Trail Blazers' stretch run will go long way in determining commitment to current core

Trail Blazers guards C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard with head coach Terry Stotts (Getty Photographs)

There are all the time whispers and rumblings, and Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum is conscious of them. Within the two years earlier than this one, Portland has carved out an id as a reasonably good offensive staff and a so-so defensive workforce, and the outcomes have been predictable. The Trail Blazers gained forty one video games final yr on their way to a postseason spot, and forty four video games in 2015-sixteen, once they slipped into the second spherical of the playoffs by knocking off an damage-battered Clippers workforce.

That’s led to hypothesis that Portland, over the wage cap and sitting on two years of hefty contracts for Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless ($39 million for the trio subsequent yr, and $forty one million in 2019-20), would ultimately have to deal both McCollum or fellow star guard Damian Lillard in order to diversify the roster.

The pair is signed by means of 2021, slated to make $50-60 million per yr mixed. It’s not straightforward to construct a real contender with half the obtainable cap area spent on guards, nevertheless it’s the place the Blazers at the moment are.

However McCollum shouldn’t be so positive we’ve seen the perfect from this Portland bunch.

“Everybody has a proper to their very own opinion,” McCollum informed Sporting Information. “I feel that we reside in an period the place the artwork of the unknown scares individuals. However I feel, persistently, we have now gained. Clearly, we haven’t gained a championship, however we now have made the playoffs 4 straight years in the Western Convention. We made it to the second spherical — that is solely our third full season enjoying collectively.”

It’s solely the primary full season collectively for the Blazer backcourt alongside middle Jusuf Nurkic, acquired final February in a commerce from Denver. Earlier than Portland determines what to do with the Lillard-McCollum mixture — any change that massive will come a lot later — it should determine on the destiny of Nurkic, a restricted free agent this summer time. With out one other roster transfer, the Blazers will be solely about $10 million beneath the posh tax, making Nurkic a troublesome signing.

But Portland is in place for considered one of its greatest finishes in years, which makes the subsequent few weeks essential. This has been a franchise struggling to set up its id since LaMarcus Aldridge left in the summer time of 2015, and the shut of this season gives a great alternative for the Blazers to increase themselves in the combination of West groups, and maybe solidify the standing of the Nurkic-McCollum-Lillard trio because the group’s basis.

Since ending a 3-recreation dropping streak in mid-January, Portland has gone thirteen-5, the fourth-greatest report in the league in that stretch. That’s introduced the Blazers inside a 1.5 video games of the third seed in the West, going into Thursday’s recreation towards the Timberwolves — the current holder of the third seed, however dealing with an prolonged stretch with out star guard Jimmy Butler. Portland has some robust foes in the subsequent 12 video games, however 10 of these come at residence.

“We perceive what’s at stake for the second half of the season,” McCollum stated. “We perceive how good a variety of totally different groups are in the West. A whole lot of video games will be essential.”

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In making the playoffs the final two seasons, the Blazers have adopted a irritating sample. They’ve gotten off to terribly sluggish begins and wanted to barnstorm their way into the postseason with robust finishes. Sometimes, that has meant accelerating their offense and dragging their protection from poor to common.

Final season, they completed 17-6 to make up for a 24-35 begin. Their offense went from 106.5 factors per one hundred possessions (thirteenth) to 111.three, and their protection improved from twenty sixth to tenth during the last 23 video games, thanks in giant half to the acquisition of Nurkic.

Two years in the past, it was a lot the identical. Portland was 15-24 in early January, with an offense rated twelfth (102.9 factors per one hundred possessions) and a protection rated twenty fifth (a hundred and five.5). The Blazers closed 29-14, with the offense leaping to fifth ( in that span, although the protection did not see a lot enchancment (a hundred and five.7).

This yr, even through the group’s early struggles, Portland by no means fell under .500. In the event that they’re accelerating into the sort of stretch end they’ve had the final two years, then, the Blazers are inside vary of reaching 50 wins for simply the 14th time in franchise historical past. (At present, they’re on tempo for forty seven.) Of their final 18 video games, the Blazers have been eighth in offensive effectivity (109.5) and eleventh in protection (a hundred and five.three).

Lillard has been far more environment friendly in that stretch, upping his scoring from 24.eight factors to 29.three per recreation and capturing forty.eight % from the three-level line (34.7 % in the primary forty three video games). Nurkic has been simpler, boosting his capturing (from forty six.four % to fifty two.eight) and rebounding (from 7.9 to 9.three) in the final 19 video games. McCollum, as traditional, has been regular, staying above forty % on three-pointers and averaging higher than 21 factors per recreation.

That’s the Blazers’ greatest trio, the closest they’ve received to a “Massive Three.” There’s hope in the potential of rookie massive man Zach Collins, who might change the roster’s dynamics as he develops. However the basis might, ultimately, want to be damaged up, both by splitting the backcourt, letting Nurkic stroll this summer time or each.

A lot will depend upon how Portland handles the approaching six weeks. The Trail Blazers are in a a lot better stretch-run place than they’ve been in any season of the McCollum-Lillard pairing, with a No. three seed and 50 wins inside attain. A robust end and an excellent playoff run would make it extra doubtless that the group pays up for Nurkic and commits to the core.