Blazers

Portland Doing Everything Possible to Maximize Dame Time

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Remember Damian Lillard’s game-winner over Paul George? That was the peak of NBA playoff basketball for the Portland Trail Blazers in the Lillard era:

https://twitter.com/Ballislife/status/1243179724769071113

In 2019, Portland won 53 games and advanced to the Western Conference Finals before getting swept by the Golden State Warriors. This was the furthest the Blazers advanced in the playoffs since 2000

But progress has stalled, and the clock for Dame Time in Portland is starting to wind down.

The Blazers have won 35, 42 and 27 games in the past three seasons. Portland is just 3-8 in their last 11 playoff games. Lillard’s performance has also taken a steep decline since the pandemic-shortened 2020 season:

Lillard’s Regular-Season Stats:

  • 2019-2020: 30.0 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 8.0 APG, 46% FG (20.4 attempts/game), 40% 3PT (10.2 attempts/game)
  • 2020-2021: 28.8 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 7.5 APG, 45% FG (19.9 attempts/game), 39% 3PT (10.5 attempts/game)
  • 2021-2022: 24.0 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 7.0 APG, 40% FG (19.0 attempts/game), 32% 3PT (9.8 attempts/game)

In 2021-22, Lillard played just 29 games before he was ruled out for the rest of the season. 

With Lillard absent, Portland’s season turned into a complete disaster:

Portland finished 27th in both offensive and defensive rating in 2022. The Blazers missed the playoffs for the first time since Lillard’s rookie season. The team lost their last 11 games and finished the season 2-21.

It was Portland’s worst season since 2006

Heading into next season, the Blazers are facing a critical year to return back to title contention with Lillard under contract.

Lillard Doubles-Down on Loyalty to Blazers

Before his injury, Lillard shut down rumors about his future with the Blazers. Now, Dame Time is committed to returning Portland back to the playoff picture for the foreseeable future.

Earlier this month, Lillard signed a two-year, $122 million extension. This comes after Lillard signed a four-year, $196 million deal in 2019.

In the past, Lillard has repeatedly defended his desire to win a title and be a franchise player in Portland.

Now, Dame Time put his verbal commitment to paper. At a minimum, he will be under contract with Portland up until and including the 2025-26 season.

Maximizing Lillard’s prime seems to be Portland’s current goal. But the biggest question is how far Lillard can take the Blazers in the postseason.

Lillard is coming off an injury-riddled year and will be 32 at the start of the next season. In the NBA, superstar guards don’t typically age well as they hit their mid-to-late thirties. The Blazers’ future success depends largely on if Lillard can maintain good health.

Since Lillard became the team’s franchise star in 2015-16, Portland is just 16-29 in the postseason. This includes five first-round exits and being on the losing end of three series sweeps. Other than a somewhat-fluky Conference Finals appearance in 2019, the Blazers are frisky but not capable of deep playoff runs.

With Portland setting their sights on a return to the postseason, the team made some crucial upgrades to help Lillard.

Blazers Commit to Balancing Present and Future

Portland was in desperate need of some more firepower on defense. In the last three seasons, the Blazers have finished 28th, 29th and 30th in defensive rating. 

Specifically, Portland looked to upgrade both forward positions. Last season, they didn’t have a single forward on their roster that was reliable on both offense and defense.

This offseason, Portland addressed their hole at forward by signing Gary Payton II and trading for Pistons’ Jerami Grant.

Payton II had a breakout year for the Warriors as a multi-positional defender that thrived off Golden State’s bench. Despite his limited shooting, Payton II excelled as an off-ball cutter and in transition.

With the Blazers, Payton II gives the team a legitimate defensive marksman that can guard an opponent’s best scorer. Payton’s intelligence off the ball makes him a great fit with either Lillard or the continuously-improving Anfernee Simons:

Simons from 2020-2021 to 2021-2022

  • 7.8 PPG → 17.3 PPG
  • 1.4 APG → 3.9 APG
  • 42% on 6.3 field goal attempts/game → 44% on 14.0 field goal attempts/game

Meanwhile, Grant gives the Blazers a legitimate wing-size player who can guard multiple positions while playing on or off the ball.

In Detroit, Grant thrived in a higher-usage, ball-dominant role. Now playing with Lillard and Simons, Grant can settle into a similar (and successful) role that he had with the Nuggets in 2020.

Portland re-signed Simons and starter Jusuf Nurkić to longer-term deals while retaining wing Josh Hart. Suddenly, a lofty Blazers team from last year is now filled with high-quality, versatile pieces that revolve around Lillard’s skill set.

In the draft, however, Portland focused on picking a prospect based on potential rather than their ability to help the team in the immediate.

With the No. 7 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, Portland selected guard Shaedon Sharpe.

Sharpe hasn’t played competitive basketball in over a year. He was set to play for the University of Kentucky but decided not to suit up.

Sharpe offers tons of potential with his frame, size, athleticism and shot creation.

However, Sharpe is incredibly young and will need time to develop. With the clock ticking down on Lillard’s prime, time is not on the side of waiting for development in Portland.

Then again, the Blazers may be willing to wait on Sharpe to reach his potential given Lillard’s financial commitment to the team.

Regardless, Portland hit a home run in this year’s offseason. On paper, the team’s main core fits seamlessly around Lillard.

But in reality, the Blazers will be facing an uphill climb.

Blazers Stuck in NBA’s No Man’s Land

Heading into next season, the Western Conference is going to be as competitive as ever.

Even with all the roster improvements, it’s tough to see how much better Portland is compared to the rest of the West.

The Warriors and Suns will be top seeds moving forward. The Nuggets and Clippers are entering this season fully healthy and as legitimate contenders. The Wolves went all-in on the present by acquiring All-NBA center Rudy Gobert. The Grizzlies and Pelicans are both young teams looking to make a leap. The Mavericks will always be great as long as Luka Doncic maintains his MVP-level performance.

At their absolute best, Portland is a lower-end playoff seed that barely avoids the play-in tournament. But at their worst, they could be on the very outside looking in.

That begs the question: is history repeating itself with the Blazers in the Lillard era?

The Blazers’ playoff ceiling was limited by starting two gifted scorers who are negatives on defense with Lillard and McCollum. 

The backcourt of Lillard and Simons seems like a new version of the Lillard-McCollum pairing. 

And financially, Portland is locked into this team for the near future. 

Grant is eligible for a four-year extension at around $112 million. Simons and Nurkic are on Portland’s books for four years at a combined $170 million. Hart will likely decline his player option and seek a new deal next offseason. Lillard’s newly-signed max extension doesn’t kick in until 2026.

That is a truckload of money to commit to a team with a limited playoff ceiling.

Then again, maximizing Lillard’s prime seemed to be Blazers’ goal this offseason.

If that’s the case, maybe the roster upgrades are just enough to revitalize Dame Time in Portland. Only actual time will tell.

About Dominic Chiappone

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