By: Rossy Pasternak
What do all of the players listed above have in common? They all had once together formed the core of the Portland Trailblazers, taking up 4 of the 5 starting positions for the past 2 years, and with the exception of Lopez, even longer. What else do they have in common? They also all left Portland last year, with Batum getting traded to Charlotte, and the rest getting signed away in free-agency.
You would expect a team who lost four of it’s starters to crumble. If the Warriors lost Klay, Barnes, Draymond and Bogut, you would think it’s possible – even probable – that they would miss the playoffs. Then, you would realize Stephen Curry is on the roster, and that doubt will go away.
The Blazers are victims of such a brutal tear-away of their core that people counted them out. Experts predicted that they would be near the bottom of the standings. I predicted that as well in my season-opening predictions. We were all wrong. We forgot one main thing about the Portland roster – they still had Damian Lillard. We also forgot that the roster behind Lillard was full of young players biding for minutes and waiting for their chance to shine. Players like C.J. McCollum and Myers Leonard, who are both recent first round picks of the Blazers. Then Blazers GM Neil Olshey did something really smart – he brought in young players who had something to prove. Players like Ed Davis, Maurice Harkless, Mason Plumlee, Al-Farouq Aminu and Noah Vonleh. He also added vet Gerald Henderson to help mentor the team along with Chris Kaman. Most importantly, he kept coach Terry Stotts, who has developed great chemistry with this team.
Stotts is lucky, he has a backcourt who together average 46.9 ppg. Most importantly, he has a player who is out to prove to everyone in the league that he is underrated, and that they should never count him out. Damian Lillard is a player with a huge chip on his shoulder. Lillard finally had his chance to lead his team when Aldridge left, but then his team was stripped to the bone. This follows barely getting recruited after high school and settling for small-school Weber State. It follows being snubbed for the all-star game last year, and to make matters worse, he was snubbed again this year. No one in the league has more to prove against Lillard, and arguably, no one has proved as much as he has. Lillard has come to play when he faces off against the league’s elite. When he faced off against the best PG in the league, Steph Curry, the first game after the all-star break, he went for 50 pts and gave the ‘Dubs their 5th loss of the season. When he played arguably the best PG in the East, Kyle Lowry, he burned Lowry for 50 pts, leading the ‘Blazers to another upset victory. If the chips are against you, there is no one in the league I would rather have on my team than Damian Lillard.
Lets not forget about his backcourt mate, who makes this duo one of the best in the league after Steph and Klay. C.J. McCollum. McCollum had his coming out party in last season’s first-round matchup against the Grizzlies. With Wes out, McCollum had to step up – and he did. He single-handedly kept the Trailblazers in games while Lillard and Aldridge were resting. He continued that success in a starting role this season, and is averaging 20.8 pts, 3.4 rbs, and 4.2 ast per game. Another small school product, coming out of Lehigh, McCollum has proved naysayers wrong. A lanky 6’4. McCollum is able to use his big wingspan to finish above and around defenders near the basket, which plays perfectly with his mid-range and 3-point attack. McCollum is a threat from all over the floor, which means his defenders have to play him tight at all times. This is huge, as it opens the floor for Lillard to attack the basket. Teams have to pick their poison, as one of Lillard and McCollum will always be with the ball and ready to attack, or dish to the other if the help comes.
So, how do you be a team in playoff contention after losing 4 out of your 5 starters the previous year? Simple, you bring in players with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove to the league. You have a coach who lets these guys play, and teaches them how to control their energy and harness it into one of the best attacks in the NBA. Oh, and you have to have on of the best scoring point guards in the NBA.
Do you agree with us? Disagree? Comment your opinion in the comments section! And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook!