After missing the NBA playoffs last year for the first time since Damian Lillard’s rookie campaign almost a decade ago, the Portland Trail Blazers have kicked off the new season with a vengeance.
They have won four of the first five games of their current six-game road trip and are now second place in the Western Conference with a 9-3 win-loss record. They took their most recent win in impressive fashion, churning out a 106-95 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans despite the absence of Lillard due to injury management.
Winning these games where their six-time NBA All-Star sits out is crucial for Portland. Last year’s poor showing was largely due to Lillard’s abdominal injury that sidelined him for 52 games. It then led to the trade that sent away long-time starting shooting guard C.J. McCollum and triggered speculation that a full rebuild was about to kick off for the Blazers.
Instead, Portland has reloaded and they have managed to go 3-2 so far this season in games that Lillard has missed. A major part of this success has been their improved depth and the emergence of their young prospects.
23-year-old guard Anfernee Simons has found success after taking over McCollum’s spot alongside Lillard. He has blown past his career average of 9.3 points per game in his first nine appearances this year. Simons is averaging an impressive 22 points an outing along with 2.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and one steal.
He has thrived under the mentorship of Lillard and his on-court game is beginning to resemble his more and more as each day passes. His shiftiness, quick release, and ability to pull-up from practically anywhere on the court are all reminiscent of Lillard and could one day open the door to a few NBA All-Star berths of his own.
Their major offseason acquisition Jerami Grant has been a major difference maker for them too. The starting power forward spot has been a weakness for the Blazers following the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015 and Grant is easily the best player that they have had in this role since.
The 6’8 Grant has scored at least 11 points in nine of his first 10 contests with Portland, highlighted by a 30-point outing in their 108-106 win over the Phoenix Suns where Lillard did not play due to a calf injury.
Although Grant’s averages of 18.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 0.7 blocks per game are a step down from his days as the first option on the Detroit Pistons, his shooting efficiency has improved. His 48% field goal shooting is his best since his days as a role player on the Oklahoma City Thunder in ‘17-’18 and his 43.5% three-point shooting is by far a career-high.
In their most recent win over the Pelicans, Grant had another big night with 27 points, four three-pointers, eight rebounds, four assists, four steals, and a block. As previously mentioned, Lillard sat out this game and a pattern is beginning to emerge where Grant jumps from their third option to their first when he is sidelined.
This diversity is what they lacked last year and this trend will have to continue if they want to return to the postseason. Lillard is expected to miss a few games here and there due to injury management while the rest of the Blazers have missed time as well. Only starting small forward Josh Hart and reserves Nassir Little and Drew Eubanks have managed to play in all of Portland’s games so far this early in the season
Lillard may be the only player on this team with an NBA All-Star game on his resume, yet that could change if Simons and Grant continue to excel. If the Blazers can build off this promising start, it is conceivable that these two players could make the roster as a reserve.
Portland has been stellar over the first few weeks of the season, but consistency will be key for them, particularly when Lillard sits, if they want to put last year’s disappointing finish behind them and resume their winning ways.