“The Blazers won’t be the worst team in the West, but a playoff spot is pretty much out of the question.” — AJ Neuharth-Keusch, USA Today.
“If nothing else, the Blazers can move through this season with confidence that they have a player worth building around. They will need that feeling, too, because the Blazers figure to be pretty bad.” — Eric Freeman, Yahoo Sports.
“There are tweaks, there are tinkers, and then there are facelifts. What the Blazers went through cosmetically this summer falls well into the latter category, enough to make all of the plastic surgeons in Hollywood jealous. … Yes, when folks get a facelift, it’s for the better. This one is for the worst.” — Shaun Powell, NBA.com.
To say expectations were low for the Portland Trail Blazers this season is a bigger understatement than saying Rose City residents like microbrews.
There were sorrows to drown after the Blazers saw four fifths of the starting lineup leave after two straight years of making the playoffs.
But here we are at the NBA All-Star break. Portland fans are raising pints and saying “cheers.”
The Blazers are 27-27, a win total that has surpassed the 26 1/2 over-under set by a major Las Vegas sportsbook for the entire season. If you bet the “over,” you’d already be cashing your ticket.
If the season ended today, Portland would be in the playoffs as the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference. Not bad for a team whose lottery chances were being talked about so much you’d think you were at Plaid Pantry when Powerball hits $500 million.
Instead we’ve seen Damian Lillard become that rare superstar who has elevated the young, unproven lineup around him.
We’ve seen CJ McCollum make good on the promise he showed last year to become a budding star.
And most importantly, we’ve seen Terry Stotts do his job at a level that should be recognized as NBA Coach of the Year.
He probably won’t get it. The award will likely go to Golden State’s Steve Kerr or San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich.
But Kerr missed nearly half the season after suffering complications from offseason back surgery.
The biggest adversity faced by Popovich was figuring out how to plug four-time all-star LaMarcus Aldridge into a system that was already a well-oiled machine.
No coach has made a bigger impact on his team’s win-loss record this season than Stotts. He oversees one of the NBA’s youngest rosters with an average age of 24.3 years. He had to incorporate seven new players into a lineup that had only one starter (Lillard) set in stone.
Stotts has also mined deeper into his lineup for significant minutes than any other coach in the NBA. Thanks to Stotts’ myriad rotations, Portland has 10 players who have logged at least 800 minutes this season, which is an average of 14.8 minutes over 54 games.
Only Phoenix, which is 14-40 and has thrown in the towel, has as many players who have logged that level of minutes.
Among teams currently in playoff position, most have no more than eight players averaging that many minutes. San Antonio and the Los Angeles Clippers have nine players at that threshold, but have seen Tim Duncan and Blake Griffin, respectively, miss significant time with injuries.
Players are playing, growing and in some cases thriving. Of the 12 players on Portland’s 15-man roster who are not rookies, eight are averaging more points per game than last year.
Three players are averaging double-digits for the first time in their careers. McCollum is averaging 20.7 points compared to 6.8 last year. Allen Crabbe is scoring 11.2 points per game compared to 3.5 last year and Al-Farouq Aminu is scoring 10.4 points compared to 5.6.
Portland is also learning how to finish games. Before Jan. 1, the Blazers were 3-9 in games decided by five points or less. They have now won their last five games decided by five points or less.
Not all NBA coaching situations are the same. Not all players are exactly coachable. Cleveland is the No. 1 seed in the East despite its players having such a toxic relationship with coach David Blatt that he was fired midseason.
But in Portland, Stotts was put in a position to shape a young, raw group.
And you have to like what is taking shape.
Micah Rice is The Columbian’s Sports Editor. Reach him at 360-735-4548, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @col_mrice.