Portland Trail Blazers
Injuries to the frontcourt nearly derailed Portland’s 2019-20 campaign, but the COVID-19 pandemic halted the season and allowed the Trail Blazers to recuperate just enough for a late-season surge.
It was enough to get Jusuf Nurkic back on the floor and give Damian Lillard and crew a chance for a run. Sparked by Lillard’s otherworldly play in the bubble, Portland forced its way into a play-in game with Memphis. With momentum on their side, the Blazers edged out the Grizzlies to earn the 8th seed and a 35-39 record in the regular season.
Portland stunned the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers 100-93 in the first game of round 1, before losing the next four.
The Blazers are driven by the play of the backcourt and star Damian Lillard. Dame finished third in scoring this season, averaging 30 ppg. He shot 46 percent from the field and 40 percent from three. His scoring has always been the biggest part of his game, but he had a solid year distributing the ball as well. He finished fifth in assists, averaging 8 per game.
In the bubble, Lillard increased his already vaunted reputation as one of the league’s deadliest shooters and most fearless players in the clutch. His effective field goal percentage in clutch moments is about 8 percent higher than the league average. He had more points and assists than any player in the bubble in clutch time (when teams are within 5 points – ahead or behind – in the closing 5 minutes of the game). Throughout his career, Lillard has a higher fg% during Dame Time. He’s also an eagle-eye shooter from very deep, hitting 41 percent of his shots from 30-34 feet. The shot that sent Paul George and Oklahoma City home last season was no fluke.
C.J. McCollum is no slouch offensively either. With Lillard sidelined for 6 games in February, McCollum led the team in scoring and assists each game. He averaged more than 33 points and 8 assists per during that stretch, including two 41-point games. His scoring and efficiency have fallen off slightly since 2017, but he is still capable of lightening the load for Lillard and making Portland one of the most potent backcourts in the game.
The Blazers have McCollum and Lillard signed through 2024, with Lillard’s contract expiring in 2025.
Portland fell short of its potential this season largely due to injuries. It appeared that center Jusuf Nurkic would be a scratch all year after breaking his leg late last season. Nurkic was able to return in the Orlando bubble and averaged a double-double in the restart. His contributions were especially necessary for the play-in game against Memphis. He posted 22 points and 21 rebounds in the 126-122 win.
Key injuries to Nurkic, Zach Collins, and Rodney Hood opened the door for the Trail Blazers to experiment with the roster a bit. The offseason acquisition of Hasaan Whiteside proved to be a crucial addition. The 31-year-old had his best season scoring since 2017, averaging 15.5 ppg to go with 13.5 RPG (fourth overall). He also led the NBA in blocks per game, swatting 2.9 per. The team also added journeymen veteran Trevor Ariza midseason. Ariza gave Portland more than 33 minutes of playing time per game and averaged 11 points.
Perhaps the biggest mid-season acquisition Portland made was bringing in Carmelo Anthony on a “prove it” deal. Anthony was signed for a pittance on a non-guaranteed contract in November, which became guaranteed in January. Anthony had been a ball-dominant star at other times in his career, regularly in the mix for the scoring title in Denver and New York. But for the first time since Denver and one season in New York, he was in the mix with a talented and cohesive unit. The result was his third-best percentage from three in his career. He was taking fewer shots but playing defense at a markedly higher level and with a better effort than in previous years. He also had his best rebounding numbers since New York. Now, Anthony and his Blazers teammates – including Lillard – are campaigning for his return next season.
Portland won its first NBA Championship in 1977 with a team featuring Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, Lionel Hollins, and Bob Gross. Walton demanded a trade the following season after infamously battling pressure from the front office to play through an injury. Walton was traded to the San Diego Clippers in 1979.
Despite losing Walton to injury and then to the trade, the Blazers continued to find some success under coach Dr. Jack Ramsey, making the playoffs in five straight seasons, including the title win.
The Blazers returned to the Finals in 1990 behind star Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Clifford Robinson, Jerome Kirsey, and Head Coach Rick Adelman. Detroit dispatched Portland 4-1 to win the title. The team made it back to the Finals in 1992, with Drexler finishing as the runner up to Michael Jordan for league MVP. Drexler averaged 25 ppg that season.
Portland appeared in consecutive Western Conference Finals in 1999 and 2000. They were swept by the eventual champion San Antonio Spurts in 1999 and lost 4-3 to the Lakers the following year.
Head Coach Terry Stotts navigated Portland to another conference championship series last season. His team was swept by Kevin Durant-less Golden State. Lillard and McCollum combined for more than 44 ppg but Stephen Curry and Klay Thomson countered with 58 ppg as a duo to lead the way for the Warriors.