Mere moments after the most transformational trade deadline in franchise history, interim general manager Joe Cronin all but confirmed what the Portland Trail Blazers' series of cost-cutting, win-later moves meant for Damian Lillard over the season's remainder.

Portland's superstar point guard would “most likely” sit out until 2022-23, Cronin said at a post-deadline press conference, the closest anyone had come to admitting what seemed like a formality once Lillard finally went under the knife on January 13th to address nagging abdominal tendinopathy.

That was a week ago, in wake of the Blazers trading not just ballyhooed recent additions like Robert Covington, Norman Powell and Larry Nance Jr., but also C.J. McCollum. So much for building off a shockingly successful January without Lillard.

The deadline made clear that Portland wasn't just comfortable missing the playoffs for the first time since Lillard's rookie year, breaking a league-long streak of consecutive postseason berths, but also would be plenty comfortable “tanking” the last two months of the regular season.

“Flexibility” was the buzzword being centered by both Cronin and Chauncey Billups as justification for the Blazers effectively tearing it down. Portland would play to win, of course, but embarking on a long-term path toward contention was far more important than continuing to fight for play-in positioning until mid-April.

Well, at least it was before the revamped, left-for-dead Blazers tipped off the front office's on-the-fly rebuild with four straight wins, entering the All-Star break playing by far its best basketball of the season.

Portland is 25-34 after Wednesday's rousing road win over the red-hot Memphis Grizzlies, one-and-a-half games up on McCollum and the New Orleans Pelicans for tenth in the West. The Los Angeles Lakers, primed to miss Anthony Davis for at least the next two weeks with an ankle injury, are now just two games ahead of the Blazers.

Following his team's victory over Memphis, Billups was asked by Aaron Fentress of The Oregonian if Portland's compelling recent surge makes it time to “rethink” Lillard's prospective return.

“I haven't even thought about that, man,” Billups replied, laughing. “I'm just happy for our dudes, man. Things that we've been preaching all year, how we wanna play as a staff, we're just doing it, we're just doing it. And we're doing it together. It's incredible what you can do when you do it together, and you've got everybody on one accord.”

No one expected the Blazers to emerge from the deadline better than they were before it. The individual talent they sent out in trades with the Pelicans, LA Clippers and Utah Jazz far outweighed that which they received in return. Not even Josh Hart and Justise Winslow, both underutilized and overlooked throughout their careers, could've seen Portland's stunning turnaround coming.

But basketball isn't arithmetic, and the equation the Blazers stumbled upon after supposedly sacrificing the present for the future has made their whole greater than the sum of its parts—just the one Portland has needed to muster throughout Lillard's tenure to become true championship contenders.

Anfernee Simons, entering the break on a string of four games with at least 30 points, is operating like a star primary ball-handler right now. Jusuf Nurkic hasn't been so productive, engaged and all-around impactful since shattering his right leg in March 2019.

Hart is doing it all for the Blazers as a scorer, playmaker and defender, while a rejuvenated Winslow provides much-needed versatility and variability on both sides of the ball. Ben McLemore has been an even more crucial component of Portland's offense, sprinting around screens and spotting up in transition to keep defenses scrambling.

Trendon Watford and C.J. Elleby have been big parts of Portland's improvement defensively. The former even fared well when switched onto Ja Morant in Wednesday's game, ably sliding his feet to keep the league's most dangerous penetrator out of the paint on multiple possessions. Length and athleticism provided by Greg Brown III and Elijah Hughes has made a difference, too.

Sitting next to Cronin at last week's presser, Billups discussed the unique “identity” all championship teams possess and the importance of the Blazers developing their own. What that looked like or was even supposed to look like was completely unclear before the deadline. Portland regularly took two steps back after managing one step forward, getting gashed defensively or growing stagnant offensively shortly after a fleeting game of implementing Billups' core cultural and schematic principles.

Not anymore.

The new-look Blazers play with unrelenting activity and intensity, constantly moving the ball, pushing the pace in transition and helping the helper on defense, the result of a team-wide commitment to accountability that had been sorely missing when Lillard, McCollum, Powell and company had been trying and failing to right the ship. Portland is finally becoming the team Billups envisioned in training camp, basically.

“I'm happy with our progress,” Billups said after the Blazers' convincing win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday. “I tell y'all every night, like, I just want us to keep getting better. I want to keep setting the standard for we play. I feel like we're doing that.”

The problem is that standard won't prompt Portland to level up in the Western Conference next season absent a significant infusion of talent, no matter how ingrained it becomes.

The Blazers' recent success merits caveats of the league calendar and a playing style for which opponents had no way of game-planning. Hart and Winslow have bright futures in Rip City, but aren't surefire answers for Portland's issues as much as they are archetypes of the dynamic wings Cronin must chase this summer via the draft and free agency.

Changing course again to chase a long-shot playoff berth by bringing Lillard back won't help in that regard.

The Blazers owe their first-round pick to the Chicago Bulls if it falls outside the lottery. Otherwise, there's a good chance Cronin will have two lottery picks at his disposal—perhaps the ammo needed to trade for an impact wing on draft night or before next season's trade deadline. Portland could keep both of those picks, too, building a new core around Simons and Nassir Little as Lillard ages out of his prime.

Lillard's return would complicate Simons' ongoing evolution, too.

It's no coincidence that his most eye-popping performances of the season have come playing without Lillard and McCollum. Free to expand his limits as the Blazers' offensive alpha dog, Simons is growing by the game, cementing himself as one of basketball's best young playmakers.  Needless to say, pushing for the postseason only to get summarily dismissed by the Phoenix Suns or Golden State Warriors in round one wouldn't loom as large for Portland's prospects going forward as Simons' rapid development continuing unencumbered.

There's no guarantee the Blazers will pick up where they left off once the break is over. They won't be taken lightly anymore, with teams better equipped to deal with their pace and exploit their collective lack of three-point shooting in the halfcourt. Simons' heater has to end at some point.

Even if Portland remains the league's biggest surprise when play resumes next week, though, Cronin must keep his focus on the forest instead of the trees. Beating up on the league's second-softest post-All-Star schedule won't be an accurate indication of the Blazers' playoff prospects with a healthy Lillard come Spring, but especially next season and beyond. They still need more to give Lillard the chance of accomplishing his ultimate goal.

Winning a title with Lillard in Rip City definitely won't be easy. But if the Blazers get seduced into a late-season playoff run, losing a key draft asset while inhibiting the growth of their best young player, it might as well be impossible.