

Coming into the postseason, a long run was considered a necessity to keep the future in place.  Following a trip to the Western Conference Finals, the future is settling in.  Terry Stotts, who would have been going into the final year of his coaching contract, signed an extension the day after they were eliminated.  He has been with Portland for seven seasons, boasting a record of 325-249.  He has won 50 games three times, been to the playoffs six straight seasons, and is the second winningest coach in franchise history.  President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey received an extension through 2024 as well.

Damian Lillard earned All-NBA second team honors this week as well, making him eligible for the “supermax” extension this summer.  Portland can offer him a four-year, $191 million deal to lock him in as the face of their franchise for what is likely the rest of his prime.  He still has two years remaining on his current deal, but he loves this market and team and rewarding him will continue to build their culture.

This team will likely be different next year, nonetheless.  Al-Farouq Aminu, Rodney Hood, Seth Curry, Enes Kanter and Jake Layman will all be entering free agency.  They will not have much cap space regardless of the Lillard situation and this free-agent class has made significant contributions to their success.  This leaves a void for the team at the wing, especially with Curry and Kanter in line for a raise.

Blazers’ Edge

Portland will have to get creative to continue to build around their core of Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic.  This organization has shown tact and resiliency in years past and will likely continue to do so.  The NBA as a whole will be in flux this summer with so many prominent free agents.  The Trail Blazers have shown they can compete with anyone when healthy.  Rip City will definitely be celebrating plenty of Dame Time going forward.

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About Corey Rausch

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