Portland fans might naturally be down about the state of this Trail Blazers team. CJ McCollum doesn't look like he's ready to return in time for the start of the playoffs (if at all) and of course, Jusuf Nurkic is out with a broken leg.
Nurkic was arguably the second most important player on the Blazers this season. While some might have had Portland moving into the second round as a dark horse candidate this year, those hopes seemed dashed once Nurkic fell in the second quarter of that game against the Brooklyn Nets.
But this season has also been a wonder, and Terry Stotts has once again lead this squad to more than 50 wins. It's the third time in Stotts’ time with the team that Portland has crossed that mark, and fans are still showing up and cheering their hearts out as the season comes to a close.
For that reason, it only seems fair to point out what we can look forward to as the Blazers move into the postseason.
Here's three things to be excited for as Portland moves toward Game 82.
Terry Stotts keeps coming up with wrinkles
Stotts has made himself a coach of the year candidate this season simply by being more amenable to change. The sometimes hard-headed Stotts has expanded his lineup over the course of the year, not just from necessity of the roster but also because the team needed to expand past where it’s been in seasons past.
Stotts has gone deep with this rotation, particularly in the addition of Jake Layman, Seth Curry, Zach Collins, and Rodney Hood. His rotating bench squad that has worked its tail off to become a productive contributor of the bottom line for Portland, and Stotts has nurtured that expertly.
Even Stotts’ tired old Flow offense has received some tweaks this season. CJ McCollum is in a new role this year as a more pure shooting guard with the first unit, and Evan Turner is now the de facto point guard on the bench.That's culminated in additional options off of the same types of sets, like we saw with this Pistol series that helped the Blazers get a win against the Minnesota Timberwolves (not to mention Turner’s first triple-double).
Perhaps nobody would say it, but with Stotts’ as attachment to wiley veterans and his shortened rotation, there was some question about whether he could adapt to the growing expectations for this team as he approached eight years in Rip City. Stotts has done his duty in that regard, and fans should be happy to have him back next year and beyond.
The bench mob
First, let's just point out that this bench squad is as deep as the Blazers have seen in some time. Portland has always been a top-heavy team, and the problem with that has been the issues that come with starting two small scoring guards as the main stars.
Although some of the advanced statistics haven't individually improved all that much for guys like Turner, others including Layman, Curry, Hood, Kanter, and Collins have all contributed in a way that is extremely useful for Portland when viewed in the aggregate.
No longer is this team susceptible to big swings when its stars check out, which is even more of a wonder given that Stotts decided to pair Damian Lillard and McCollum together more often this season. In fact, when that plan was announced at the start of the year, it seemed like a potential weak point for opponents to attack.
Instead, this bench mob is the ultimate team unit and just about anyone can score at any time without there being much of an ego about when, or who.
Plus, these guys are just fun dudes to watch and to cheer for. You have to love them, and that's something that Portland fans have clung tight to over the past decade-and-a-half. Turner’s the cut-up, the bench celebrations are great, and everyone roots for their teammate without an air of perfunctory obligation.
Portland fans love to root for their bench players. For perhaps the first time in a while, these Blazers backups are worthy of their praise.
Damian Lillard is a damn monster
Lillard’s advanced statistics as an individual haven't jumped all that much. In fact, according to Cleaning the Glass, he isn't really separating himself within his peers at his position.
Lillard’s usage, shooting, VORP, PER, points, free-throw rate — all of these things look pretty similar to last season, give or take a few ticks up or down.
But if you've watched Lillard this season, you know just how big of a impact he’s had.
This team would not be what it is without Lillard, which goes without saying. But I think we’ve ventured into the territory of not understanding just how special it is to watch this guy play each and every night. Indeed, looking at some of his on/off numbers tells the story a bit clearer on Lillard.
The Blazers are up 3.5 points per 100 possessions with Lillard on the floor over last season, and a whopping four free-throw attempts per 100 possessions with him on the hardwood, per pbpstats.com. That could have something to do with McCollum as well, but the point is that Lillard has a significant impact that can't be underrated.
Winning games is nice, but the amount that Lillard has stepped up his game and the fact that he is a guaranteed lock for the All-Star Game each and every season from here on out speaks to just how special it is to have a player like him in Rip City.
This season could feel much bleaker than this, but the combination of smart coaching, a bench that has bought in, and a legitimate superstar should keep Portland fans coming back to watch this team in the postseason no matter what happens or what their odds may be.