Trail Blazers 115, Kings 108: The Blueprint is There
Portland opens the season with a win in Sacramento.
Well, this is different.
Not just different from the lethargic, disjointed Trail Blazers of the preseason that even the ever-patient Joe Cronin and Chauncey Billups admitted concerned them. What happened in Sacramento on Wednesday night was a departure from every team of the Damian Lillard era.
When was the last time a Lillard team got out in transition like this? When was the last time he had this many athletic wings who can switch? When was the last time Lillard could shoot 5-for-18 from the field and 1-for-8 from three and the Blazers didn't get run off the floor?
In their season-opening win over the Kings, you could start to see what the idea is here. The three players that won them the game—Josh Hart, Jerami Grant and Justise Winslow—were the centerpieces of the three high-profile trades Cronin has made since taking over as general manager last December. The "Chauncey Billups style" the organization has preached as the goal of this newest retool came into sharper focus.
The Rose Garden Report is a fully independent, reader-supported publication. Purchasing a premium subscription unlocks exclusive content and helps make the coverage of the Portland Trail Blazers the best it can be.
At one point during the particularly dark early stretch of last fall, when Billups was calling out his team's effort nightly and looking completely in over his head as a first-year coach leading a tired, stagnated roster, he said after one game that there are "ways I'm willing to lose."
The Blazers won on Wednesday night, but even if they had lost it, this was the kind of game where you could easily envision Billups saying afterwards that this was a way he'd be willing to lose. Lillard shot badly but got to the rim and set up teammates. They battled when the Kings got hot from three in the second quarter to erase an early 14-point lead. (Last year's team would have blown that lead and spiraled to a 25-point blowout loss.) Billups' decision to close with an ultra-small lineup featuring Winslow at center paid off.
It was one game, but nothing they did well felt fluky or unsustainable. If anything, the outlier was Lillard's shooting struggles, which aren't going to continue. This wasn't the same kind of bad Lillard night we saw last year before he was shut down. Physically, he was getting where he wanted and attacking the basket, but missed shots. He'll be fine.
If there was one thing that should be concerning to take from Wednesday's showing, it's the same thing that's been widely accepted as the Blazers' weakness since the summer: they have no frontcourt depth. Jusuf Nurkic did a nice job protecting the rim, but he was near unplayable on the offensive end of the floor for all the predictable reasons. He still appears unwilling to go to the basket with force even when he has a size advantage over his defender, and when his offensive liabilities forced him out of the game, the Kings got whatever they wanted inside.
Two-way signee Olivier Sarr would have had a real case to earn minutes tonight if he wasn't hurt, which is a bad place to be for a team trying to compete in the Western Conference. They could survive it against the Kings; in the next week, they'll be facing teams with Deandre Ayton, Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic up front. What then? The Winslow-at-center lineups work in small bursts, but that's not a full-time strategy. This is going to be the Blazers' nightly problem until at least Dec. 15, the unofficial opening of trade season.
Speaking of rotation things, consider this a mea culpa on the "Shaedon Sharpe isn't ready for real NBA minutes" thing. He couldn't have had a much better debut across the board. Billups is going to have to find minutes for him every night, which will get tougher whenever Gary Payton II is cleared to return. It's a good problem to have for however long they have it—again, circle Dec. 15 as the day when some of these questions might be answered.
It wasn't perfect, but the new-look Blazers' debut serves as proof of concept. There's something here. It now becomes a question of how long it takes to unlock it, and who's still around when they do.