Minutes after the Blazers found out LaMarcus Aldridge was bolting for San Antonio, breaking apart one of the league's most polished starting lineups, C.J. McCollum's phone rang. It was Damian Lillard.
"He basically told me, 'This is our chance to show everyone -- our coaches, the whole league, everyone -- that we can be elite together'," McCollum told ESPN.com.
Lillard's brand of quiet, empowering leadership was a big reason the Blazers were confident they could rebound from the departure of Aldridge, Robin Lopez, Wes Matthews, and Nicolas Batum -- the last of whom left in a trade that Neil Olshey, Portland's GM, began discussing two months before Aldridge left. McCollum still remembers how much it meant when Lillard plopped down next to him on the team plane in February 2014, after McCollum, then a rookie who barely played, dropped a season-high 19 points on Minnesota.
"'You have to play like that every time you get a chance,'" Lillard told him, according to McCollum. "'Because believe it or not, it's gonna be us together in the backcourt here for the next seven or eight years.' And that was when I was fighting for minutes."
It sounds hokey, but Lillard legitimately inspires his teammates, and the Blazers understood he was too good for them to tank. You tank to get stars, not alienate the ones you already have by punting their prime seasons.
"We already had a star that was an incredible natural leader," Olshey told ESPN.com, "and quite honestly, he was held back from taking that kind of role because he was trying to make it work with veterans."
Olshey never tried to sell Lillard on bottoming out. "When you have a star good enough to single-handedly win you more games than organizations playing for the draft, it's pointless," Olshey said. "But we could ask him: 'Can you be a bit patient?'"
Olshey sought a middle way: Jump the market on veterans around Lillard's age, sign them to long contracts that would look cheap as the cap boomed, and remain lean going forward. The Blazers wouldn't make the playoffs in the brutal West, but they wouldn't be awful, either -- the perfect sweet spot, considering Portland owes Denver its first-round pick, via the failed all-in deal for Arron Afflalo, if it falls outside the lottery.
Whoops. The Lillard-McCollum Project has worked better than even Olshey expected. Portland is the best NBA story outside Oakland -- a selfless, hard-charging group that has blitzed to a 17-4 record since early January and seized a playoff slot that looked hopelessly above their pay grade two months ago. They might lose that pick after all, in what would appear a crippling blow for a rebuilding team that needs young players and trade chips. The play of Will Barton and McCollum makes the sting worse: If they were ready to back up Matthews last season, the Blazers acquired Afflalo for no reason.
But the Blazers aren't sweating it.
"If we had a bunch of veteran mercenaries, the pick would be a major loss," Olshey said "But with one of the youngest rosters, the value of playoff experience far exceeds getting a guy at the end of the lottery."
"From a competitive perspective, the guys don't want us to have that pick," McCollum said, laughing. "That is someone coming in to take your job."
The Blazers are so far ahead of schedule, rival executives are fretting they will turn into the next version of Phoenix -- the would-be sad sack that exceeds expectations in Year 1 of a rebuild and burns its long-term plan in a fit of irrational win-now exuberance. That worry is misplaced. Olshey is a careful, patient GM who appears to operate with some degree of autonomy from ownership. He is not going to sign an expensive 33-year-old star to chase a mid-rung playoff seed next season. Olshey zooms in on targets that fit Lillard's age curve. He drafted Al-Farouq Aminu with the Clippers and lavished him with the first deal in free agency while everyone else chased stars.
He understood the Nets had a star center and a cupboard empty of draft picks, so he swapped the No. 23 pick in last season's draft for Mason Plumlee -- a decent starter who has meshed well with both Lillard and coach Terry Stotts. Portland made initial inquiries about Greg Monroe at the deadline, but those talks went nowhere, league sources say. Olshey pursued Monroe before, and if the Blazers fall back out of the playoffs, he can dangle their first-round pick, a young player on a good contract, and cap space. Boston can outbid anyone on the trade market, but Portland can compete for the guys the Celtics don't want.
The Blazers never get anyone in free agency, but they are confident that if someone spends a year with Lillard and Stotts, they will stay.
You can hear the snickering: How is a core of Lillard, McCollum, and a Monroe-level import going to compete with the Warriors, Thunder and Spurs? This is why some executives on other teams have kicked around the possibility of Portland eventually including McCollum in a megadeal for some disgruntled star -- a path Olshey isn't considering now.
But most teams don't have the luxury of ping-ponging between the poles of chasing titles and tanking. Reality demands they exist somewhere in the middle and try to grow organically into something special -- you know, kind of like the 2014-15 Blazers before Matthews' torn Achilles tossed Portland off its trajectory.
Maybe that can happen again. Portland has time; Lillard is content ahead of a five-year extension that hasn't even kicked in. Noah Vonleh is still just 20, exploring the basics of his game. Maybe he grows into a home run, or at least a sub-star, in four or five years.
Regardless: Can't we just enjoy these Blazers for a minute before worrying about how they'll ever battle for a ring?
Portland will be a good offensive team as long as Lillard and McCollum are healthy. Lillard is Earth's closest thing to Stephen Curry -- a lead ball handler who makes a ton of 3s off the dribble after slithering around picks. Only Curry has jacked more pull-up 3s, and McCollum ranks 15th overall, per SportVU data.
That threat puts enormous pressure on defenses and warps the geometry of the floor. If Lillard's man gets stuck on a pick, you're toast -- unless that big man help defender lurches out to trap Lillard 30 feet from the rim. And when Lillard draws out those traps, this happens:
The early-season demotion of Meyers Leonard -- finally finding his stroke again as part of a killer bench mob -- left Portland's starting lineup with a sneaky lack of shooting, but having two guys who bend defenses this way compensates.
But the Blazers turned their season around on defense. They're eighth in points allowed per possession since the first week of January, after leaking points earlier in the season. There is no magic to Portland's reversal. Stotts decided in mid-January to drop his big man back further in the pick-and-roll, barricade the rim and coax more midrange jumpers.
It's working: The Blazers allow few attempts in the restricted area, and opponents have hit just 56.8 percent of those shots -- tied with San Antonio for the stingiest mark in the league, per NBA.com.
Ed Davis, one of those 26-and-under signings, has never been better, and he took one for the team in January, when Stotts tweaked Portland's scheme. Davis plays with Leonard off the bench, and Leonard struggled scampering around with power forwards while Davis tussled with centers in his natural habitat. Stotts asked Davis whether he might swap to simplify the game for Leonard, and Davis agreed.
"It has made things easier for Meyers," Stotts said. "The more you are around Ed, the more you appreciate him."
Stotts is quick to point out that none of this works without total buy-in from perimeter players. They have to bust their ass sliding around picks without falling too far behind and leaving their big man partner out to dry -- a tough task for alleged liabilities like McCollum, Lillard and Allen Crabbe. (Crabbe is going to get paid in free agency this summer, by the way).
And that's what you notice most of all: These guys try hard. They shove enemy guards away from picks, contort themselves around screens and execute the specifics of Stotts' game plan every night. The increased pressure has produced an unusual heap of turnovers for a Stotts team.
They talk to one another and stay alert to everything going on around the floor. When a Blazer guard gets beat back door, one of the big men will dart into the passing lane, arms spread wide, snuffing one problem without cracking open another. Aminu is a legit one-on-one stopper against big wings. Lillard has been a laughingstock, but he's gotten better, and Stotts is comfortable switching him onto bigger players -- including Paul George in Sunday's resounding win over the Pacers. "Dame is strong," Stotts said. "He holds his ground."
Portland has outplayed its talent. If the Rockets played with this level of effort, joy and cohesiveness, the Blazers would be at least one spot lower on the Western conference ladder.
And here's the twist: The Blazers wouldn't defend this way without the chemistry they've developed on the other end. Lillard and McCollum are the fulcrums, but everyone is involved on every possession. Role players don't chill in the corner. Stotts urges them to stretch the boundaries of their games.
Plumlee gets to bring the ball up and sling passes from the elbows. Aminu, Crabbe, and Gerald Henderson rarely take the pick-and-roll controls, but when Lillard swings them the ball, they have the freedom to pump-fake, drive and keep the chain moving.
Henderson's return to form after offseason hip surgery has solidified a bench rotation that is punking teams every night -- and provided Stotts more small-ball options. He's making his corner 3s, too. Turns out he wasn't just empty salary-matching fodder in the Batum deal.
Everyone cuts and screens. Portland leads the league in off-ball screens by a mile, more than even the Warriors, per data supplied to ESPN.com from the tracking site Vantage Sports. With Aldridge gone, the Blazers have excised static post-ups and devoted all 48 minutes to Stotts' flowing offense; only 2.8 percent of Portland's possessions have finished via a post-up, the lowest such share ever recorded for a team, per Synergy Sports.
Stotts isn't running a charity. "Guys play harder when they feel involved," Stotts said. "It takes a special guy to play his ass off on defense when he doesn't feel involved."
The constant motion makes Portland unpredictable, and unpredictability makes up for what might otherwise be a fatal lack of spacing in some lineups -- including the starting five. Plumlee is a rim-runner; Vonleh's shooting range is mostly theoretical; and teams sag way off Aminu when he's behind the 3-point arc. The lane can look like a forest.
But help defenders won't arrive at the rim on time if they are looking in the wrong place. Taj Gibson, a heady defender, is so distracted by the whir of off-ball screening on the left side, he doesn't realize Lillard has a free run to the basket.
The Blazers pull that sort of distraction trick several times every game. "We create spacing in a different way," Stotts said. "With all our screening, you can't really load up on one side."
Portland also frees its best rebounders to crash the offensive glass, and they've managed that without surrendering fast-break points.
Offensive harmony bleeds over to defense, and even into off-court activities. "It honestly helps that most of us are young," McCollum said. "We can hang out together. We don't have a lot of 30-plus guys who have kids and can't do the same things as the rest of us." (One exception: Chris Kaman, the team's oldest player, picks group dinner spots. Probably not a ton of vegetarian options on those menus)
Portland plays for one another. The Blazers are better than the sum of their parts. That is a product of Stotts' inclusive system and Lillard's encouraging voice. (The Blazers haven't picked up Stotts' option for next season, but it would blow me away if the summer passed without an extension). As Jason Quick reported last week, Lillard texted Maurice Harkless when he was out of the rotation, urging him to stay sharp. He did the same last season for Barton, and those messages kept Barton engaged, he told ESPN.com.
"I knew Dame was ready for this," Barton said. "I'm not surprised they are this good."
When Portland blew a big lead against Houston last week, Lillard fired up the group text messaging chain to remind everyone such an effort was unacceptable.
"There is no BS with Dame," Stotts said. "It's genuine. Guys appreciate that, especially when it comes from your best player."
There will be setbacks, and Portland might miss the playoffs in the end. They fattened up on an easy, home-heavy schedule that included the league's most turnover-prone teams. The Lillard-McCollum duo faces a size deficit almost every night. Portland's core small-ball groups with Aminu or Harkless at power forward -- units that often close games -- have struggled on the defensive glass.
Lillard will occasionally gamble himself out of position at the wrong time, leaving a good shooter open.
The juggling act with Leonard's defense has been awkward and resulted in a ton of fouls; only the Sixers have a worse free-throw differential. Davis and Plumlee aren't fast enough to scurry with power forwards, and when they fall behind, they resort to hand-checks:
"Some of it is inexperience," Stotts said.
"Young teams get a quick whistle," McCollum added.
The Plumlee/Leonard combo has been a disaster on defense. Stotts has experimented lately with a Davis/Plumlee pairing, but it's unclear whether the Blazers can survive on offense with those two on the floor -- especially if Aminu joins them.
Portland will have to upgrade its front court, starting this summer, when Leonard hits restricted free agency. Portland got sticker shock at his asking price during extension talks last fall, sources say, and if they don't think he can defend well enough at either big-man position, they might look for another stretch big; it's too early to earmark big minutes in that role for Vonleh. Serge Ibaka looms as interesting possibility in the summer of 2017, and Olshey surely has targets in mind for the interim.
The Blazers are never going to get the tier-A free-agency studs, but players and agents have noticed what has happened in Portland over the past two months. Lillard, Stotts, McCollum and Olshey have put themselves in the derby for the next tier of guys. That counts as a massive success in Year 1 of what looked like a marathon rebuild.
The Blazers knew better. They are a joy -- a testament to the hoops magic that can happen when the right players and coaches come together, and work for the greater good.
10 Things I Like and Don't Like
1. The Isaiah Thomas disappearing out-of-timeout gem
Celtics coach Brad Stevens' crunch-time out-of-timeout wizardry is getting ridiculous. Perhaps his most creative work: this gem in which Isaiah Thomas starts on the opposite end of the court, off the freaking TV screen, and morphs into a track and field sprinter flying toward a Jonas Jerebko back-pick:
Poor Ricky Rubio had no clue what hit him. Remember when the Greatest Show on Turf Rams invented that trick play in which Kurt Warner unbuckled his chin strap, made a disgusted face, and walked toward the sideline as if the team had called time out -- only for the center to fling a direct snap to Marshall Faulk? That was awesome -- and so deceptive that the NFL cracked down on it.
Stevens is the coach to test the legal limits of trickery in the NBA.
2. Jersey switcheroo dissonance
I've accepted the corporate soul-suckers' victory in having home teams occasionally wear dark alternate jerseys to gin up sales, but we have to eliminate those confusing games in which the home darks resemble the normal road jerseys of the opponent. It took me about five minutes to process who was who in last Thursday's Blazers-Rockets game in Portland, when the Blazers wore red and Houston sported its normal white home duds.
3. D'Angelo Russell, bursting forward
Russell has spent most of his rookie season listening to his coach criticize him for mistakes almost every 19-year-old rookie would make. Meanwhile, his shooting numbers have ticked up, and he has demonstrated the sort of feel -- as both a passer and scorer -- few teenagers bring.
Look at his change-of-pace game -- how he speeds up and slows down to sniff out passing lanes and keep the defense off-balance, and finally springs forward with plenty of space to launch a pull-up:
A lot of guys can go from zero to 60. Not that many can go from zero to 45 to 10 and amp it up to max acceleration in the span of a few seconds. Keep calling this dude a bust, though.
4. The demise of Terrence Jones
Jones entered the season as one of the league's most intriguing players -- a restricted free agent who had shown glimpses, including in the playoffs, of growing into a playmaking power forward who could shoot 3s, blow by dudes off the dribble and thread creative passes. Now he's losing minutes to freaking Josh Smith, who is somehow shooting 30 percent from the floor as a Rocket -- including 23 percent from deep on a preposterous seven chucks per 36 minutes.
Jones has had a down season in almost every way. His shooting has dropped off; his rebounding and defense remain shaky; and he's had health issues since a car crash before the All-Star break. He has probably cost himself tens of millions of dollars. But I'm still curious. As a neutral fan, it's driving me bonkers that Smith is stealing Jones's minutes.
5. Another Danilo Gallinari injury
This dude has had the strangest, twistiest career. He was rolling through 2016 as Denver's best player, gaining speed and strength after years on the mend, before tearing two ligaments in his ankle last week.
Gallo returned to form in the second half of last season, but it felt a little like a smoke-and-mirrors job; he struggled to create separation after multiple knee surgeries and subsided on a diet of ultra-tough contested jumpers that seemed unsustainable.
Things were just starting to get easier. I saw Denver up close in L.A. last week, and Gallo busted out a few moves, including a lightning-quick spin in the post, that announced it emphatically: His first step was back and perhaps faster than it had ever been. Gallo was juking his way to a ridiculous 9.6 free throws per game in 2016, second only to James Harden, cementing his evolution from knockdown 3-point shooter to multipositional driving machine.
Get well soon, Rooster.
6. Langston Galloway, smushed
Galloway has been a great find for the Knicks front office -- a fearless 3-point gunner with some off-the-bounce oomph and the guts to jostle for rebounds with the big boys. But he has a magnetic attraction to picks that leaves him a step behind ball handlers, forcing extra help from New York's big men:
New York's perimeter defense is atrocious almost across the board. Galloway is far from the worst offender, but he has to squeeze around more screens.
7. Randomly expensive contract bonuses
I love when forgotten contract bonuses suddenly take on an outsized impact. One of the best current examples: Jeff Green snags an extra $250,000 if his team wins at least 54 games. The Grizz weren't going to sniff that number, but Green's new team in the Clippers is on pace for exactly 54 wins -- and already stands far above the tax line. Having Green's bonus kick in would cost the Clips an extra $625,000 on top of Green's check, and the damage gets worse if L.A. ratchets up to 56 wins ($450,000 bonus) or even 58 ($700,000).
Owner Steve Ballmer probably doesn't even know these bonuses exist, but they're still funny.
8. Scoreboard races
You could stop a war by flying a Jumbotron over the battlefield and showing some kind of cartoon race. They inspire a childlike excitement lying dormant somewhere inside Nobel Prize-winning chemists, arch criminals and everyone in between.
Chicago's Dunkin' Donuts three-lap battle between Cuppy Coffee, Biggy Bagel and Dashing Donut might be the Indy 500 of NBA scoreboard races today, but you can inspire the same temporary delirium with an old-fashioned contest between subway cars.
Unless you're a crazed devotee of one subway line or Dunkin' treat, there is no rationale behind a rooting interest -- and that's the fun of it. You make up ludicrous reasons to cheer for cartoon characters competing in a race with a predetermined outcome, and you scream as if something real is at stake.
9. Erik Spoelstra, breaking our rhythm
Spoelstra cannot resist the temptation of calling a timeout to diagram a play if Miami gets the ball with less than 24 seconds left in a quarter. The game has a nice flow, you're rising from your chair to grab a halftime snack and, bam!, Spo interrupts the rhythm to draw up what is usually a ho-hum set. You are harshing my buzz, Spo!
10. When people call them the "New Jersey" Nets
Sean Marks, the Nets' new GM, became the latest NBA heavyweight to let slip a "New Jersey" reference during his introductory news conference, and dammit if this subconscious intrusion of history doesn't make me giggle every time. The Nets have tried so hard to excise any evidence they ever played in the swamp, with a dumb fox mascot bouncing around empty arenas, but they cannot erase decades of mostly pitiful basketball. Pipe "BROOK-LYN" chants into your dead arena all you want. The Jersey stain will remain forever.