By Mackenzie Bruno
Damian Lillard’s underrated NBA career is often overshadowed by the lack of success the Trailblazers have in the postseason. But make no mistake, Dame is determined to bring a championship to Portland, and wouldn’t want it any other way.
So why is the Portland Trailblazers early season 4-1 start so surprising? Despite returning almost the same roster, the team failed to make the playoffs last season. They only won 27 games and lost 55. They ended their regular season ranking 13 out of 15 in the Western conference, ultimately questioning if Damian Lillard would request a trade or stay with the team.
The key to their impressive start to the 2022-2023 NBA season is due to their improved defense and combination of young and veteran talent kickstarted by Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons. Consistent scoring is also helping the Trailblazers, something they didn’t have last season, especially from the inside and in transition.
The Trailblazers offense is led by veteran star Damian Lillard, who is currently averaging 31.0 points per game, shooting 49.5 percent from field goal range. As impressive as Lillard’s numbers are, he ranks seventh on the NBA scoring leaders list, behind players like Luke Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo who are averaging 36.3 and 36 points per game. Anferee Simons, the first round draft pick for Portland in 2018 is proving to be a valuable sidekick to Lillard, putting up 18.6 points per game.
Jusuf Nurkic has always anchored the Trailblazers defense, but this year he seems to be taking on a bigger offensive role as well. The 6’11 center took a season high 12 shots the other night against the Denver Nuggets, and for Portland, this is a good sign that they are headed in the right direction to becoming more aggressive all-around on offense. Nurkic is averaging just over a double double with 10.8 points per game and 11.6 rebounds a game.
An important pickup in the offseason for the Trailblazers was power forward Jerami Grant. The 28 year old who was traded from Detroit to Portland has been huge for the team thus far this season, contributing 15.8 points per game giving the Trailblazers yet another boost in their lineup. Rounding out the starting lineup is shooting guard Josh Hart, making all five starters averaging over ten points per game. Hart is an impressive rebounder, averaging 9.4 rebounds a game as a guard.
Unfortunately, Damian Lillard will be out for Portland after suffering a calf strain against Miami on Wednesday. Lillard will be reevaluated in one to two weeks, which will put the rest of the Trailblazers starting lineup to the test to see if they can keep up their early season success and continue to win without Lillard.
Coach Chauncy Billups, former NBA champion and all star, said in a post game press conference after beating the Lakers, that along with Damian Lillard’s shot making ability, the team’s defense is what allows them to win close games. Billups will have to make adjustments to his lineup in coming games with Lillard’s absence, but he appears confident in his team’s abilities, stating, “We got a group that just won’t give in…” Portland’s shocking start might just be the underdog story all NBA fans would love to see after a season of struggle. Damian Lillard’s desire to win an NBA championship for the only team he’s ever called home is looking like it could finally become a possibility this season.