The narrative goes like this: In a league where superstars change teams like journeymen, Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard is an outlier. Portland loves him because he has made himself part of the community, taken on the challenge of winning there and stated that he wants to be the best Blazer ever. He is a true leader, and, instead of complaining about his supporting cast, he seems uninterested in sympathy or shortcuts.
The cruel irony is that, by avoiding the team-hopping that fans supposedly hate, Lillard keeps having to explain himself. No, he doesn’t have anything against the stars who have joined forces because they value rings above all else. No, this doesn’t mean he cares any less than they do about winning, nor that he wouldn’t welcome other elite players to Portland. Lillard is extremely invested and involved in the organization — in January 2018, he sat down with late owner Paul Allen and asked, among other things, why the Blazers had traded Will Barton three years earlier — and he feels loyal to the city. As long as he sees that the people around him are committed to taking the next step, he will keep plugging away.
This story keeps getting told because, for players of his caliber, there is a natural tension between “loyalty” and maximizing an inherently short career, and Lillard can be easily contrasted with his peers. You don’t need to know what a drag screen or a mini-MLE is to understand that he is a superstar who has never had a realistic chance to compete for a championship but has produced iconic memories anyway, that the Blazers are a perpetually good team with no obvious path to becoming a great one, that the praise they receive for their resilience and professionalism can come off as patronizing.
Fans outside of Portland might not grasp what last year’s run to the conference finals meant there, and they might not accept that the Blazers can be simultaneously proud of what they’ve done and hungry for more. Their offseason, though, is a reflection of just that — after signing extensions, Lillard and CJ McCollum will be back, making most of the plays in Terry Stotts’ offense, but just about everyone around them will be either new or a familiar face in a different role.
Gone are Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless, the versatile if unspectacular forwards who held the defense together and mostly got out of the way on the other end. Evan Turner has been replaced by Kent Bazemore, presumably because Turner hurt their spacing and they plan to let Anfernee Simons and the re-signed Rodney Hood handle the ball more. Free-agent additions Anthony Tolliver, Mario Hezonja and Skal Labissiere are wildly different bench players who could all potentially play some power forward. If the 39-year-old Pau Gasol earns a role in the rotation, it will be backing up Portland’s biggest wild card: Hassan Whiteside.
Lillard and McCollum (or McCollum and Lillard) have been first and second on the team in total minutes for four straight seasons. On last year’s list, though, Nos. 3 through 7 and 9 through 11 are all now playing elsewhere or, in the case of Jusuf Nurkic, sidelined with a leg injury. No. 13, Enes Kanter, was vital in the playoffs and is gone, too. Zach Collins could break out in 2019-20, or the 21-year-old big could look uncomfortable next to Whiteside. Simons could be the third scoring threat they’ve needed, but, I mean, he’s 20 and he has barely played professional basketball. And I have no idea what would constitute reasonable expectations for Hood at this point. Portland has seemed somewhat conservative over the past few seasons, but it has now given up much of its continuity, trying to bash its way into the league’s top tier.
“There’s been a lot of change, but from a skill set standpoint what we need hasn’t changed. Rodney Hood played a lot of minutes late in the season — he’s a starter. We need a shot-blocking rim protector, finisher in the lane — Hassan steps right in as a starter. Pau behind him — Pau knows what the role is going to be. Baze, same thing — the energy guy off the bench [and] he’s going to have a significant role. Adding guys like Anthony Tolliver is a big-time fit for us. We were vulnerable as far as our corner 3-point shooting. The floor kind of shrunk a little bit for Dame and CJ in the Golden State series. They were really able to take our pick-and-roll game out of it. But now having that threat in that corner is going to force players to stay home defensively as opposed to playing free safety, essentially triple-teaming our pick-and-roll. – Olshey
What could have been
The Blazers could have made Collins the starting center instead of going after Whiteside. They could have re-signed Aminu, who wound up going to Orlando on a three-year deal worth about $30 million, and essentially accepted the status quo until the Cleveland Cavaliers decide to get serious about trading Kevin Love. Alternatively, they could have aggressively looked to make a blockbuster move, dangling McCollum and Collins, but that would be a pretty radical thing to do after a 53-win season and a trip to the conference finals.
Taking the temperature
A hypothetical conversation between someone who thinks the Blazers are on the rise and someone who doesn’t
Optimistic fan: We’ll get to the additions, but I’m pumped about the young guys. I keep thinking about how Collins started last season, and how much better he should be now that he’ll be getting the minutes he deserves. I might actually be higher on Simons, though. I want to make everyone who is underestimating the Blazers sit down with me and watch his 37-point game and his summer league highlights as I scream incoherently.
Skeptical fan: Simons is certainly intriguing, but you’re getting way ahead of yourself. All of the hype around him is based on tools, not production. (I do not count Game 82 last season and a few summer league games as real evidence of production.) I’m more into Collins, but he wasn’t all that great after the hot start you mentioned and I hate that he has to share the frontcourt with another 7-footer.
Optimistic fan: What, you want Collins defending Nikola Jokic? I like that they’re not making him the full-time starting center, and I am assuming he’ll be the 5 in the second unit (and maybe at the end of close games, too). The important thing is that they’ve opened up playing time for him. Anyway, about the actual moves: Whiteside makes a lot of sense because of the Nurkic situation. Bazemore is a better fit than Turner. Hood’s contract is great value. Tolliver’s net rating is going to be off the charts—
Skeptical fan: Hold up. Is there anything you didn’t like?
Optimistic fan: No! Listen: I like Hezonja’s moxie — this is the first time he’s going to have a defined role on a good team — and Nassir Little‘s upside and I haven’t given up on Skal. Oh, and I obviously love that Dame and CJ signed extensions.
Skeptical fan: Well, I agree about Lillard and McCollum. But the move that matters here is getting Whiteside. He’d been on the trade block forever, and I remember all the stuff he said coming into last season, which, uh, did not turn out the way he envisioned it. I get the theoretical boxes he checks and I don’t think you’re crazy for wanting them to protect Collins, but I can’t get on board with this. This team is about to take a big step back on defense without Aminu and Harkless, and I’ve always seen Whiteside as more of a block-chaser than a legitimate defensive anchor.
Optimistic fan: You’re underestimating the foundation the Blazers have and the environment he’s walking into. Part of the reason I feel good about Whiteside is I remember all the skepticism about Nurkic and Kanter fitting in. Stotts gets the most out of players, and, just like everybody else, Whiteside is going to love playing with Lillard.
Skeptical fan: If you want to believe Portland has magical powers when it comes to integrating players, that’s your prerogative, but typically non-stars who change teams see a decrease in value. Nylon Calculus’ Andrew Johnson’s research on this matter was convincing enough for ESPN’s Kevin Pelton to tweak his SCHOENE projection system. That system, by the way, projects the Blazers to finish eighth in the West.
Optimistic fan: It had them finishing eighth last year, too! My whole point is this stuff never takes into account the Blazers’ infrastructure.
Skeptical fan: I’ll put it this way: Against the Clippers, are Hezonja and Hood guarding Kawhi and PG? I’m not sure that infrastructure you’re talking about matters as much as the holes on the roster.
“[Simons] is not currently the best basketball player I drafted,” Olshey told SB Nation’s Michael Pina. “He’s not the most functional player that I drafted at the time of the draft. But just in terms of his natural gifts at his age, and his God-given talent, it rivals anybody else that I’ve drafted in my career. Now, I don’t know if he’ll reach that ceiling as a player and put it all together, but the things that you basically can’t teach, in terms of just intrinsic talent, he has.”
Some players Olshey has drafted: Lillard, McCollum, Blake Griffin and Eric Bledsoe. After what was essentially a redshirt season, Simons is easily the most fascinating player on the roster. He represents possibility.