OTG Team Awards: Portland Trail Blazers
A year after being ignominiously swept out of the playoffs as the higher seed, Portland entered the 2018-9 season with a real chip on its shoulder. The Blazers had much to prove - not just that they were better than the sweep seemed to suggest, but that they were a strong enough team to resist the calls to break apart their talented-but-underachieving backcourt and try something new.
They almost certainly won’t improve upon the three seed they earned going into last year’s Western Conference playoffs, but they’ve already improved upon their record. They hit 50 wins with two to go, but whether the season is a true success will depend on the playoffs to come. Our awards only consider the regular season, fortunately, so we don’t have to wait:
6th Man of the Year: Seth Curry
Curry wasn’t part of last year’s ill-fated edition of the Blazers -- or any team’s for that matter. After finally breaking out two years ago with Dallas, Curry was felled by a stress fracture in his leg, which claimed his season. Bouncing back to lead the team in bench scoring and shooting well enough from downtown - 44.4% - to make an appearance in his hometown All-Star Game’s Three Point Contest are no small feats. He’ll never be his brother, but Seth Curry does everything the first man off the bench should, and is a real asset in Portland’s second unit.
Most Improved Player: Jake Layman
On more than one occasion this year, I had to ask the internet ‘What is a Jake Layman, and how is it starting for the Portland Trail Blazers?’ You can understand my confusion: as a rookie, he had managed just 7.6 minutes per game and 2.2 points, and as a sophomore, just 4.6 minutes and 1.0 lonely point. But ‘Sunshine’ (apparently that’s his nickname, I learn new Jake Layman facts every day) broke out in year three. Now getting 18.4 minutes per game, he averaged 7.6 points and 3.1 rebounds, sported a positive net rating and VORP, and contributed to three full wins! Not bad, Jake. Not bad at all.
Rookie of the Year: Zach Collins
Second year player, I know. But rather than have Anfernee Simmons and Gary Trent Jr. fight for the scraps from my awards table, I thought we’d check in on Collins, the 10th overall pick a year ago. Still only 21, having declared for the draft after his freshman year, Collins saw some nice improvements in year two as he looks to supplant Al-Farouq Aminu in future Portland starting fives. Pick an aspect of his game, and Collins improved on it, not just in the counting stats, but in his efficiency as well. With Aminu coming off the books at the end of the year, Collins should be starting games for Portland next year, and may find himself a candidate for more prestigious honors when I write this column next year.
Defensive Player of the Year: Jusuf Nurkic
It probably won’t make Nurkic feel that much better to get this award after he broke his leg in the most ghastly way possible on March 25th, but it’s better than nothing. The Bosnian Beast was having his best year ever, and what a regular season it was: Nurkic led the team in both rebounds and blocks, and was second in steals; he led the team in Defensive Win Shares, and was twelfth in the entire Association in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. Nurkic wasn’t just a good defender for Portland -- he was one of the best defenders in basketball, period. It’s truly a shame we won’t get to ply his trade in the playoffs: it looks like Portland will meet Utah in Round 1, and Nurkic/Gobert would have been a rumble for the ages.
Most Valuable Player: Damian Lillard
Of course it’s Dame! He lead the team in scoring, assists, and steals, and after making first-team All-NBA a year ago came out and threw down another banger: 25.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 6.9 assists per game. I’m hopeful he’ll lean into the distributing in his final two games and get his assists up over seven a game for the first time in his career, personally. He’s the consummate team leader, bringing his A-game every game, and I do mean every game: Lillard has played 79 of his team’s 80 games this year, and has missed a total of 24 in his seven seasons in the Association. A leader leads by example, game in, and game out, and the Trail Blazers are very fortunate to have Lillard as theirs.