The Portland Trail Blazers pulled out a 117-110 home win against the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday to bring their record to 9-4, having finally constructed a winning formula around centrepiece Damian Lillard.
While their defense was nothing special against the Spurs – winning despite allowing the visitors to shoot 51.8 per cent from the field – they are currently rated as the seventh-best defense in the league.
Having ranked 29th out of 30 teams in defensive rating last season, giving up an average of 116.3 points per 100 possessions, it was the continuation of a three-year stretch as one of the league's worst defenses. They were also 29th in the 2020-21 season (115.3) and 27th in the 2019-20 campaign (114.3).
Across those three seasons, the Trail Blazers put together a combined record of 104-124 and were floundering, despite the presence of arguably the franchise's greatest ever player, Lillard, still in his prime.
Lillard has career averages of 24.7 points and 6.6 assists per game, and at that pace he will pass Clyde Drexler as the franchise's all-time leading scorer in 12 games, as he trails by 279 points.
This season, with the addition of big wing Jerami Grant – who has averaged at least 19.2 in each of his past two seasons with the Detroit Pistons – as well as last season's arrival of jack-of-all-trades Josh Hart from the New Orleans Pelicans, and all of a sudden the Blazers may have surrounded Lillard with the best defensive cast of his career.
They now boast a 109.9 defensive rating in a year when scoring is up league-wide.
The last time they managed a defensive rating below 110 was the 2018-19 season, where their mark of 109.5 had them 16th, but they were solid enough to give Lillard and his brilliance a chance to win them games.
That 2018-19 season was Lillard's deepest playoff run, making it to the Western Conference Finals. They had C.J. McCollum as their second scorer back then, but now have a two-pronged punch behind Lillard with Grant and 23-year-old Anfernee Simons.
Simons was the 24th overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft after choosing a non-traditional route to the league, opting against playing any college or professional basketball, instead training at the famed IMG Academy.
After only playing sparingly in his first three seasons, Simons raised his average from 7.8 points per game in the 2020-21 season to 17.3 last campaign, starting 30 games as Lillard missed extended time through injuries.
He has again taken a leap this year, posting career-highs in points (22.3), assists (4.1) and made three-pointers (3.8).
As much as anything, this is a Trail Blazers team that finally makes sense when building around a star player and second-scorer who are both small guards. They have flanked them with two strong wing defenders in the starting line-up, and have committed to using a physically imposing bench brigade.
Against the Spurs, the four players to come off the bench were Nassir Little, who is a stocky six-foot-five, as well as long-armed six-foot-six rookie Shaedon Sharpe, six-foot-eight Trendon Watford and six-foot-nine Drew Eubanks.
They all have one thing in common – they know their job is to defend, and make Lillard's life as easy as possible on that end of the floor.
Lillard is still undoubtedly at a level required to lead a team deep into the playoffs, and now, in his 11th season, after years of calls for him to leave Portland and head to a powerhouse where he could be more widely seen and appreciated, he may finally have a team capable of coming along for the ride.