Five things for Blazers fans to be thankful for this Thanksgiving
It's Thanksgiving Day, and the Portland Trail Blazers are sitting in a pretty position with the second-best record in the Western Conference. This was unexpected, and in and of itself is something to be thankful for on this holiday.
But this Blazers season has held a few other surprises outside of just the win-loss column. As such, I thought it was time to take a step back to decide just what we should give thanks for as the Trail Blazers take to the court each night in 2018-19.
Here are the five things I am thankful for as our eyes turn to turkey, stuffing, and more gravy than I’ll ever publicly admit to eating.
The health of their stars
Ever since the Blazers caught the Clippers in a bad way a few seasons ago in the playoffs, the narrative around Portland has been that they’ve largely been bereft of major injuries. That's partly true. Most of the top players for the Blazers — Lillard, McCollum, Turner — haven't missed significant time due to injury. Everybody plays more than 65 games a year it seems, and only Aminu has missed real time since 2015.
The reality is that this team has battled through myriad injuries. Lillard with his knee this year, and formerly plantar fasciitis, a hamstring pull, and a calf issue. Turner and Leonard with shoulder injuries of their own. Harkless with his continued knee pain. McCollum with whatever happened to his right knee, prompting a PRP injection this summer. The list goes on. Jusuf Nurkic broke his damn leg. Just because the Blazers haven't had a catastrophic injury, doesn't mean this team hasn't been banged up.
Their ability to play through the pain and get treatment has been a blessing.
The attitude of the locker room
If there is anything the Portland ownership knows, it's that the city would not tolerate another team of high-performing outrageous characters like they did at the turn of the century. Since drafting Brandon Roy, leadership in the front office has tried to construct a team built around players who, at least to fans, appear virtuous.
Lillard is the logical continuation of that plan and has worked out fantastically for Portland, not just on the floor but in the locker room as well. Lillard came into his own after LaMarcus Aldridge departed for San Antonio, and this season has shown what “inclusive leadership” can do to boost on-court performance.
For lack of a better term, the Blazers have put together a team of Good Dudes™ and it's made it easier to cheer for them the season. Plus, winning helps.
This team just keeps on winning
Something happens to me every 18 months or so, when I'm puttering around the Basketball-Reference page for the Blazers. I end up on the overall franchise history page, and as I look for playoff results or some other kind of year-over-year stat, the sheer number of wins this franchise has racked up will catch my eye. This organization is a winner, flat out. It always has been, and it’s what gives credence to some of the more PR-style professions by Neil Olshey at the beginning and end of seasons.
The fact is, Portland has won more than 40 games 23 times over the last 30 seasons. That’s an insane record that other “small market” teams just can’t match.
These statistics are sometimes hard to sell it in an era where just about every team seems to have some idiotic mantra of “championship or bust.” Give me sweep over suck any day.
There have been reports that ownership considered letting Stotts go at the end of last season after the disastrous result against the Pelicans in the playoffs. Even without the benefit of how well this season has started, I think that would have been an overreaction.
Considering the reworked offense and the careful rearrangement of his highest paid players, I think Stotts have proven himself to once again be in the top third of NBA coaches.
Stotts has been able to adapt to his surroundings this year in a way that supports his continued employment. He no longer has a favorite like Ed Davis around, and he famously leans toward veteran players in his time of need. But Stotts has been gracious in integrating Zach Collins into lineup, and indeed has expanded his rotation as needed where before it was notoriously short.
There was a moment during Portland's 100-94 win over the Celtics where Lillard drove down the lane, and amid a crowd, stepped through with an up-and-under move to grab a tough score. In front of two screens and a keyboard, I involuntarily said out loud to myself, “God damn he’s so good.”
As a professional sportswriter and a longtime Blazers analyst, I usually try to take a less enthused and more controlled view of the team. It’s my job. But Lillard has found another gear each and every season he's been in Rip City, and this season is year is no different. Sometimes, it’s just too hard to ignore that or to express my appreciation any other way. In addition to his leadership, Lillard is a stellar on-floor star who adds something new to his game each season and that continued self-improvement is why he remains a truly special player.
By my estimate, I’ve watched 95% of the minutes that Damian Lillard has played on an NBA floor in his career. I'm thankful I get to keep doing that. I hope you are, too.