PORTLAND, Ore. – It’s 5:15 p.m. when Terry Stotts emerges from the Trail Blazers’ locker room and steps into what have become increasingly friendly surroundings. It’s Thursday, and in a couple of hours the Blazers will take on the Cavaliers, though lately the date and opponent haven’t mattered much. At least not for these 15 minutes. A coach’s pregame media availability is typically a mundane exercise, with local media there to check on injuries or lineups or to flesh out a story, visiting reporters digging into familiar narratives, and cameras there to pick up the sound bytes.
For Stotts, many of the questions are familiar. How do you explain this team’s improved play? On Feb. 11, the Blazers were blown out at home by Utah. They haven’t lost since, a 13-game winning streak that has catapulted Portland into third place in a crowded Western Conference playoff field.
Stotts’ answers are consistent. He credits the defense, improved since the All-Star break and ranked in the top five, per Basketball Reference, for the first time in Stotts’ six seasons in Portland. Jusuf Nurkic — a trade deadline acquisition last season — has solidified the middle. Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless and Evan Turner have been solid on the perimeter. Ed Davis and rookie Zach Collins have developed a nice chemistry playing together in the frontcourt.
Stotts is asked about Damian Lillard and the All-Star guard’s rise to MVP-level performer. Stotts is quick to point out Lillard’s post All-Star break play — 29.3 points per game — isn’t anything new. “Dame took off for us at the end of last season,” Stotts said. Still, a reaction to Lillard’s staggering scoring numbers is a routine request.
“I think he’s always been very confident,” Stotts said. “I think he’s playing with a poise, certainly a will and a determination that he’s always had. But I think he’s very in control of what he wants to do.”
He’s asked about the Blazers’ place in the conference and (sometimes in roundabout ways) Portland’s ability to contend with the West’s elite. And this is where the topic gets interesting. There are things you know about the Blazers: They are a playoff team — Portland has made the postseason each of the last four years. They have an elite backcourt; Lillard and C.J. McCollum are among the NBA’s best scoring guards, good for totaling 50-plus many nights. They have a solid bench.
They are good. But can they be great? As Portland winds down another strong regular season, that question looms larger than ever.
In a first-floor office inside the Trail Blazers’ practice facility, Neil Olshey leans back in a padded chair in the center of the room. Portland’s general manager is dressed in team sweats. Behind him an oversized white board covers one wall, a large glass window that looks out onto the practice floor makes up another. Olshey is a youthful, 53-year-old executive, excitable with the energy needed for a job that requires long hours of scouting talent and mining the world looking for it.
It’s been six years since Olshey bolted from Los Angeles to take over the Blazers, leaving a Clippers team he rebuilt from the ashes around Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. His tenure in Portland has been marked by bold moves, some good (drafting Lillard and McCollum, mid-major guards that have become cornerstones of the franchise), some bad (the Blazers’ free spending in 2016 — handing out $350 million in long-term contracts — has crippled Portland’s cap flexibility). But Olshey survived the defection of LaMarcus Aldridge, stole Nurkic from Denver and turned a team that won 28 games in 2012 into a fringe conference contender.
In fact, that the Blazers didn’t play at this level to start the season was surprising. Portland brought 12 players back from a 41-win team that went 18-8 to close the season. A late season injury to Nurkic prevented the Blazers from being anything but first-round fodder, but the skilled big man was back and had a full training camp to work with his teammates. And yet Portland struggled to start the season, hovering around .500 by New Year’s.
“I don’t know — I can’t put my finger on it,” Olshey told Yahoo Sports. “I mean, we were always a playoff team. But I did think we all believed in the continuity coming in and the success that we had at the end of year and the commitment the guys made. They were here all summer. And honestly, our first 20 games we had the easiest schedule in the league and we really didn’t capitalize on it. I don’t know if it was complacency, that we felt like we could kind of get over the top in certain games because we were more comfortable because of the way we finished.
“It was weird because we had a top-five defense for the first 20 games, but our offense just wasn’t jelling. Like we just weren’t playing at a really high level, we weren’t shooting the ball well, we weren’t shooting enough threes, we weren’t finishing at the rim. It was odd because it was a total juxtaposition from having a top-five offense and a defense in the 20s to the reverse.”
If there was an upside to struggling, Olshey says, it’s that it created an opportunity for experimenting with the rotation. Harkless as a starter. Three-guard lineups with Shabazz Napier in the mix. Collins and Davis together. The mixing and matching of rotations early has given way to the steady rotation Portland plays with now.
“Not to trifle, but we made lemonade a little bit in that we weren’t playing well anyway, so there was no downside to experimenting and seeing individually who was going to outperform the other guys in the roster,” Olshey said. “Because the variance between starter and rotation player and, you know, role player to rotation guy on this team is really narrow outside of Dame, C.J. and Nurkic. So it gave Terry a window into, ‘OK, who really … who’s going to help us win?’ You know, ‘Who do we need to play?’ Like I said, now we’re seeing the results. We’ve got our 10 guys who we’re going to war with every night. We’ve been really consistent so they’ve jelled. Everybody knows where their minutes are coming from and that consistency has led to a confidence.”
The Blazers are a trendy pick for an overhaul, with critics citing the possibility that the Lillard/McCollum Blazers have plateaued. The buzz around splitting the duo peaked in January, when it was revealed that Lillard met with owner Paul Allen. Lillard insisted there was no trade demand, and Olshey called it a non-issue. Still, it didn’t stop rivals from checking in.
“Everybody’s looking for a crack in the dam, right?” Olshey told Yahoo Sports. “There’s always the, ‘Hey, blah, blah, blah, checking in. We like such and such.’ They’ll pull some name, right? Then it’s, ‘If you’re ever going to do anything with Dame or C. J., we’d be really interested.’ It always comes from some team who doesn’t have anybody even close to Dame or C.J. Look, it’s not going to happen. I mean we’ve proven they can play together. You know this narrative that people come up with, ‘Well you have to do something with one of them.’ No, we don’t. Why? We’re winning, they play off of each other great, they complement one another. When one’s off the floor, the other can take on the other’s responsibilities. It doesn’t hurt us defensively. We’ve got a top 10 defense. What are people talking about? So if C.J. was two inches taller this wouldn’t be a conversation, right? I mean, it’s the most ridiculous thing. We’re very lucky to have two guys from small schools that we drafted, that willingly signed extensions because they wanted to be here.”
But does something need to change? The Blazers are the NBA’s hottest team and, barring an injury in the final weeks, will enter the playoffs at full strength. A first-round series win followed by a dogfight against Golden State would be enough evidence to continue down this path. But what if Portland suffers another first-round flameout?
“It’s a great question,” Olshey said. “I think once you get into the playoffs there’s so much situational impact. I think you have to take into context not just the outcome of the series, but, you know, who were you playing? What was the style of play? How were they playing coming into this series versus how were you playing coming into the series?
“So I think you have to factor in everything. It’s no different than looking at a prospect or a draft guy. It’s not just the workout, it’s not just the interview, it’s not just live scouting, it’s not just tape. So I think you’ve got to factor in the entire season. How you were playing when you were playing well. What groups played well. So I think there’s a lot.”
Jusuf Nurkic dressed slowly in front of his locker last week, an ineffective seven-point, 10-rebound effort in 19 minutes against Cleveland still hanging over him. Days earlier, Nurkic was all smiles, as his 27-point, 16-rebound performance powered the Blazers over Miami. Then, he was the player for whom Portland traded: skilled, powerful, a defensive lynchpin. Against the Cavs, he was something else.
It’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Nurkic, and Portland’s future — both this season, and beyond — could hinge on the development of the 7-foot, 280-pound pivot with the talent to rank among the top centers in the league. Portland practices tough love with Nurkic. Lillard has attached himself to him. On the bench, if Nurkic tries to excuse a lazy play, Lillard will cut him off. On team flights, Lillard will occasionally plant himself next to Nurkic and watch all of his minutes. McCollum says he’s used “a lot of curse words” with Nurkic, especially when he isn’t seeing maximum effort.
“We need [the Miami] Nurk every night, not the Nurk that’s doing flip shots and not always paying attention and not locked in the way he should be,” McCollum told Yahoo Sports. “We know what [Nurkic] is capable of. Anything less than that is unacceptable.”
Stotts has been particularly tough on Nurkic. In practice he gets after him, players say, and he’s not shy about bluntly answering reporter’s questions about a subpar Nurkic effort. To his credit, Nurkic has embraced it, praising Stotts for the trust he has shown in him and declaring that improving “is what it’s all about.”
“Terry deserves a lot of credit for finding what pushes his buttons,” Olshey said. “Some guys you got to hug, some guys you got to kick in the butt a little bit and he’s found a really good balance of when Nurkic needs the support and when Nurkic needs to be held accountable and called out for the inconsistency.
“Everyone forgets, [Nurkic] is a young guy. It’s his first year as a full time starter. I think what happened is that everybody on the outside looks at Nurkic as this established veteran guy, but in here he’s a guy on a rookie scale. So you’re not going to treat him any differently than you would treat Zach Collins or Caleb Swanigan or Meyers Leonard or anybody else because he hasn’t totally earned the right to have the ebbs and flows without being called out on it yet.”
The good Nurkic returned on Sunday with a 17-point, 12-rebound, four-block line against the Clippers, and the Blazers hope there is more of that to come. An emerging Nurkic — who will be a restricted free agent this summer — coupled with a dynamic, 20-something backcourt gives Portland the firepower to compete with Golden State and Houston now and emerge as their heir in the years to come. Draft well, build around the core and Portland’s time will come. The path to the next level has never been clearer.
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