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3 critical keys fueling the Portland Trail Blazers’ surprising success

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Dallas Mavericks
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Before the start of the 2022-23 NBA season, the Portland Trail Blazers didn’t gain any attention for their off-season moves. Over the summer, the Blazers traded for Jerami Grant, who had two outstanding seasons with the Detroit Pistons. The front office also gunned for the signing of Gary Payton II, who played tremendous defense for the Golden State Warriors championship run.

Other than those moves, they remained quiet and under everyone’s radar. Before the season started, analysts expected Portland to finish around the middle of the Western Conference. Most experts had them winning only 39 wins this season. But that’s long been changed after their hot start to the 77th NBA season.

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Portland has shown enormous improvement from last season. A healthy and balanced roster has made people pay attention to how this team wins in the West. Its current roster might also be the best squad the organization has built around Damian Lillard.

The Trail Blazers’ success this season is legitimate and there are three crucial keys playing a role in this unexpected hot start.

Unconventional plan fixes Portland Trail Blazers’ defense

NBA: Houston Rockets at Portland Trail Blazers
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Last season, the Trail Blazers were at the bottom of the league in defensive-net rating with 116.3. Their defense last season was horrible, and they fell to the 29th spot in the rankings. But let’s not forget, the team wasn’t a hundred percent. All-Star guard Damian Lillard only played 29 games last year due to his abdominal injury. Understandably, he’s not their top defender, but he’s also a leader on that end for the team.

This season, with the leadership of coach Chauncey Billups, Portland has become a top-ten defensive team. Around the entire league, they rank 6th in defensive-net rating with 109.7. Billups also tend to use more zone defense. The 2-3 zone formation with Grant positioned near the top of the key has been effective for the squad. This strategy has given them more mismatches in their favor. 

  • Portland Trail Blazers defensive stats: 107.4 PPG allowed, 109.7 Defensive Rating, 6.8 steals per game, 3.9 blocks per game

That has allowed the team to hide the defensive inconsistencies of some players like Anfernee Simons. With Billups’ strategy, players like Simons can reserve their energy for the offense.

Jerami Grant’s defensive versatility fills huge need

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at New Orleans Pelicans
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Before Grant’s trade to the Blazers, he was the number one option for the Detroit Pistons. While he could score 20-plus points per night, his improvements as a scorer weren’t enough to lead Detroit anywhere.

With his new team, he’s finally comfortable being the third option on a winning team. His role fits him perfectly, as he’s exerting more energy as the team’s primary ball stopper. Billups has also had an opportunity to put Grant in different areas in the hardwood. He’s lengthy enough to be the help defender and exceptionally active to challenge shots at the rim. So far, he’s the best frontcourt teammate Lillard has ever had since LaMarcus Aldridge.

Related: Portland Trail Blazers’ sale price reportedly $3 billion

Even though Grant’s a lockdown defender, he hasn’t forgotten how to score at an elite level. In their most recent game against the Mavs, he erupted for 37 points. 

Damian Lillard is back to his old self

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Dallas Mavericks
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Lillard playing in only 29 games last season proved to be a good thing long-term. The All-Star point guard could rest his body after playing nearly 800 games in a decade. Meanwhile, Portland could launch a re-tool it desperately needed.

The face of the Trail Blazers franchise is now back to his old ways. Lillard is serving as the leader on the floor, which in instrumental in the execution of the offense. Frankly, it’s refreshing to see this level of cohesion and competitiveness again from Portland.

  • Damian Lillard stats (2022-’23): 28.6 PPG, 6 APG, 46.8% FG

The Blazers have surprised many and will probably continue to do so. Because of that, experts have changed how they view the team. From being a 39-win team, analysts expect them to come close to 50 wins when the season ends.