Blazers’ Hot Start Fueled By Balance


The Portland Trail Blazers are off to their best start since the 1999-2000 season, a year that was capped off with a Western Conference Finals berth.

For a team many expected to be scrapping for a play-in spot, they’ve turned heads around the NBA. How have they managed to start the season this well?

Dame Time

The biggest key to the Blazers’ success will always be the play of their star, Damian Lillard.

Dame is having an electric start to the year, averaging 33.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game on efficient 50/40/91 shooting splits. He also won Western Conference Player of the Week honors in the first week of the season from the strength of his back-to-back 41-point efforts against the Suns and Lakers.

Back in pre-injury form, Dame has been an offense unto himself, willing the Blazers back into games single-handedly. From step-back daggers, to 30-foot jumpers, to acrobatic layups, Dame has made an emphatic return to play. Although this offensive output may not be sustainable for the entire year, it sets an important tone for the rest of the season.

Supporting Cast

The Blazers’ supporting cast has been lacking the past couple of years.

Given not many other players are able to create for themselves, a lot of pressure was placed upon Dame and CJ McCollum to be the offense. With better pieces surrounding Dame, there has been much more cohesion.

The Anferno

Anfernee Simons has officially stepped up to the role of starting guard and is making his case for becoming a new star in the league.

While Simons’ first couple of games were pretty rough offensively, he’s come up big when the team needed him. His amazing game-winning hook shot over Mikal Bridges was an excellent display of his clutch gene. Not to mention his insane 22-point third quarter against the Denver Nuggets, sparking a comeback to lead his team to victory.

The rise of Anfernee Simons is happening now, and opposing defenses can’t do anything but watch him take over.

Big-Game Grant

The Jerami Grant experience is changing life in Portland.

Since his arrival, he has proven himself to be the best Blazers forward since LaMarcus Aldridge. The size and length he brings with his versatility blows the game wide open every night. His ability to put the ball on the floor and take it to the rim is also a refreshing change of pace.

The main thing that changes with Grant? The team’s ability to be truly versatile on defense. Grant’s size at the four lets him bang with bigger bodies, while his quickness lets him keep up with smaller players. Oftentimes, the Blazers put Grant on the opposing team’s best player, regardless of that player’s position. He’s a big reason why they rank top-10 in the league in defensive rating and for their success today.

Whole Lotta Hart

Josh Hart was a trade deadline addition last year, a part of the McCollum trade.

At the time, it looked like the Blazers got fleeced. They lost a solid 20-point scorer for a 6″5′ forward who was a throw-in to the Anthony Davis trade. However, it’s clear to see that Hart is a player Portland has desperately needed for a long time.

Hart’s tempo on offense creates a dramatic dichotomy from the slow, halfcourt style of the past. With every rebound, of which he grabs 10.3 per game, Hart looks to go on a fast break.

That pace has been severely lacking for the Blazers, who have ranked in the bottom half of the league in pace since 2015.

The defensive toughness Hart brings is also a big part of who he is as a player. The intensity he plays with on defense, whether it’s boxing out or sprinting to a closeout, sets an important example. If Hart remains on this team past the trade deadline, expect him to be one of the main reasons why they’re fighting for a top-five spot in the West.

Defense, Defense, Defense

The last, main point to address for the Blazers is their defense.

To start the year, the Blazers have exhibited massive improvement on that end. From having a league-worst 116.9 defensive rating to a 107.9 rating this year— there’s a visible difference on defense.

The main reason for this dramatic change comes from the shakeup of their roster. The Blazers can now rely on guys like Jerami Grant, Josh Hart, Justise Winslow and soon, Gary Payton II to step up on that end of the floor. In years prior, they only had one or two guys who fit that same mold on the team (e.g., Robert Covington or Al-Farouq Aminu).

Now, they have a band of players who have length and play smart, hard-nosed defense.

With the team seemingly gelling and continuing to improve, it should become apparent quite soon if this new level of play is indicative of how the team will be playing going forward. It’s clear that they’re trying to go in a new, more athletic direction, but they might run out of gas pretty quickly.

For the time being, though, they sit near the top of the league and show no signs of stopping.

About Badi Cross

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