This was supposed to be the year the Portland Trail Blazers took a step back. The Blazers had been swept out of the playoffs in the first round for the second straight season, the team lost two important bench pieces in Shabazz Napier and Ed Davis, and the Western Conference added even more depth. ESPN’s projections pegged them for 42 wins, essentially an average team.
And yet, Portland has the third-best record and point differential in the conference, fifth in the NBA, and shows no signs of abandoning its post as a perennial fixture in the West playoff picture. The continued excellence of the Blazers, at least in the regular season, has been somewhat surprising.
We know what Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum bring to the table, but their new supporting cast raised some question marks. Nik Stauskas, despite sporting one of the best nicknames in the NBA, seemed like he could have been on his way out of the league after struggling to earn minutes for the Brooklyn Nets last season. Seth Curry missed the entirety of last season with a stress reaction in his tibia. Jake Layman’s greatest claim to fame was bombing five threes in garbage time of his NBA debut, a blowout loss to the Golden State two years ago, and he’s now Portland’s fifth starter.
But the supporting cast has held its own, even outperforming the starters thus far. The Blazers first five (Lillard, McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu, Layman, and Jusuf Nurkic) has a net rating of plus-7.0 this season, per Cleaning the Glass. The lineups including Curry, Stauskas, and Evan Turner on the floor instead of either All-Star guard are plus-10.1.
Last year, when Lillard and McCollum were both off the floor, Portland was barely above average, but that didn’t happen too often since Terry Stotts chose to stagger his perimeter stars. The Blazers played only 707 possessions last season without the pair, though Cleaning the Glass doesn’t count garbage time, so this number is a little low. Regardless, Portland has already played 358 possessions without either Dame or C.J. on the court through seven games this year.
The primary beneficiary of this new rotation has been Turner, who always seemed like an awkward fit next to Lillard and McCollum because of his strengths as a ball handler. Turner played nearly all of his minutes with one of those two over the last few years in Portland, which marginalized his best skills and forced him unnaturally off the ball. Now, he gets to run the second unit with shooters surrounding him, and he’s been tremendous. In Monday’s win against Indiana, Turner changed the tide of the game in the second half, exposing the Pacers’ lack of wing defense and helping to turn a three-point deficit into a point-point lead before he was subbed out.
The shooters around Turner are also taking care of business. Sauce Castillo had his coming-out party on opening night, scoring 24 points and ruining LeBron James’ Laker debut. He’s been on fire since, shooting 46 percent from the beyond the arc on four attempts per game. Curry is shooting 50 percent from three, although on lower volume. Even Zach Collins, the presumptive Blazer center of the future, has knocked down half of his 12 threes.
There’s been a lot of debate about staggering stars over the years, from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook or Blake Griffin and Chris Paul back in the day, to John Wall and Bradley Beal or Westbrook and Paul George now. Although the league seems to be zigging towards staggering, Stotts and Portland have zagged and have reaped the benefits so far. The Blazer bench has been one of the pleasant surprises of the young season, and the team’s shift in philosophy is a major reason why.