All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge and highly versatile wing Nicolas Batum have been joined by budding star Damian Lillard in a new core that is taking Portland places (Image | Getty)

All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge and highly versatile wing Nicolas Batum have been joined by budding star Damian Lillard in a new core that is taking Portland places (Image | Getty)

On November 13th 2013, the Portland Trail Blazers entertained the Phoenix Suns at the recently renamed Moda Center (rest in peace, Rose Garden) in a matchup of two teams widely expected to tank this season, with eight or 10 other teams, in search of landing top spot in the best NBA Draft in a decade.

Except the Suns, who had beaten Portland on NBA opening night in the desert, were 4-2 by then and had only lost in road games against Oklahoma City and San Antonio, both times by seven points or fewer.Portland, meanwhile, were 5-2 and were on their way to building an early-season 11-game winning streak which propelled them to the summit of the Western Conference.

If that wasn’t surprising enough, try this – the Blazers are still there. At 26-7, Terry Stotts and his unassuming yet all-conquering squad are almost in a dip the past two weeks. Entering the new year, Portland had lost three of six, including their first losing streak of the season between Christmas and New Year… a one-point home loss to Miami and a two-point road defeat in New Orleans.

How to respond? Try beating the inspired Kevin Durant and the Thunder at home. Then, to ring in the new year, Damian Lillard and Wes Matthews lit some fireworks of their own, smoking the Charlotte Bobcats for 134 points and setting an NBA record by hitting 20 or more three-pointers for the second time in a season.

Lillard, who is shooting 45% from behind the arc in his second NBA campaign, was 9-13 from the field and 6-6 from three-point territory Thursday night. Matthews was 5-6, while Nicolas Batum and reserves Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Will Barton all added at least two.

The Bobcats, who focused their limited defensive resources on keeping LaMarcus Aldridge to ten points, seemed to accept giving up the long-range jumper, allowing Portland to shoot an impressive 21 threes at a frankly insane 64% hit rate.

That choice is the same as most teams have had to make facing the Blazers this season. Do you allow Aldridge to dominate the game from the block and rack up the points on his soft hooks and mid-range shot, or crowd the lane to stop Aldridge and Robin Lopez but surrender the three-point line? At the same time, you’ll have to account for the fact that Lillard looks to get to the rack at every opportunity.

If you force the ball out of his hands, Batum is the best passing forward in the NBA (behind the obvious Miami star). The younger members of the team – Lillard, Joel Freeland, Thomas Robinson – are growing in their different roles and responsibilities faster than expected. And if the collection of shooters Portland has put together already isn’t enough, let’s remember that the Blazers’ #10 draft pick C.J. McCollum, a fine scorer in his own right, hasn’t played a second of competitive action yet.

Robin Lopez' presence at center has significantly strengthened the Blazers' interior presence (Image | AP)

Robin Lopez’ presence at center has significantly strengthened the Blazers’ interior presence (Image | AP)

One other addition which has changed the team’s outlook is the arrival of Lopez, a defensively oriented genuine 7-footer who has taken a great deal of weight off of Aldridge’s shoulders. Last season, the athletic but undersized JJ Hickson wrestled manfully with centers four inches taller and 40 pounds heavily with him on a nightly basis. That hustle earned Hickson a reasonable contract with Denver, but by facilitating the Tyreke Evans trade and tossing a couple of future second-rounders, Portland was able to get a sizeable upgrade at the center spot.

Looking ahead, there are two major concerns for the Blazers if they are genuinely to mount a post-season campaign. Firstly, the lack of genuine depth up front should be a concern; neither Freeland nor Robinson are particularly experienced at NBA level and neither could be relied upon to lock down Dwight Howard or Marc Gasol for 20-25 minutes if required.

Second, and more concerning, Portland are highly dependant on the creativity of Lillard and the post scoring of Aldridge. Take either away, and you have an up-tempo squad with a lot of shooters, but not much penetration and very little inside scoring. All teams are reliant on their stars to some extent, but this squad are leaning more heavily than any of their conference-leading rivals.

For now, though, let’s revel in one thing. Portland has been ravaged by injuries over the past few years. Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, who, had they stayed healthy, would be one heck of a trio with Aldridge by now, have been lost. A succession of GMs from Kevin Pritchard through to present occupant Neil Olshey have steered the club through difficult times, drafting successfully the last couple years and slowly building a new team around Aldridge and budding star Lillard.

Their work is beginning to come to fruition.

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