The Portland Trail Blazers are in the Western Conference Finals.
It’s the first time anyone could say that since 2000, and it comes after watching Portland dispatch two imposing teams. They earned this, and they did it by trusting the backcourt they built despite its limitations and past failures.
As the Suns think forward about how to build around Devin Booker — who brings the same defensive concerns and score-first style — during his second contract, they should look to Portland for evidence that players like Booker, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum can win at a high level.
Many will make the simple comparison to past teams who kept pushing and finally broke through such as the 2011 Mavericks or mid-1990s Rockets. There is some truth to that, but it ignores the process. Portland didn’t get here simply by waiting around. Sure, the bracket broke their way, but they put together a squad that was versatile and deep enough to maximize their guards’ greatness and mask their deficiencies.
Since LaMarcus Aldridge walked during the summer fo 2015, Portland has finished in the top ten in defensive rating just once. Most years, they’ve been in the bottom half of the league. That is in part because they couldn’t find a solid, long-term answer at center until Jusuf Nurkic fell in their lap, and in part because Lillard and McCollum don’t bring the length or athleticism to consistently impact the game on defense.
The superstar guard tandem also has to do so much on offense that general manager Neil Olshey and coach Terry Stotts limit their responsibility defensively. Olshey built a team that is versatile on defense, features a ton of shooting, and is always pretty deep. With Nurkic out, they don’t have an obvious third-best player, but they are malleable and Stotts’ and Lillard’s creativity and empowerment boosts the collective.
The Suns can learn a lot from this template. They’ve been trying to steal from Portland for years, in fact. Jay Triano originally jumped to Phoenix to bring some of those concepts to the then-guard-heavy Suns and develop Booker, Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. That of course didn’t work out, but we saw how some of those simple, motion-based concepts helped unlock Booker’s scoring ability early on.
The better way to think about the lessons Phoenix can take from Portland’s breakthrough this season is in roster construction.
Already, the Suns are stockpiling versatile wings just like the Trail Blazers started to do in the aftermath of Aldridge’s departure. Portland can play Al-Farouq Aminu, Mo Harkless, Rodney Hood, Evan Turner or Jake Layman depending on the circumstance. In Phoenix, T.J. Warren, Josh Jackson, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Mikal Bridges represent a younger, more cohesive version of that group. This allows the scorers on the team to focus more on offense and allows them to guard weaker players.
Over the years, Stotts has turned more of the offense over to Lillard, but early on, Portland was consistently in the top ten in threes attempted every year and manufactured open shots by constantly screening and moving. A similar metamorphosis could develop as Booker leads the Suns to playoff relevancy.
Right now, it probably makes sense to stabilize the offense by taking the ball out of Booker’s hands a bit more to see how a veteran playmaker can create opportunities for everyone. That means more open looks, fewer turnovers and ideally a greater level of efficiency.
As time goes on, Booker might develop his own version of Dame Time and gain trust from his coach in high-leverage situations. The Suns hope those situations are in important playoff games relatively soon. NBA history shows that’s certainly reasonable despite this franchise’s icky recent past.
Lillard’s first conference finals are coming at age 28, in his seventh season. His first few playoff seasons came as a second option to Aldridge. Then, as he entered his prime and the team reconstructed itself around him, Lillard leapt up past 30 percent usage and never looked back. That same career arc could be coming for Booker — a downtick the next season or two and then a big jump when his game is more refined.
There is also a significant difference between Lillard’s leadership and that of most star players. It’s no attack on Booker to say we haven’t seen it yet. Booker hasn’t had to lift his teammates in terrible moments like Portland’s sweep last spring at the hands of the Pelicans. Time will tell if Booker can be the beacon Lillard has become for the Trail Blazers.
Of course, the biggest difference between Portland and Phoenix comes at center. Deandre Ayton is the guy who could change this whole thing, He’s the big man Portland never could find and the Suns’ prize for having the gall (or clumsy, dumb luck) to keep losing and win the lottery.
Nurkic was great for the Trail Blazers this year, but Ayton’s ceiling reaches much higher than even the season Nurkic put together before breaking his leg. Ayton’s potential as a shooter, switch defender and post creator could be the key to the Suns’ future. Yet we saw Ayton as a rookie used in much the same way Nurkic is — dropping into the paint to protect the rim, moving the ball and attacking mismatches.
And Portland has won eight playoff games now without their resurgent starting center, proving the value of Lillard and McCollum again.
The gap between Nurkic in Ayton is one of a few differences between the Suns and Trail Blazers, but the consistent culture and strategic creativity shown by Portland during their retool around Lillard provides a roadmap for a future in Phoenix led by Booker.