After a down season where the team was somewhat dismantled and the future appeared a bit bleak, the resurrected Portland Trail Blazers have come out the gate as hot as any team to start the 2022 NBA season. The Blazers are making noise early with a retooled roster, with the heart of their team rejuvenated, and coach who in his 2nd year has proven with his game planning and his handling of the rotation that he’s more than just a former NBA finals MVP.
Although it has only been one week, the Blazers are 4-0, taking down the Sacramento Kings in their season debut and the Phoenix Suns in their home-court debut. The Blazers then traveled to Los Angeles to outlast LeBron and the Lakers before returning home to put a hurt on the reigning two-time MVP in Jokic and his Nuggets. There are various factors that are reasons for the Blazers’ success early on; the three most important are Lillard’s return to form, the team’s defense, and the depth provided by the new-look roster.
Dame Time is Back on the Clock
Damian Lillard is back. The long-awaited return from rib and abdominal injuries has come to an end and by all indications Lillard hasn’t missed a step. He dropped 20 points in his first game back, then followed that up with back-to-back 41-point bombs, and then continued his onslaught with a smooth 31 points on in his most efficient outing so far this season. Against the Denver Nuggets, he shot 62.5% from the floor (57.1% from deep) to go along with 8 assists and 6 rebounds.
Lillard is averaging 33.3 points per game and is second in total points so far with 133. He’s in a tie for third in points per game with Steph Curry and is the only one of the top 5 scorers whose team has a perfect record. Although the undefeated streak will no doubt eventually come to an end, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to imagine Lillard staying on a pace to average nearly 30 points per game, like he did in the 2019-2020 season.
This is all coming with new teammates on his roster, where he’s sharing the burden of creating shots with backcourt running mate Anfernee Simons and newly acquired forward Jerami Grant. Both Simons and Grant have stepped up by sinking the eventual game-winners in two games so far, proving that Lillard trusts his teammates. However, his clutch three pointer which propelled his team to victory over the Lakers shows that Lillard is still capable of making tough shots of his own.
Lillard has traditionally been in the MVP conversation; however, for one reason or another, his name tends to fall further down the list by the time the voting is conducted. In the past that had been due to a variety of factors: injury, the inevitable comparison to Stephen Curry, or simply that other big names in bigger markets were creating more spectacular plays or leading their teams to more dominant records; however, this year’s race for MVP feels more wide open to a larger field of candidates, including Lillard. Voter fatigue may come into play with the last four MVPs including two back-to-back winners (Jokic and Antetokounmpo). Two-time runner-up Joel Embiid has the best narrative in place to win this year’s award, but a lot will depend on his team’s performance, particularly his effectiveness playing with guard James Harden, and if his health allows him to play enough games. If Lillard continues to be a scoring engine while leading a top defensive unit and the Blazers maintain a top seed in the West, an equally compelling narrative could develop for Lillard as the perennial All-NBA player leading a surprise contender and the MVP could become his to lose.
A quick turnaround – Blazers leading a top-ranked defense
So far, the Blazers are boasting a 107.6 defensive rating, good for 9th in the league according to Statmuse. Even before their fourth game, the Blazers had a top-five defense, according to NBA.com. Jusuf Nurkic has been a force on the boards, so far averaging 12.3 rebounds per game. Josh Hart has also been a welcome addition to not just the team, but the starting lineup, pulling down 10.3 boards per game so far. He’s currently third in the NBA in rebounding percentage for players shorter than 6’7″.
The real treat on defense, however, has been Justise Winslow, who has been tasked with guarding all five positions at various times and has more than held his own.
“That’s just what I do,” Winslow said to the Oregonian. “One through five, it doesn’t matter who it is. Just go out and do my job.”
Winslow missed the Blazer’s matchup against the Nuggets, yet the Blazers still came out on top. The team stepped up on defense without even having their full roster healthy and at their disposal. Defensive specialist Gary Payton II hasn’t yet suited up for the team this season and backup forward/center Trendon Watford also hasn’t been available. When both of those players return and provide depth and energy, the Blazer’s team defense will elevate even further. Coach Chauncey Billups and his staff have done a great job so far putting the players in positions that play to their strengths, finding moments for each of them to take a bit more responsibility and expand their game, and finding combinations that work where the players complement each other and which force the other team to shift some of their focus away from Lillard.
The best roster to surround Lillard so far?
Although he isn’t matching up with any former All-Stars, the argument could be made that so far, on paper, this is the best roster top-to-bottom that Lillard has played with to date. He still has an undersized shooting guard alongside him; however, he’s very high on Simons and his abilities. Simons has been Lillard’s protege since he got on the roster and his more consistent productivity over longer stretches is clearly a result of all his hard work.
Grant has never been an All-Star, however, his run in Detroit showed that he is more than capable of spearheading a team on his own for stretches while his time in Denver highlighted his above-average defensive skills, his willingness to take on tough assignments, and his ability to blend in with star players.
Lillard has loved playing with Hart, so having him in the starting lineup makes sense. During the Blazers-Nuggets broadcast, commentator Lamar Hurd noticed that Hart gives the team a playmaker and ball-handler on the fast break, turning Lillard and Simons into trailers who can hit transition buckets in a way they haven’t been able to before. When Hart runs the offense, Lillard, and Simons almost simultaneously become off-ball shooting guards, running around Nurkic screens to get open looks. Nurkic has been a top rebounder and although his defense isn’t close to top-tier, his offensive playmaking skills are valuable to this Portland team.
Off the bench, Winslow has been huge in defensive matchups and whatever he provides on offense is a plus. Rookie sensation Shaedon Sharpe has been even better than advertised, fearlessly showing off his athleticism, shooting range, and general offensive prowess during his first taste of NBA action. Once Payton II and Watford round out the rotation, this team will feel more complete. Nassir Little is still a developing asset on both sides of the ball, and Drew Eubanks has proven himself as a decent backup center in a pinch.
This team may be poised for some big trades this season depending on how the rest of the NBA landscape pans out; however, the best move for this team right now might be to make no move at all. If this team continues to develop chemistry and hustles hard, the sky truly is the limit for Rip City.