Portland Trail Blazers

Have the Trail Blazers peaked or can Damian Lillard lead them to a higher level?

Damian Lillard [NBA Getty Images]

In the 2016-17 season, the Portland Trail Blazers snuck into the playoffs with a 41-41 record. Tasked with facing the Golden State Warriors in the first round, they were unsurprisingly eliminated in four games.

Following their sweep, it was intriguing to see how the Blazers would bounce back in 2017-18. They were projected to make only a slight improvement by winning 42.5 games, but Portland reached new heights through their star guard's All-NBA First Team campaign.

In his sixth season, Damian Lillard averaged 26.9 points, 6.6 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game, earning his third All-Star selection and finishing fourth in MVP voting. His scoring average was good for fourth in the league and his 12.6 win shares also placed him in the league's top five.

Lillard's best stretch came in the second half of the season. With one game remaining before the All-Star break, Portland held a record of 31-26 through 57 games. The Blazers hosted the Warriors in Game 58, and Lillard answered the call by scoring 44 points and defeating the same team that routed him in the playoffs less than one year ago.

The Blazers' win over the defending champs sparked what would become the 13-game win streak that propelled them into the top half of the Western Conference.

Looking to advance out of the first round for the first time since the 2015-16 season, the No. 3 Blazers were matched up with the No. 6 New Orleans Pelicans in the playoffs. With no response for Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo, Portland was swept once again.

The Blazers are now in an interesting spot. They have qualified for the playoffs in five consecutive seasons, but have only made it out of the first round twice and have failed to reach the Western Conference Finals.

While Golden State and the rest of the Western Conference continue to improve, Portland's two biggest stars remain adamant that they can compete for a championship despite their postseason struggles.

Just this offseason, CJ McCollum got into a heated argument on his podcast when he hosted Warriors star Kevin Durant.

Durant: "You know you guys aren't gonna win a championship."

McCollum: "Bro, we have the team..."

McCollum: "We have the team, we have the capabilities, anything is possible. We can win a championship bro."


Durant: "... I suggest you just keep playing man and don't worry about what goes on at the top of things."

McCollum: "We were right there at the top of things."

Durant: "Relax."

It seems the Blazers two stars truly believe they're right there.

This past week, Lillard shared that he wanted to be a "Blazer for life" in an interview with The Athletic's Michael Scotto. Given his extreme competitiveness, it is hard to believe that Lillard would want to remain somewhere for the rest of his career if he didn't think the team was capable of winning a championship.

Portland is projected for 41.5 wins in 2018-19, one fewer win than last season's projection. This win total would make Portland the West's 10th seed, missing the postseason for the first time since 2013.

Lillard's All-NBA First Team performance led to a division championship and high seed in the playoffs, but a second-consecutive first-round sweep begs the question: What will it take to get the Blazers to the next level?

In 2018-19, it will be interesting to watch Lillard attempt to raise his game once again while the young pieces around him work to develop to the point where they can propel Portland to a sixth-consecutive postseason berth and overcome its playoff woes.

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