Apr 8, 2017; Portland, OR, USA; The Portland Trail Blazers stand together during the singing of the National Anthem before the start of a game against the Utah Jazz at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
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Who were the standout players for the 2016-17 Portland Trail Blazers?
In early February, it seemed like the team would be on the outside looking in. But a post-All-Star break record of 18-8 helped the Blazers break even and finish the year with a 41-41 record.
The run was first propelled by the acquisition of center Jusuf Nurkic. But Nurkic ended up being sidelined with a right leg fibular fracture for the April portion of the regular season. Damian Lillard then led the way and helped the team make the final push into the postseason.
The Blazers’ effort earns them the no. 8 seed and a best-of-seven matchup against the Golden State Warriors. Game 1 is on Sunday in Oakland, but before the series tips off, let’s take a look at some of the standout Blazers from the 2017 campaign.
The following slides feature team-level versions of the individual player awards the NBA hands out at the end of the season. Those awards include Most Improved Player, Sixth Man of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player.
The award winners in this article capture the spirit of the actual award. However, there will be plenty of key contributors that did not make this piece. Their impacts on the team will be highlighted after Portland’s postseason concludes.
Mar 25, 2017; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers forward Maurice Harkless (4) drives to the basket against Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins (22) during the second half at Moda Center. The Trail Blazers won 112-100. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
Most Improved Blazer: Maurice Harkless
Maurice Harkless saw major growth in 2016-17, and for that he earns the title of Most Improved Blazer.
Harkless took on a larger role in the rotation this season, becoming the starting small forward. He started 55 more games and played 10.2 more minutes per game than he did in 2015-16.
It was also the best season of his career as a scorer. Harkless’s points per game average jumped up 3.6 points between 2015-16 and 2016-17. He also shot 2.9 percent better from the field than he did the year before.
Those increases can be attributed to his improvement beyond the arc. Harkless shot 35.1 percent on three-pointers. That was his best output since his sophomore season with the Orlando Magic when he 38.3 percent from outside.
His solid three-point shooting was at least partly financially motivated. Harkless had an incentive in his contract that kicked in if he finished the year shooting 35 percent or better from three. After going 0-for-1 in the Apr. 4 loss at the Utah Jazz, he abstained from shooting threes for the remainder of the season. So he was able to make a marked improvement in his shooting while getting some extra money in the process.
But Harkless also had a good season defensively. As starting small forward, he was tasked with facing some of the league’s top wing players on a given night. In the end, Harkless had a defensive rating of 110, tied for fifth-best on the team, per Basketball-Reference.. He also saw a 0.6-point increase in his defensive box plus-minus from last season.
Harkless’s per game numbers in 2016-17 bear some resemblances to his rookie numbers in Orlando. The similarities are namely in his minutes, rebounding, steals and blocks per game. That goes to show that his time in Portland has allowed him to build into the player people expected him to be. We’ll see if he can continue to improve heading into next season.
Apr 1, 2017; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu (8) battles for a rebound against Phoenix Suns forward Alan Williams (15) during the second half at Moda Center. The Trail Blazers won 130-117. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
Sixth Blazer of the Year: Al-Farouq Aminu
Al-Farouq Aminu gets the nod for Blazers Sixth Man of the Year due to his improved overall production after Terry Stotts inserted him into the role midseason.
Aminu played and started all 82 games in 2015-16. He came to Portland from the Dallas Mavericks and increased his role as a scorer and a rebounder. It was banner year for Aminu, and he played a major part in the team’s 2016 playoff run.
But the 2016-17 season started off rough for Aminu. He was sidelined by injury for the better part of November and a week in December.
Aminu was still a starter, getting the nod in 23 of his first 26 games (a mark that took 44 team games to reach). However, his shooting wasn’t quite there. In his first 26 games, Aminu averaged 7.2 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, but shot 35.2 percent from the field.
Aminu was taken out of the starting lineup for their Jan 20 game against the Philadelphia 76ers in favor of Noah Vonleh. In the remaining 35 games Aminu played in 2016-17, he would only start two more.
However, Aminu’s production improved in this new role off of the bench. He averaged 9.9 points and 7.7 rebounds per game in those 35 games. He also improved his field goal shooting to 42.1 percent, including 38.1 percent from three-point range.
The thing that tied his stints as starter and backup was his defense. Aminu finished the year with the third-best defensive rating on the team, allowing 108 points per 100 possessions.
The Blazers are going to need more of Aminu’s production as they take on a Warriors bench that has its fair amount of depth.
Mar 18, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks center Dwight Howard (8) drives against Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic (27) in the second quarter of their game at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Defensive Blazer of the Year: Jusuf Nurkic
Jusuf Nurkic had a major impact on the Blazers as soon as he arrived in Portland. He came to the team looking to prove he could be a difference-maker when given the chance. Nurkic delivered on both ends of the floor. However, his impact was most welcomed on the defensive end.
In his short time with the team – 20 games and 19 starts – he became the leader in defensive rebounds (7.1), blocks (1.9), and steals (1.3) per game. He also became the team leader in defensive rating (104) and defensive box plus-minus (3.8).
Nurkic also made a defensive impact on the rest of the team. His ability to hold down the paint allowed Portland’s perimeter defenders to stay home and guard against three-point shooters. Opponents shot 34.9 percent in games that Jusuf Nurkic played and 37.8 percent from three in games without him.
Nurkic’s impact on defense was immense. So losing him at the beginning of April due to a right leg fibular fracture was an enormous blow to the team.
The Blazers were able to have some inspired defensive efforts as they worked to clinch the eighth seed. Namely, Portland had a three-game stretch against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Utah Jazz, and San Antonio Spurs where they held them each to under 100 points.
But the defensive load would be lightened with Nurkic on the floor. It’s still up in the air if he will play in Portland’s first round series against the Warriors. But whenever he plays again, he will surely be a defensive difference maker.
Sep 26, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers forward Jake Layman (10) poses during media day at the Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports
Blazer Rookie of the Year: Jake Layman
Blazer rookies Jake Layman and Tim Quarterman played the background in 2016-17. The two played a combined 329 minutes in 51 games with one start. Both are raw players with plenty of room for development. But between the two, Jake Layman showed more flashes at the NBA level.
Layman finished the season averaging 2.2 points, 0.7 rebounds, and 0.3 assists per game. The one start mentioned above was his, getting the nod in the last game of the season against the New Orleans Pelicans.
In the small sample size Layman played, he showed immense athleticism and confidence in his jump shot. He started the season by scoring 17 points in eight minutes in his Nov. 1 debut against the Warriors. His next game, Nov. 9 against the Los Angeles Clippers, saw him notch nine points on 4-of-8 shooting.
Layman wouldn’t receive sizable minutes again until the final two games of the season. He had a brutal night on Apr. 10 against the Spurs when he went 2-for-15 from the field in 29 minutes. It was a game where he missed some good looks and forced the issue on a few layups.
He improved in his start against the Pelicans, scoring 10 points on 4-of-10 shooting in 37 minutes.
Jake Layman didn’t get a lot of playing time this season, but he did the most with what he was given. He’s under contract for next season, so we’ll see if he takes on a larger role moving forward.
Apr 8, 2017; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) celebrates after scoring a basket during the second half in a game against the Utah Jazz at Moda Center. The Trail Blazers won 101-86. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
Most Valuable Blazer: Damian Lillard
Damian Lillard runs away with this award. Like last season, he served as Portland’s guiding force in 2016-17.
Lillard finished the season as the team’s scoring and assists leader, averaging 27.0 points and 5.9 assists per game. He also shot 44.4 percent from the field, the best of his career. In advanced stats, Lillard led the team in Player Efficiency Rating (24.1), win shares (10.3), and value over replacement player (4.3).
When the Blazers were at their worst, 24-35 and 10th place in the West on Feb. 28, Damian Lillard truly came alive. He averaged 29.1 points, 6.0 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game in the month of March. In the process, he shot 48.3 percent from the field and 41.7 from three. He scored 30 or more points in eight games, including 49 against the Miami Heat.
But as the Blazers entered April and a playoff spot was in reach, his work wasn’t done. Lillard averaged 30.6 points, 5.8 assists and 5.2 rebounds in the five games he played this month. He started his month with a 31-point outing against the Phoenix Suns and ended it with a career-high 59 points over the Jazz.
Damian Lillard came into his own as a scorer, distributor and leader in 2016-17. He is one of the reasons the Portland Trail Blazers are about to play in a playoff series for the fourth consecutive season. As he’s primed for at least one big game against the Warriors, he will continue to show why he is the Most Valuable Blazer.