The summer of 2015 proved to be one to forget if you were a fan of the Portland Trail Blazers. After a promising season which saw the team end with an impressive record of 51-31, Portland was knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, proving no match for the Memphis Grizzlies and ultimately losing the series 4-1.
What ensued in the off-season was even more damaging for the franchise, or so it seemed. The team lost four of its starting five players as LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez left in free agency whilst Nicolas Batum was traded.
In the early season predictions, experts said the Portland Trail Blazers would not return to the Playoffs come the end of the season and the fans would have to accept a rebuilding job.
However, Damian Lillard had other ideas. While other players moved on to new challenges, Lillard embraced the challenge of becoming a leader in Portland and underlined his commitment to the cause by signing a five-year, $120 million extension in the summer.
Lillard and the Trail Blazers have defied the odds so far this season, quite literally, as the early season 2015-16 NBA win totals and title odds from the Westgate Superbook Las Vegas had the team winning just 26.5 games. They currently have a 32-28 record and sit seventh in the Western Conference.
The Trail Blazers and Lillard, in particular, have been on a tear recently, winning 13 of their last 15 games. Before Thursday night’s defeat at home to the Houston Rockets, Lillard put together the best five-game stretch of his career averaging 35.8 points and 6 assists per game, with a remarkable shooting percentage of 66.6%.
That stretch included a 51-point explosion against the defending champions Golden State Warriors, handing the NBA’s best team its heaviest defeat of the season. It was the first game after the All-Star break for both teams and Lillard appeared to be playing with a chip on his shoulder after being snubbed for the occasion and duly produced one of the best individual performances of the season.
The point-guard is having a career-best year statistically, with averages of 25.4 points, 7 assists and 4.3 rebounds a game. The team have followed his lead throughout the year and are earning the opportunity to be rewarded with a place in the post-season.
Lillard is the face of the franchise and is rightly receiving plaudits for his terrific season, but the role of his running mate, C.J. McCollum, cannot be underestimated.
McCollum is enjoying a breakout year and has formed one of the best backcourts in the NBA with Lillard. In his third year in the league, the 24-year-old is averaging 20.8 points, 4.2 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game, which are also career numbers. He is definitely among the favourites to win this year’s Most Improved Player award.
The emergence of McCollum helped the Trail Blazers overcome the loss of its four starters, especially top scorer Aldridge. Not only did the team lose its core, it lost veteran players.
That didn’t faze the franchise, however, as it decided to go against the grain by creating a new core group of young players without many veterans.
McCollum believes this is working in their favour as a youthful team creates a strong work ethic.
"Almost everyone on the roster is young, and that's created a competitive environment," McCollum said speaking to ESPN.
"Every one of us has something to prove, so everyone is working hard. That's great for our culture, especially for a young team."
After the difficult summer they endured, it wouldn’t have been a surprise had Portland decided to ‘tank’ this year and looked for a lottery pick in the 2016 Draft, but Blazers general manager Neil Olshey says that was never an option they considered.
"The plan was never to tank," he said. "Damian and C.J. and three guys from ClubSport could win 20 games.
“There was never going to be any bottoming out; there was going to be development. Our job was to make sure anyone who was on the floor had a long-term impact on this organization.
“That's what we've done. We've brought in quality, undervalued players we believed would complement them, and they have begun to thrive in our system and our culture."
Players such as Mason Plumlee, Allen Crabbe, Al-Farouq Aminu, Noah Vonleh and Ed Davis have found roles on the team and contributed significantly. For that reason, Coach Terry Stotts deserves special praise for the work he is carrying out with his youthful team.
After coaching two 50-plus win teams in the last two years, Stotts has done a tremendous job reinventing the team and keeping them competitive. There aren’t many coaches in the NBA this season who can boast blowout wins at home against the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Warriors, the best teams in the East and West respectively.
Stotts was a former assistant coach at the Dallas Mavericks from 2008-2012 and was hired by Head Coach Rick Carlisle when he took over. He was part of Carlisle’s coaching staff when the Mavericks won the NBA title in 2011 and he regards his former assistant as a serious contender for Coach of the Year.
"Right now I think he's a front-runner for coach of the year with what he's done,” Carlisle told reporters on Wednesday.
“They've done the things they needed to do. They grew a lot early. They went through some tough times.”
The Blazers’ current record can be considered as an overachievement, but with the leadership of Lillard, the rise of McCollum and a ton of cap space, the franchise and its fans can look forward to an even brighter future.