On Friday superstar point guard Damian Lillard signed a massive two-year, $122 million extension, committing to Portland through the 2026-27 season. While I’m not surprised by his unwavering loyalty, it had me thinking about the ceiling of this Trail Blazers team.
First, you have to believe that Dame can be the guy on a championship team. He’s a top ten player when healthy, but up to this point in his career, he hasn’t had much playoff success. Most of that disappointment can be pinned on roster construction though, as Dame has only had one All-Star teammate during his tenure in Rip City (LaMarcus Aldridge). Therefore I think it’s right to assume you can build a championship roster around him.
That being said, how good is his current supporting cast?
There’s a lot riding on Anfernee Simons. The young guard broke out this past season, showing that he has All-Star appearances in his future. The problem is that he’s 6’3″, and small backcourts haven’t been a recipe for success in the past. Portland moved on from C.J. McCollum to try something different but replacing him with Simons means they once again have two undersized elite scorers who struggle on defense as their best players. I think Simons will be better than McCollum, so I’m not counting the new tandem out, but the writing on the wall is that they might not work out.
However, looking at the other pieces, I’m feeling a little more optimistic this time. Gary Payton II, who Portland signed to a three-year deal in free agency, will help patch the backcourt defense hole. Payton is excellent on that end. His ability to pick pockets and clamp up earned him All-Defensive votes this past season. He’ll likely be able to play alongside Lillard and Simons because he plays like a forward on both sides of the ball (Steph Curry called him the biggest 6’3″ guy in the league).
Speaking of new acquisitions, Jerami Grant is one of the best players Dame has shared the court with. The 2020-21 breakout star provides versatile play on offense and defense. He can guard the opposition’s best player while scoring 20 points, something the Blazers haven’t had in the Lillard era. I’m excited to see Grant in a red and black uniform.
The X-factor for this Portland squad is 2022 draftee Shaedon Sharpe. He hasn’t played since high school (injury is holding him out of summer league) so it’s a mystery how good he’ll be right away. If Sharpe can come out of the gates as a starter-level player that would be a huge boost for the team.
Other key guys include Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, and Nassir Little. The squad is solid overall, but is that enough?
The Western conference is insanely stacked. The Warriors, Suns, Grizzlies, Mavericks, Nuggets, Clippers, Timberwolves, Pelicans, Jazz, Lakers, Kings, and Blazers are all looking to compete, and only eight of them can make the playoffs.
Even if the odds are stacked against them in an ultra-talented West, I’m not writing off Damian Lillard and company. They are in a position to make some real noise this upcoming season if everything falls in place.