The Portland Trail Blazers Clinch Playoff Berth After Win Over OKC
On July 4th, 2015, Lamarcus Aldridge left the Portland Trail Blazers, leaving the team in store for yet another rebuild. Aldridge leaving was supposed to leave the Blazers roster depleted and barred. Instead, the Trail Blazers clinch playoff berth and will be playing in the post season.
With a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday, the Blazers have officially clinched at least four games in the postseason. After four starters left the team, the Blazers unlikely continued on their winning ways and will be playing much longer than experts thought.
How did this team exceed expectations and become the first team to ever make the playoffs only returning two players that logged over 1,000 minutes the playoff season prior? Well, that answer would be two things, the rise of the back-court play, and Neil Olshey’s off-season moves.
The Ascension of Lillard and McCollum
When it was announced that the Blazers would be losing Aldridge last summer, star point guard Damian Lillard quickly made a phone call. It was to his future starting back-court teammate, C.J. McCollum, and he simply said “This is our team now, we need to do what we need to do.”
The Trail Blazers clinch playoff berth wouldn’t be a thing if not for McCollum’s rise into one of the premier shooting guards in the NBA. He is without a doubt going to win the Most Improved Player award, with numbers like a 14.1 points per game increase, and averaging over 3.2 more assists per game as well It is undoubtedly true that McCollum is now a key piece for the future of this team. This season he has doubled his career attempts in three point field goals and is showing his most accurate season from beyond the arc, shooting 42 percent.
Shooting numbers like that bode well when you have an all-star point guard alongside you. It was known that for the Blazers to get many wins this year, Lillard would have to improve on his game and take it another step further.
His play has risen this season, and in many ways. Lillard is currently fifth in the NBA in scoring, at 25 points per game. Not only has his scoring been a key factor in his improvement, but his passing numbers have improved as well. Lillard is now involving his teammates much better than he ever has before, which is proving to be important because of the talent that has been around him his first three seasons. Lillard is averaging almost seven assists per game this season. Defensively, there is still much to improve on. The same goes for McCollum, but if they can keep steadily improving, we may be looking at the second best back-court duo in the NBA.
Front Office Moves
Lillard and McCollum are not the only reasons why this team will be playing past the regular season. Executive of the Year candidate Neil Olshey is another huge reason why. Just as the clock struck midnight and opened free agency, Olshey quickly got to work.
The Blazers signed Al-Farouq Aminu the moment free agency became available. His deal is now looking like a bargain, a 4-year-30 million dollar deal for a wing player that can defend the best player on any team and provide a spark offensively. Take Wednesday nights game against the Thunder as an example. Aminu provided 27 points, 3-8 shooting behind the arc and spent the night routinely covering Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant. A player like this should not be making just 7.5 million a year, but that is a great job on Olshey’s part securing him for this deal.
Olshey also traded for Mason Plumlee, a move that many fans did not like on draft day. Fans were excited about young prospect Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and many were clamoring for Meyers Leonard to be the starting center. Bringing in Plumlee, at the expense of a young prospect on a rookie deal, may have seemed like a head scratching move for some, but Plumlee has turned out to be a great asset going forward and should be a Blazer past his current contract.
Portland has defied some huge odds this year and will hope to raise expectations even more with a strong post season showing. The Blazers may have been great this year, but what are the chances that this team becomes no different then the Phoenix Suns? (A team that exceeds expectations so quickly that the front office did not know how to handle themselves)
The concern is that no matter how good this Blazer team does with the team currently constructed, will it be enough to land any major free agents? For a franchise that’s biggest free agent signing over the last ten years is Jamal Crawford and Andre Miller, the Blazers will either have to figure out a way to continue to groom the talent they have, or how to convince key players to come to Portland.
If the Trail Blazers figure out how to do one of those things, this one surprising season may not be a fluke.
Either way, as it stands right now, the Portland Trail Blazers clinch playoff berth and we are ready to see what they can do in the post-season.