Everyone knows I’m a Knicks fan, ride or die. Many of you know that I go nuts for everything NBA. Pretty sure I couldn’t host a weekly hour-long NBA talk show otherwise. What not many people know, however, is that I have another favorite team in the league. No, I’m not a front-runner rooting for the Cavs, Warriors, Thunder, or Spurs. My team is the Portland Trailblazers.
Going back to my first season of NBA obsession, 2010-11, I always saw something to like about the Blazers. Brandon Roy, before his knees buckled, was a polarizing player with incredible handles and range. Nicholas Batum emerged as a versatile wing. Gerald Wallace provided a mid-season injection of toughness in 2011 that continued into 2012. Marcus Camby was the defensive old-man glue. Wesley Matthews was 3-and-D’ing before it became a huge thing. Even the thought of watching Raymond Felton after he was traded there was enticing. And of course, the rock during it all, LaMarcus Aldridge, playing his way into All-Star fame as a fundamentalistic, mid-range shooting big that could pack a punch in the paint.
They may have lacked in considerable depth, but the Trailblazers’ lineup just made sense, basketball-wise. Each guy brought something different to the team. And Aldridge was really the go-to key cog that made everything work. He was the undisputed cornerstone of the team.
And then came Damian Lillard.
Out of any time of the NBA year, draft season is probably my least knowledgeable. 2012 was no different. Even better, I had won a contest through Foot Locker to attend SLAM Magazine’s NBA Draft Suite, where I would meet all these prospects about whom I hadn’t much a clue, outside the big names. And hailing out of DIII Weber State University, Damian Lillard was no big name. So, as I sat in the Draft Suite early on, waiting for the prospects to show, I read insights and watched highlight video after highlight video, trying to get a feel for what each player brought to the table.
Man, did I admire those videos of Lillard. What’s not to like about a dynamic, scoring point guard like that? And with him, it seemed like it wasn’t about putting on a show. Basketball was business, and he was about getting it done. The small-school background certainly helped. And meeting him was cool, but more than anything, it was those videos that cemented my Lillard fandom.
You couldn’t have picked a better team for him to go to than the Blazers, either. Coming off the Felton massacre, they desperately needed production at the point. And he sure as hell delivered. Summer League that year validated my fandom, as Lillard took co-MVP honors. When Fantasy season rolled around, I took him fourth or fifth, and reaped the benefits. Over the course of the 2012-13 season, he showed himself to be more than a viable player for the Blazers, with toughness, a no-nonsense attitude, and the early signs of a clutch gene that enamored the nation a year later.
I was certainly happy when Lillard took home Rookie of the Year honors, but my fandom for him and the Blazers held no candle to my #knickstape repping during the 2012-13 campaign. At that point, the Blazers didn’t reach the postseason, while the Knicks were outperforming expectations under Mike Woodson. Regardless, a special liking for the Blazers kindled that season, between watching Lillard and Aldridge, and playing lots of NBA 2K13.
By far and away, the Blazers were my favorite team to use in that game. Especially with the core four of Lillard, Aldridge, Wes, and Batum. It wasn’t necessarily the kingpin of Aldridge’s game, but I was so good with the Blazers’ power forward in the post. Every time down, I’d either run through the defense with Lillard and figure out a play from there, or throw it to Aldridge in the post, and end in a post score or a pass out to the three-point line. I had one very memorable game against a friend where I tied the game with an Aldridge three, and then won in overtime with a Lillard buzzer-beating three. Then, in January 2013, I helped organize an NBA 2K13 tournament at Extra Butter in Rockville Centre. Not shy of the competition (all picking front-runner teams), I went with my gut and picked the Blazers. Sure enough, my calculated, far-from-rushed play won me the tournament, though me now would have given me then a stern talking-to about keeping the difficulty on Pro. I think, if anything, that victory as the Blazers served as my pledge of allegiance to the team.
From that point on, things have been on the up for the Blazers. On my show, I was hopeful that Portland would make a jump, but wary to put them in the playoff picture. Then, in the 2013-14 season, the Blazers shocked the NBA, going 54-28, becoming this incredible feel-good story, and even leading the West at points. Lillard’s dominance and clutch were really starting to show themselves, Aldridge was playing consistent All-Star basketball, and Terry Stotts’ system had the Blazers running in high-gear. It was incredible to see: a team marred by injury problems and bad luck for God knows how long finally coming to fruition. When Lillard was named an All-Star, I was even happier. And though they didn’t end up positioned as high as the overachieving Knicks the year before, I couldn’t have been more thrilled to see how much internal improvement the Blazers had.
I bet you’re wondering how I felt when Lillard sinked that three over Parsons to clinch the series win against the Rockets. I’m sure wondering what my live reaction would have been. In my biggest sports regret yet (and this’ll take the cake for a while), I slept through the last six minutes of that game. I woke up in the middle of the night and registered that the Blazers won the series when I looked at my phone, but when I heard how it went down, I was taken aback. Lillard was really really real. I wouldn’t be shocked if I had run from end to end in my dorm out of sheer excitement.
The Blazers may have lost in the second round to the Spurs, but it was great to see a team like that beat the bitch-made Rockets. And hopes were now high for this group, so much so that Aldridge declared that he wanted to be “the greatest Blazer ever.” At that point, I was ready to see them go all the way. And with Lillard’s buzzer-beater against the Thunder on their opening night of the 2014-15 year, it was as if things kicked right back off from where they were. The Blazers went on to torch through the start of the season, with Wes Matthews especially emerging as a high-performing 3 & D wing. Iron Man was starting to get national recognition.
Though as the season dragged on, the Blazers ran into some awful luck. Just on the cusp of trading for Arron Afflalo, who would have served as a glorified sixth man, Matthews tore his ACL. Then, Afflalo got injured. They were already dealing with a slightly affected LaMarcus Aldridge, who was playing through a thumb injury. And sure enough, after having a 40-19 record previously, they went 11-12 to finish the season post-Matthews injury, much lower than Western Conference playoff standards. Nobody had the Blazers pegged to do some post-season damage, and sure enough, they were swiftly eliminated by the Grizzlies in the first round.
As the NBA Playoffs rolled on, I didn’t think much about what could happen to the Blazers. I knew Aldridge, Matthews, and Lopez were free agents, but it didn’t quite register how different the Blazers could end up looking after the offseason. That is, until reports came out that it was highly unlikely for Aldridge to return. Throughout all of the changes and commitments of the core (Batum trade to the Hornets, Matthews signing with the Mavs, Lopez and Afflalo signing with the Knicks, and Aldridge to the Spurs), I could only help but feel pity for the Blazers franchise. It seemed like they had something special going on, and once again, a major injury killed those chances. Plus, it’s likely that this caused them to look in the mirror and consider the new direction.
First things first, I’m excited to have Robin Lopez on the New York Knicks. Dude is humble, but has a loud personality. Plus, he contributes to “the little things,” like boxing out opposing players so that the team can secure rebounds. Our last major defensive center did damage in the blue and orange, and I expect a similar impact from our newest big man. Arron Afflalo, especially on his deal, is a nice pickup too, and hopefully someone who can lead the Knicks to higher respect, or even a playoff berth. And it’ll be interesting to see how Batum and Matthews fit in on their new teams.
Of course, the most interesting new team story will be that of LaMarcus Aldridge, who will be trying to do the impossible in succeeding Tim Duncan in San Antonio. While the task is huge, it’s amazing that Aldridge, not a shy Duncan admirer by any means, will be the one to do so. As a fan, it’s unfortunate to hear some of the ego-related issues that came out, and I really wanted the old core to achieve high, but I’m looking forward to seeing how Pop and Duncan refine Aldridge’s game, and how a star player like that adjusts to the Spurs’ system.
And that leaves Damian Lillard, my favorite player in the league, and the linchpin of the Portland Trailblazers’ future. I’ve been thinking in general how I feel about the breakup. In the immediate, I was dismayed to see the group that I’ve followed for the past few seasons separated, and Lillard on an island with a five-year extension in Portland. But then I thought again, and realized that, at the point where Lillard is now, stars either make themselves or succumb to the pressure. Lillard made the All-Star Game by the skin of his teeth last year. With undisputed pole position in Portland now, his game could very well take that leap to the next level, and he wouldn’t have to worry about an All-Star fringe appearance again in that case. I’m beyond excited for Lillard’s next chapter with the Blazers. I’m hopeful that he becomes the next all-time great point guard of the current era. He’s right about there currently, but can take it up a notch even further. I know it.
So, Blazers fans, NBA fans, and seemingly random onlookers, just know that though the Blazers have taken a step way back in the present, they have a bright future with the kid out of Weber State University. I know it. Barring injuries, which is hard to say when talking about the Portland Trailblazers, we may see the team competing again sooner than later.