Let’s talk about these Portland Trail Blazers

In an NBA season that packs 82 games into six months, it’s always wise to take early results with a grain of salt — to react to what you’re seeing, but not overreact to what it all might mean in the grand scheme of things. With one month down, though, those small samples are starting to get larger … and as we near the quarter pole of the 2022-23 campaign, it doesn’t seem like much of an overreaction to think that the Portland Trail Blazers might just be for real.

Portland enters Thursday’s matchup with Kevin Durant and the perpetually headline-generating Brooklyn Nets leading the Western Conference at 10-4, with a pair of victories over the Suns already under their belt to go with quality wins over playoff hopefuls Denver, Miami and New Orleans. And while one reason for the Blazers’ surge up the standings has been the return of Damian Lillard following an injury-ravaged 2021-22 season, head coach Chauncey Billups and Co. have stayed afloat despite Dame already missing a handful of games with a calf strain, playing just about even with the All-NBA flamethrower off the floor — a dramatic departure from the last half-decade of Blazers basketball.

Let’s take a look at two contributing factors behind Portland’s early-season success, starting with a new arrival who’s been just what the doctor ordered.

Jerami Grant gives Portland a three-headed monster

Only two NBA teams can boast three players scoring at least 20 points per game: the 76ers, led by MVP candidate Joel Embiid, former MVP James Harden and ascendant guard Tyrese Maxey … and your fightin’ Trail Blazers.

Lillard has looked none the worse for wear after his lost 2021-22, averaging 27.9 points and 6.6 assists per game while shooting 55% on 2-pointers, 38% beyond the arc and 86% from the free-throw line. Considering the sheer volume of shots he’s getting up — nearly 10 3-pointers and nine free throws a night — that efficiency has vaulted Dame right back to the ranks of the league’s most dangerous offensive engines; he ranks in the top 10 in the NBA in the offensive side of a bunch of advanced metrics, including box plus-minus, estimated plus-minus and FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR, among others.

With Lillard on the floor, the Blazers have scored 118.2 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass, equivalent to the NBA’s No. 2 offense. He hasn’t had to shoulder the load alone, though. Anfernee Simons’ attempt to write an encore to the breakout fourth season that earned him a $100 million contract has gotten off to an up-and-down start, but even with his shooting numbers down, he’s still averaging 22.3 points and 3.9 assists per game next to Lillard. And, more importantly, there’s finally a wing capable of easing the burden on the Blazers’ bombastic backcourt.

Imported this summer at the cost of a top-four-protected 2025 first-round pick, the 28-year-old Grant is playing arguably the best basketball of his career. He’s averaging 21.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game while shooting the cover off the ball — 49.3% from distance on 5.5 attempts per game — and nestling comfortably into the sweet spot between the smaller role he once bristled against and the star status he sought.

It raised more than a few eyebrows when Grant left a Nuggets team fresh off a Western Conference finals run to take a three-year, $60 million deal with the rebuilding Pistons, especially given reports the Nuggets were willing to match the money Detroit was offering. There were a few factors that went into Grant’s decision, but one of them seemed to be an interest in expanding the limits of his game and exploring how good he could be in a featured role; no little kid imagines himself settling into life as a low-usage 3-and-D wing, you know?

After spending two seasons in Detroit doing the kind of stuff he wouldn’t have necessarily gotten to do spotting up around Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. — running off screens in plays designed for him to shoot, operating in the pick-and-roll, calling his own number in isolation, etc. — without experiencing much team success, Grant comes to Portland with a deeper and more refined set of tools, more confidence in his ability to use them and an understanding that his best chance of winning big isn’t as an overtaxed No. 1 option. It’s as an overqualified third option who can also make life tough on opponents’ top offensive weapons.

There aren’t many dudes who are 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan whom coaches would trust to guard opposing point guards; most of them seem to wind up in Toronto. Portland has one now, though, and Billups has taken advantage of it, matching Grant up against primary ball handlers to allow Lillard and Simons to take on less taxing opponents. The beauty of Grant, though, is that size and skill set gives Billups the flexibility to slide him into whichever matchup seems most threatening; the list of Grant’s most frequent defensive assignments reads like an All-NBA ballot.

Lightning-fast initiators like Ja Morant and De’Aaron Fox, big wings like LeBron James, Luka Doncic and Jimmy Butler, maulers like Bam Adebayo, Anthony Davis and Zion Williamson — Grant has seen time on all of them. More often than not, he’s held his own — one big reason why a Blazers team that has finished 27th or worse in defensive efficiency in each of the last three seasons now sits eighth in points allowed per possession.

“He allows us to do some things defensively that I think any team in the league would love to have the option to do,” Billups recently told Jason Quick of The Athletic.

Including uncorking a changeup that can keep opposing offenses off-balance when Portland needs it most.

Portland Trail Blazers forward Jerami Grant reacts after making a 3-point basket against the San Antonio Spurs during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)
Portland Trail Blazers forward Jerami Grant is shooting 49.3% from 3-point range. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Living in the zone

The Blazers have played zone defense more often than any team besides the Heat this season, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking, with Billups dialing it up just under 13.5 times per game. The frequency isn’t necessarily a surprise — they actually led the league in zone possessions last season — but the success they’ve found is.

As was the case with just about every other coverage Billups tried during a rocky rookie season, Portland’s zone got gashed last season, conceding 1.171 points per possession — 22nd out of 26 teams that went zone at least one possession per game. This season, though, despite going to it even more often, the Blazers have allowed just 0.930 points per zone possession — second out of 18 teams to go zone at least once a night.

After starting the season just dabbling with the zone — dropping into it after free throws here, springing it as a change-of-pace on a sideline out-of-bounds possession there — Billups has started to show greater willingness to lean on it. The Blazers went zone for nearly an entire half against the Pelicans last Thursday, looking to make it more difficult for Williamson and Co. to feast on the interior and daring a team that ranks 29th in 3-point attempts per game to shoot them out of it. New Orleans scored just 38 points after intermission, and the Blazers stormed back for a big road win.

Billups went back to it in the fourth quarter against the Spurs on Tuesday, too, looking to stifle a San Antonio attack that had been gashing Portland inside. Once again, it worked: The Spurs had as many turnovers as made shots (two) in the final four minutes, allowing Portland to rip off a 13-4 run and come away with the win.

"I think in the past, we'd be like, 'OK, somebody's gotta get it going [offensively],'" Lillard said after Tuesday’s win, according to Sean Highkin of The Rose Garden Report. "But the energy on our team now, it feels like, 'We've got to get some stops. We've got to stop them and get some rebounds.' That's the difference.”

After finishing 25th in total rebounding percentage last season, Portland’s all the way up to 10th this year. Some of that’s about health: The Blazers cleared the defensive glass at league-best rates when center Jusuf Nurkic was on the court last season, and at league-worst rates when he wasn’t, so him missing 26 games really hurt. Some of that’s about swingman Josh Hart, who plays a hell of a lot bigger than 6-5, and who ranks second among NBA guards behind only Doncic in rebounds per game (8.6) and fifth among guards in defensive rebounding rate.

A lot of it, though, stems from a team-wide commitment to crashing the boards, with six Blazers averaging between three and five rebounds per game — which goes back to the reason the zone seems to be working a lot better this season, too. With Grant and astoundingly ready-to-play-right-away rookie Shaedon Sharpe joining Hart, Nassir Little, Justise Winslow, Trendon Watford and Keon Johnson, Portland just has way more, and way better, wings.

When you’re always playing small guys at the top of the zone, offenses will just flash a cutter into the middle, pass over the top of it and start working the body. Put big, aggressive, good defenders up there, though — like when Erik Spoelstra started siccing Butler, Andre Iguodala and Derrick Jones Jr. on opponents — those entry passes become harder to complete, clean looks get tougher to come by, and shooters start second-guessing rather than firing in rhythm. Keep the ball on the perimeter, close out hard, and force opponents to go to Plan B, and you can win a few more possessions than you might playing straight up — which, when the margins are as thin as they are in the NBA, can be the difference between winning and losing.

Between cranking up the zone and showing an increased comfort with going small — Portland has played 108 minutes without centers Nurkic or Drew Eubanks on the court, according to PBP Stats, and those lineups have been limiting opponents to a microscopic 95.4 points per 100 possessions (though a lot of that ties back to shaky opponent 3-point shooting) — Billups has the Blazers playing a more varied, adaptable style of defense. And the more ways you can get stops, the tougher you are to play against.

“In this league, if you give somebody too much of the same look they are going to pick you apart,” Lillard recently told reporters. “I think that has been something that has been in our favor. We’ve gone small, we’ve played zone, we’ve picked up full court, we’ve been in full-court zone, we’ve trapped … we’ve mixed it up so much that it’s been unpredictable.”

That unpredictability goes a long way toward helping explain something else that nobody was predicting a month ago: the Blazers sitting atop the Western Conference.