Braly’s Blazers: Portland Trail Blazers catching fire at just the right time

Max Braly Sports Contributor

57 games into the grueling NBA season, the Trail Blazers find themselves with a winning record and amidst a tightly packed playoff race in the Western Conference.

Not a single person who follows the NBA closely would have predicted the Blazer’s success back at the start of the season in October. Who would have blamed them? Rip City had its heart ripped out when the team’s core departed for greener pastures.

Lamarcus Aldridge choose to play for the Spurs for a better chance at winning a championship, while Wesley Matthews decided to play in Dallas for more money. Nic Batum was traded to Charlotte for the promising Noah Vonleh and the veteran Gerald Henderson. Lastly Robin Lopez understood that he wouldn’t fit into the new look Blazers and signed with the Knicks.

80% of the starters from last year’s team went on to play elsewhere.

Who do we owe the credit for success to? Paul Allen? Neil Olshey? Terry Stotts? Damian Lillard? The answer: All of the above.

Paul Allen is one of the best owners in professional sports–yup, on top of owning the Trail Blazers, Allen also owns the ultra successful Seattle Seahawks. He is passionate about winning and is quick to trust the expertise of his staff.

Be glad, Rip City, that you have Neil Olshey as a general manager. He has made some of the smartest transactions in the NBA this year. The replacements he signed at the price he got them is incredible. Maurice Harkless was essentially free, and the bargain deal Al-Farouq Aminu signed has made it possible to pursue a big time free agent during the off season.

Olshey is also probably pretty good at finding cool clothes at Ross Dress For Less.

I’m certain that head coach Terry Stotts lent Olshey a helping hand in choosing quality players. Together they constructed a team that was more than competitive, and they did it while staying beneath the salary minimum. This is a testament to Stotts and his staff and their ability to develop and create an environment conducive to growth.

Players who populate the Blazer’s roster were once disrespected and overlooked. Neither C.J. McCollum nor Lillard were highly touted high school recruits and both were under the radar on their respective draft nights.

Portland is Aminu’s fourth team already and Harkless was traded for a 2020 second round pick. The roster is riddled with players with a chip on their shoulders and they all play like they have something to prove.

Lillard’s most recent ‘chip’ comes from missing the All-Star game–he also wasn’t invited to the 2014 All-Star game, but he made it in because of an injury. It’s no All-Star no problem for him. Immediately following this year’s All-Star weekend, Lillard exploded for the best game of his career thus far, a game against perhaps the best team in NBA history, the Golden State Warriors. In the win, he scored 51 points, dished out seven assists and hustled his way to six steals, all without committing a single turnover.

Oh yeah, he did all that in a measly 31 minutes.

It should be noted that even after the Blazers borderline destroyed the best team in basketball, Warriors shooting guard Klay Thompson called their loss to Portland a ‘fluke.’ I wish everyone would disrespect the Trail Blazers like that, it’s obviously fueling the team’s fire to prove people wrong.

Since the start of 2016, the Blazers are in the midst of an admirable 16-6 record, that’s only three more losses than the Warriors as they sit at 20-3.

A major shift has happened mid-season for the Blazers. How could a team built from rubble make such a rapid improvement?

Stotts has created an environment amongst the team where players are all on the same page and want to get better. Their synchronization has created unity, and I’d argue that they have the best team chemistry in the whole league, which has led to recent success, winning their past six games.

The main focus of refinement has been on the defensive side of the ball. During the current hot streak, the Blazers host the fifth best defensive rating in the league. Lillard, McCollum and most of their teammates have been ridiculed for their poor individual defense and before the team shored up this weakness, the chaff was deserved. Their vastly improved defense has allowed them to rocket all the way up the standings, now they are tied for sixth place in the Western Conference with Dallas.

Even though the Blazers are out performing their expectations, it’s hard to see them having a shot to advance during the postseason. If the playoffs were today, their first round matchup would be against the Spurs, who are freakishly good when you peel your eyes off Golden State. Along with San Antonio being an amazing basketball team that would be tough to beat, I don’t think Blazer fans could endure a seven game series against Lamarcus Aldridge, so let’s hope the team keeps winning.

If the Blazers were to continue their upward trend and earn the sixth seed outright, round one would be against Oklahoma City, the team that has two of the best three players in the league on its roster.

The ‘easiest’ way for Portland to make any sort of noise come April is to get all the way up to the fifth seed, creating a matchup with the over rated, underachieving, scum of the earth, garbage fire some people call the Clippers–sorry, I really really dislike the Clippers. This is the most winnable series possible for the Blazers.

Blake Griffin of the Clippers, earned a trip to the hospital in late January after repeatedly punching one of his staff members. Consequently, Griffin broke his fourth metacarpal in his shooting hand. Nobody truly knows when he will return to the court, and when he does it’s likely that he won’t be the same player. Not playing competitive basketball for that long can take a real toll on conditioning, and on top of that he will have to relearn how to shoot–kind of an important skill if you want to be a good basketball player. Griffin’s injury combined with the fact that DeAndre Jordan will never have postseason success makes the Clippers the preferred choice in the first round.

So far, Portland has had one of the most entertaining basketball teams this season. Originally, the Blazers were predicted to be the second worst team in the NBA, only to the lowly 76ers. Obviously this isn’t the case, the organization has turned a rebuilding season into a serious push for the playoffs and they pulled it all off while still having flexibility in the future, either through the draft or free agency.

The Trail Blazers organization has built a team that Rip City can be proud of.

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