No team had ever accomplished what this NBA team did this season. And I’m not talking about the Golden State Warriors.
Everyone expected the Warriors to be exceptional this season after winning the NBA Finals last June, but no one predicted what the Portland Trail Blazers accomplished this year.
The Blazers entered the 2015 – 16 regular season — which wrapped up last night — with low expectations. After losing four of their five starters from the previous year over the offseason to free agency and trades, NBA analysts and pundits predicted the Blazers to struggle through a season of rebuilding. Sportsbook had the Blazers finishing the season with 27.5 wins, and even the most optimistic projections only had Portland fighting for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
Yet here we are, two days away from tip-off of the NBA Playoffs, and the fifth-seed Blazers are preparing for a first-round matchup with the fourth-seed Los Angeles Clippers. No team in NBA history until this year’s Blazers had ever made the playoffs returning only two or fewer players with 1,000 or more minutes from the previous season. The Blazers blew by Sportsbook’s prediction of 27.5 wins with their 28th win all the way back on Feb. 19 with an impressive 137 – 105 blowout of the NBA-best Warriors.
But it wasn’t as if it looked like the Blazers were going to smash expectations from the beginning of the season. Portland was 15 – 24 on Jan. 8 before exploding for 18 wins over their next 22 games. It wasn’t until the middle of the season that the Blazers found their identity and started stringing together wins.
How’d they do it?
It helps to have a leader like Damian Lillard. Lillard, a fourth-year point guard out of Weber State, is one of only five players in the NBA with more than 1800 points and 500 or more assists. He is one of just four players in the top 10 in the league in points and assists per game. And yet he wasn’t even named an All-Star this season, adding to the sizeable chip on his shoulder that has motivated him throughout his career.
Starting alongside Lillard in Portland’s backcourt is third-year guard C.J. McCollum, the obvious favorite to win Most Improved Player this season. McCollum has taken advantage of a large jump in playing time this year, averaging more than 20 points per game this season after averaging just 6.8 points the previous year. Lillard and McCollum combined for more than 400 3‑pointers this season, joining Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson as the only teammates to do so this year.
The Blazers feature several other players who have blossomed into more than competent NBA players under a new system and with increased minutes. While Lillard and McCollum are leading Portland’s charge, they wouldn’t be where they are without the improved play of once-nobodies like Maurice Harkless and Allen Crabbe.
Blazers head coach Terry Stotts and Blazers GM Neil Olshey should be considered for Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year, respectively, for their accomplishments, and Lillard should be considered a top-five MVP candidate for where he has taken his team.
So if you don’t have a team to root for in the NBA Playoffs, don’t jump on the Warriors bandwagon, take a chance on the Blazers. Sure, the Warriors just completed what will be undeniably remembered as one of the greatest regular seasons of all time. But what the Blazers accomplished this season might just be more impressive.