A few years ago, the Portland Trail Blazers looked like a team that was on its way to becoming a true contender in the Western Conference. They had an established All-Star in LaMarcus Aldridge, a budding All-Star in Damian Lillard and a solid cast of supporting players such as Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and Robin Lopez.
During the 2013-14 season, they won 54 games and advanced to the second round of the playoffs where they fell to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs. The following year, they won 51 games but lost in the first round to the Memphis Grizzlies.
It pretty much blew up after that.
Aldridge left as a free agent to the Spurs, Matthews to the Dallas Mavericks, Lopez to the New York Knicks and Batum was traded to the Charlotte Hornets. They looked like a team in position for a high lottery finish. Instead, C.J. McCollum broke out, a couple of underrated free agent signings such as Ed Davis and Al-Farouq Aminu paid off and the Blazers finished with another winning season and a playoff appearance.
This year, they’re firmly in the mix for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Not just that, they’re actually a contender for home court advantage in the first round. They’re currently in fourth place in the West, a half-game up on the Denver Nuggets, and two games behind the Spurs for third.
Just like during the 2015-16 season, their success this season, at least recently, has come largely in part to a couple of unheralded players on the roster. Head coach Terry Stotts has tinkered with the rotation a bit, inserting fourth-year forward Noah Vonleh and third-year forward Pat Connaughton in the starting lineup.
Vonleh was put in the starting lineup permanently back on Nov. 18. Before that, he was part of a rotating contingent with rookie Caleb Swanigan at starting power forward following an ankle injury to Aminu on Nov. 1. Since then, the Blazers have gone 5-2 with Vonleh showing the potential that led the Hornets to make him a lottery pick in the 2014 draft.
During that stretch, Vonleh has registered double-digit rebounds in four of those games. He’s shooting 54.2 percent from the field, a career-high. He’s also had solid showings on the defensive end. In a recent win over the Knicks on Nov. 27, Vonleh did a good job defensively on Kristaps Porzingis in the fourth quarter, limiting his touches and staying in front of him.
While Vonleh is doing the dirty work defensively and on the glass, Connaughton has thrived offensively. Prior to this season, he had never averaged more than 8.1 minutes per game. He spent most of his first two seasons sitting on the bench.
This season, he’s up to 19.1 minutes per game and was put in the starting lineup on Nov. 24 to replace the struggling Moe Harkless. In the four games he’s been a starter, he’s put up 9.3 points per game on 65.9 percent shooting from the field, and 35.4 percent from three-point range.
He’s given the Blazers an option to space the floor in the frontcourt as neither Vonleh nor starting center Jusuf Nurkic are particularly adept at outside shooting. The Blazers are 3-1 with Connaughton in the starting lineup, and he’s so far proving to be more consistent on the offensive end than Harkless had been.
It’s unlikely that the Blazers end up challenging the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, and probably the Spurs for Western Conference supremacy this season. But for a team that essentially rebuilt on the fly, they’ve done a pretty solid job. They should make the playoffs, and depending on how much of a boost their new starters give them, might find themselves hosting a playoff series for the first time since 2009.
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