The Portland Trail Blazers are forever confounding expectations. In 2013-14, they were supposed to build upon their 33 wins from the previous season, and if things broke right, challenge for the playoffs. Instead, Damian Lillard leapt to stardom and Robin Lopez was a revelation, and the Blazers won 54 games and advanced to the second round of the playoffs.
This was surely going to be a down season for the Blazers. LaMarcus Aldridge, Wes Matthews, and Robin Lopez all departed for greener pastures in free agency, and Nic Batum was traded. They had Lillard ... and a bunch of other dudes. They were going to take a step backwards, let GM Neil Olshey acquire assets and clear the books, and hopefully contend against next season.
Last night, the Blazers beat the Thunder 120-115 to clinch a playoff berth, where they’ll likely avoid the Warriors and Spurs in the first round. The top of the Western Conference is stacked, but the Blazers spent the season running through the soft targets that populate the middle and lower tiers, and that’s earned them a winnable first-round playoff matchup.
Damian Lillard is the superstar and engine driver, of course, but the story of the Trail Blazers’ surprising success isn’t of a breakout player or two, but nearly the entire roster exceeding expectations—which is a credit to Olshey and coach Terry Stotts.
C.J. McCollum successfully transitioned from bench spark-plug to high-scoring starter while somehow becoming even more efficient. The Blazers fleeced the Nets to acquire Mason Plumlee, who has been an absolute rock in the middle. Ed Davis has been the same highly-competent but curiously overlooked big off the bench that he’s always been. Allan Crabbe has become an elite jump shooter, Mo Harkless is doing literally everything better, and Al-Farouq Aminu plays tenacious defense and rebounds well, giving the Blazers a well-rounded wing rotation.
No matter what happens in the playoffs, the future is bright. Lillard is locked up long-term, and the entire rotation, besides Gerald Henderson, is signed through at least next season. Olshey has proven himself to be one of the best—and importantly, since Portland isn’t a free agent mecca, one of the most creative—GMs in the league, and he’ll have $30 million in cap room to play with this offseason. Stotts communicates well with veterans and rookies, and embraces new concepts without tossing aside old ones.
This team isn’t getting past the Warriors or Spurs, and probably not the Thunder either, but they’ve gone and staked out a place in the conference hierarchy when nobody was expecting them to. Don’t be surprised if they start gunning for the elite teams sooner rather than later.