Trailblazers’ hot streak unexpected but well-deserved

Joe Stuart, Staff Writer

Last July was a very rough month for myself, as well as pretty much any other Portland Trailblazers fan.

In just a few weeks, we would watch as a Blazers team we had grown to love, and the first one to capture the Northwest Division title for the first time since the division formed in 2005, was dismantled, losing four of five starters.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was a move where one of the longest tenured active Blazers, Nicolas Batum was traded to the Charlotte Hornets.

Batum had often been the glue that held the Blazers players together during times of turmoil, losing seasons and coaching changes. One of the building blocks of the last seven seasons was gone.

Then came the bomb that really sent the franchise into disarray, the signing away of LaMarcus Aldridge by the San Antonio Spurs. Look, if we’re all being honest with ourselves, the idea of Aldridge staying in Portland was nothing more than a fantasy.

Aldridge was tired of waiting to win, and he was no longer the true leader of his team, a role taken by the quickly emerging Damian Lillard.

But Aldridge was still a cornerstone of the franchise and is one of the greatest Trailblazers in history. And for a generation of Blazers fans, he was our guy.

He had played his first nine years of his career in Portland. And as we watched Greg Oden become one of the biggest number one overall draft pick busts in history, and Brandon Roy’s knees give out just as he should have entered his prime, Aldridge was still always there, carrying his team.

Then all of a sudden, he wasn’t, and we all knew a new era was coming.

The next move that happened was one that hurt, personally. Portland’s front office let Wesley Matthews walk away and sign with the Dallas Mavericks. Matthews had quickly become, and still is, one of my favorite players in the NBA, and more than deserved the contract he was given by Dallas.

Matthews had been another cornerstone of the Blazers, often the unsung hero, and always sacrificing his body and putting his team first.

And finally, the loss of Robin Lopez. Lopez was not like his fellow starters, players who had been engrained into the very lifestyle of being a Blazer fan.

Lopez had only been with the team for two years but had immediately fit in with the team, and it was more or less the consensus that he was the difference maker, that his play was what was taking Portland to the next level, and making them a possible contender in the ever competitive Western Conference.

Just like that, in one crazy offseason, it looked like the Blazers had gone from a top four team in the conference to possibly a bottom four. I, like many other Blazers fans, thought we were destined for the NBA Draft Lottery. Only one starter remained, Lillard.

Lillard is an amazing basketball player. Continually undervalued and always motivated, he was committed to Portland, as we saw when he signed a five-year contract extension, seemingly the only bright spot in the 2015 offseason for Portland.

But one great player can’t carry a whole franchise, not when his four fellow starters disappear, right?

Boy were we wrong. Now looking towards the final stretch of the season, a team I didn’t think would win 40 games this season is one of, if not the hottest team in the NBA.

Before Thursday’s loss to Houston, which really was a game the Blazers let slip away, Portland had won six straight games, and 15 of their last 18. Lillard, who was snubbed as an all-star, had scored 30 or more points in five straight games, the first player to do that all season.

Heck, Portland came out of the all-star break and blew out the 52-5 Golden State Warriors 137-107.

At the beginning of the season, if you had told me that Portland would blow out arguably one of the greatest teams of all time, I would have laughed in your face before hysterically breaking down into tears remembering how poorly the offseason had gone.

But here we are, 30-28 on the season, and tied for seventh in the conference. But Lillard hasn’t done it alone.

Lillard’s teammates are mostly players who aren’t even old enough to rent a car, or older dudes with not a lot left in the tank.

At $53,017,826, Portland has the lowest payroll in the league, and are definitely getting the most bang for their buck.

This year we saw the emergence of C.J. McCollum, the frontrunner for the NBA’s most improved player.

He and Lillard are now one of the most dangerous backcourts in the league, and have become the third-highest scoring duo in the NBA, behind only Golden State’s Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant and Russel Westbrook.

Down low, Mason Plumlee has become a dangerous force as a true center. Not to mention the development of forwards Ed Davis and Moe Harkless. Allen Crabbe has been as good as any sixth-man in the league, and there’s been valuable leadership from veterans Gerald Henderson and Al-FarouqAminu.

Throw in some excellent coaching from likely Coach of The Year Terry Stotts, and this team is nothing a Blazers fan like myself could have ever imagined.

I love the Blazers, so does most of the Pacific Northwest, and most fans thought this would be a year of watching young players with lots of talent develop and play fun-to-watch basketball.

I never thought we’d watch them have a winning record. Turns out, we get to have both.