The Portland Trailblazers have more than exceeded expectations this season and are currently 2 games above .500 with a 30-28 record, good enough for the seventh seed if the playoffs were to start today.
Portland was supposed to be a lottery-bound team since they essentially lost their entire starting unit over the summer. They lost All-Star center LaMarcus Aldridge and starting shooting guard Wes Matthews to free agency. The team also traded do-it-all forward Nicolas Batum. When the dust cleared, only point guard Damian Lillard was left holding the bag and with it, the hopes and dreams of an entire franchise.
Fast-forward to February 2016 and the Trailblazers have won 15 of their last 19 games. They have scored convincing 30+ plus wins against powerhouses Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. Portland has a shot at the sixth seed since they are only a half-game behind the Dallas Mavericks and with the loss of Memphis center Marc Gasol to injury, they may even find themselves at fifth in the overall playoff standings.
They are becoming a team that no one wants to play since they bring a mixture of youth, speed, and athleticism to each game. The primary reason for their resurgence is the coming of age of Lillard who is averaging career bests in scoring (25.1 points) and assists (7.2) in his fourth NBA season. He has assumed the leadership role vacated by their veterans. Another factor is the rise of off-guard C.J. McCollum who is averaging a whopping 21.1 points per game, a significant 14 points more than his last season average. Together with Lillard, they form one of the most exciting and explosive backcourt tandems in the league. McCollum is definitely in the running for the Most Improved Player Award.
Portland is also getting solid contributions from everybody else. Third-year Allen Crabbe is becoming a reliable swingman while Maurice Harkless is bringing a lot of energy playing the power forward role. Big men Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee are also contributing on defense and rebounding.
That the team has rededicated itself to defense despite its troubles at the start of the season can be attributed to the vision of coach Terry Stotts. Reportedly, Stotts implemented a new system of rigorous exercises. Result, players are staying more after practices for conditioning, shooting, and more drills. This is clearly seen in the past few games, as Portland has been able to shutdown opponents with ease. Stotts is also using a flexible rotation wherein he has a core but gives more minutes to players who are showing more effort on the defensive end.
Portland has 24 games to go – an eternity in NBA basketball – and they will be playing a grueling 17 teams who have winning records which might dash their playoff hopes. Still, I can no longer count the Trailblazers out with their impressive performances in the past several games. If they keep it up, they may just find themselves in a good spot come April.