This past NBA offseason presented a lot of shake-ups around the league. To sum it up, here are some of the most notable moves: the Minnesota Timberwolves acquired Jimmy Butler; the Houston Rockets traded for Chris Paul; the Oklahoma City Thunder acquired Paul George from the Indiana Pacers in exchange for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, and later acquired Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks; and of course, Kyrie Irving was traded from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Boston Celtics in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and Brooklyn’s draft pick. The free agency market was also active. The Boston Celtics signed Gordon Hayward, the Minnesota Timberwolves added Jeff Teague, and the Denver Nuggets acquired Paul Millsap. The vast majority of these moves made the Western Conference much stronger than the East. In fact, 13 of the 14-best NBA players, as ranked by ESPN, were in the Western Conference. The exception was LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
With this migration of star-power, many expected the Western Conference playoff race to be one of the most competitive in league history. Ten playoff-worthy teams would compete for eight available spots.
As an Oregonian and lifelong Portland Trail Blazers fan, I was worried at the start of the season that the Blazers may actually miss the playoffs altogether for the first time since 2013. Within the Western Conference, the Blazers’ division–the Northwest–saw the greatest increase in talent. As noted above, George, Millsap, Anthony, Butler, and Teague all joined teams in the Northwest division, making it arguably the most competitive in the NBA. Seven out of ESPN’s top eighteen ranked NBA players this year are in the division. While nearly everyone in both Portland’s division and conference improved, the biggest offseason acquisitions the Blazers made were trading away Allen Crabbe’s pricey contract for salary cap relief and drafting Gonzaga University’s Zach Collins with the 10th pick.
Led by all-star point guard Damian Lillard, the Blazers have consistently made the playoffs since 2014, consistently seeding fourth or fifth. Last year, however, they fell to the eighth seed, nearly missing the playoffs altogether. With all this in mind, pundits and fans alike thought the season would be a victory if Portland even qualified for the playoffs at all. But the Trail Blazers have done much more than just battle for a spot; right now, the Blazers are the third-best team in the West and have won 13 of their last 14 games, as of March 21.
In addition to the stellar play of Damian Lillard and fringe all-star CJ McCollum, Portland’s defense and bench have really set this season apart from others. Although they were unable to sign any marquee free agents, the Blazers vastly improved their talent from within. Zach Collins has looked like a terrific draft pick. Additionally, Pat Connaughton, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, and Shabazz Napier’s improved play have made the Blazers one of the deepest teams in the league.
Many pundits are either completely ignorant of the Blazers’ success or highly skeptical of it. What makes this Portland team so different from the rest? Well for one, they have beaten the Warriors multiple times this season, as well as the Cavaliers, Timberwolves, and Thunder.
The credit for this year’s success so far has to go to Lillard, as well as general manager Neil Olshey. The Blazers’ player retention has given the team a sense of permanency that is difficult to find within the Western Conference. In this way, their lack of offseason moves has become the Blazers’ strength.
Regarding Lillard, the often overlooked all-star from Oakland, his leadership is immeasurable. He is not a better player on paper than MVP candidates like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, or Anthony Davis, but he is able to lead teams just as well as the league’s elite. He is the focal point of this team’s success and is able to elevate his teammates’ skills in ways I didn’t realize were possible. Because of everything he has done, I believe that Damian Lillard is now a top-five player in this league. Like I said, he doesn’t have the talent of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Karl Anthony-Town, or Nikola Jokic, but he is getting wins while these other stars are not. Damian’s ability to build such a strong winning culture is what makes him one of the most valuable players in this league.
Although this win streak probably won’t last much longer, since Lillard will miss a few games for the birth of his child, the fact remains that the Blazers are overachieving by galaxies. Lillard should be in the same conversation with LeBron James, James Harden, and Kevin Durant, given how he has led his team and exceeded expectations. The question is: will it translate into playoff success? Until then, as Lillard and the rest of the Blazers have said on Instagram: #RipCityOnTheyA**