The Portland Trail Blazers’ sustained success since LaMarcus Aldridge left town in the summer of 2015 has hinged on continuity as much as anything else. Portland’s core pieces remain intact for now and the foreseeable future, but in wake of a surprise trip to the Western Conference Finals, the Blazers shuffled the deck around Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic.
The Blazers, finally, have reason to believe – even if it’s partially superficial – that they are one of a handful of teams capable of raising the Larry O’Brien Trophy at season’s end. But after moving on from Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless on the wing and rebuilding its bench yet again, Portland has many questions to answer before living up to those long-awaited expectations.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Blazers were fairly active this offseason and it resulted in them improving their team – at least on paper. They re-signed Rodney Hood, swapped Evan Turner for Kent Bazemore, snatched up Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja, plus a trade of Moe Harkless and Meyers Leonard for Hassan Whiteside. The Blazers are poised to run out a starting five of Lillard, McCollum, Hood, Zach Collins and Whiteside with Bazemore, Hezonja, Tolliver and Anfernee Simons as bench support. In a post-Kevin Durant-Golden State Warriors world, that roster could be quite scary. And if Lillard and McCollum can continue their stellar play from the 2018 playoffs – or at least the first two rounds – then the Blazers could be a top-four seed and contend for the Western Conference crown. But they’ll need exceptional performances on most nights. The conference will both be extremely tough — and the Northwest Division will be decided by two or so games — unfortunately, I expect the Blazers to be on the wrong side of that equation.
3rd Place-Northwest Division
– Drew Maresca
The Blazers got all the way to the Western Conference Finals last season before their inevitable defeat at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. That alone, however, is a big step for this team. The conference has no shortage of talented teams, but why couldn’t the Blazers advance one round further and make it to the Finals this time around? An injury here or there to another team and, with the right breaks, it’s not inconceivable. The upcoming hierarchy is wide open and the Blazers have as good a chance as any to come out of the conference. They have a star-studded backcourt with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. They may be without Jusuf Nurkic for a while, but they brought in Hassan Whiteside. They’re going to have to replace some of their depth they lost this offseason, so they’ll need to get some solid development from Zach Collins, Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons, two of which were not in the rotation last season. But if all goes right, it’s not surprising to think the Blazers could be the conference representative in the NBA Finals.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– David Yapkowitz
The last look we had of Portland was a sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, but the lasting image was Damian Lillard’s 40-foot buzzer-beater to send the OKC Thunder packing just weeks earlier. Whoever thought the mighty backcourt of Lillard and McCollum were splitting up anytime soon was quite mistaken. Neil Olshey addressed areas of need by acquiring Hassan Whiteside as a stopgap big man that can protect the rim and snagged Kent Bazemore as a proven veteran who provides plenty of depth. It’ll be crucial for youngsters like Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons to step up. Still, any year we’ve doubted the Trail Blazers, Terry Stotts and company have proved us wrong. Make it seven straight playoff appearances for Rip City in a close competition at the top of the Northwest Division.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Portland Trail Blazers look like a team more balanced and structured to compete for a championship — the problem, however, is that they are one of six or seven teams in the conference poised to make serious noise. The fact the Blazers have a superstar in Lillard and a complementary second star in McCollum make them a favorite to get out of the gate faster than most. Ultimately, that can be the difference between a top seed or the fifth. The only weak point of concern is head coach Terry Stotts. While a quality head coach in the NBA, the question is this: Does he have enough to push a Blazers team he’s been coaching since 2012 into the elite status? Portland has the players, but time will tell if they have the coach.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Steve Kyler
The Trail Blazers are one of the handful of teams who saw several talented players depart this offseason in free agency of through trades. However, the Blazers did bring in a nice group of veterans as well, including Kent Bazemore, Hassan Whiteside, Pau Gasol, Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja. Age is an issue for players like Gasol and Tolliver, but each one of these players can be a contributor in some meaningful way. Nassir Little is also a nice pickup from this year’s draft. The issue for this team is that it doesn’t have the overall talent of some of the other contenders in the Western Conference and need several things to break right in the postseason for there to be any realistic hope of advancing deep into the playoffs. If players like Whiteside, Hezonja or perhaps Zach Collins have unexpectedly strong seasons, that could change the dynamic for Portland. Also, it is unwise to count out any team that is led by the dyanmic duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. However, as currently constructed, I think Portland will struggle to overcome some of the other contenders in the Western Conference this upcoming season.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Blazers are heavily invested in the 2019-20 season with over $145 million promised in guaranteed salaries. Barring a midseason trade to shed contracts, Portland will be on the hook for at least $22 million in luxury taxes. With that in mind, both Hassan Whiteside and Kent Bazemore have sizeable expiring contracts, but the team just acquired the pair over the offseason.
Before November, the Blazers need to decide on options for Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons. Skal Labissiere is eligible for a contract extension prior to the season. With patience, Portland may be able to get under the luxury tax for the 2020-21 season, just with contracts coming off their books, but they aren’t likely to be a significant spender under a projected $116 million salary cap.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Damian Lillard
Unlike in 2018-19, Lillard backed up another ridiculous regular season by reaching that rare level of performance in the playoffs. His game-winning, walk-off 37-footer over the outstretched arms of Paul George to eliminate the Oklahoma City Thunder is already the stuff of legends. Further, he deserves credit for helping the Blazers get out to multiple double-digit halftime leads in the Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors.
Lillard, it’s clear by now, is the type of lead ball-handler that can lift an offense toward the top of the league without an elite-level supporting cast. Portland finished third in offensive rating last season and scored nearly 12 fewer points per 100 possessions with Lillard on the bench. He’s the most dangerous pull-up shooter in basketball other than Stephen Curry and James Harden, but that reality almost takes away from the subtle strides Lillard has made as a passer and finisher in recent years to become one of the most well-rounded offensive players in the league.
The Blazers’ championship hopes are longer than many fans and those within the organization like to believe. But with an offensive engine and culture-setter like Lillard around, it would be foolish to suggest they aren’t at least somewhat realistic.
Top Defensive Player: Zach Collins
Collins will spend most of his time in 2019-20 playing out of his ideal position at power forward, at least until Portland makes a big splash around the trade deadline. But it speaks to his rare and ultra-valuable defensive versatility that the Blazers feel comfortable entering their most hopeful season in years with Collins on that task.
Rim-protection has been the 21-year-old’s calling card since he entered the league in 2017-18, and that continued last season. He has natural timing as a shot-blocker and has already perfected the art of meeting attackers in the air with verticality. Collins won’t be confined to the paint nearly as often this season, though, which is why his nascent ability to keep up with ball handlers on the perimeter looms so large to Portland’s prospects defensively.
Top Playmaker: Damian Lillard
Lillard wasn’t born with the nuanced-playmaking ingenuity of Trae Young and lacks the size necessary to make cross-court passes that are a staple of James Harden’s game. But through years of serving as the Blazers’ primary ball-handler and after countless hours of film study, he’s worked himself into one of the most effective table-setters in basketball.
Lillard — and by proxy Portland’s offense at large — was neutered in the first round of the 2018 playoffs by the New Orleans Pelicans putting two on the ball defensively in pick-and-roll action. He killed the Thunder when they tried a similar approach last spring, routinely creating extra space by stringing out his dribble, hitting the roll man or weak-side shooters with perfect timing and pinpoint accuracy — that is, if he wasn’t turning the corner or splitting defenders to get a shot for himself. Lillard showed a far better sense last season of creating scoring opportunities for his teammates while penetrating, too, upping both his pass percentage and assist percentage on drives to easy career-high levels, per NBA.com.
Top Clutch Player: Damian Lillard
Portland’s 115.3 offensive rating in the clutch last season ranked third in the league, and it’s not hard to see why. Offense inevitably reverts mostly back to one-on-one play in crunch time, an ideal setting for Lillard and McCollum to flex their muscles as two of the game’s best shot-makers from all over the floor. It was McCollum, remember, who played the hero in Game 7 against the Denver Nuggets last May when Lillard was noticeably fatigued.
Lillard’s shooting numbers in the clutch are worse than his late-game reputation suggests, and significantly lower than McCollum’s, too. Still, any suggestion that he isn’t the Blazers’ top crunch-time player ignores both the fear he instills in opposing defenses with the ball in his hands when it matters most as well as his career-long flair for the dramatic.
There have been less than 10 walk-off buzzer-beaters in NBA playoff history and Lillard owns two of them. The only other player with multiple such game-winners? Michael Jordan.
The Unheralded Player: Jusuf Nurkic
All but one of the 15 players with the league’s best net ratings last season played for the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors or Golden State Warriors, per NBA.com. The lone exception? Nurkic, who was coming into his own as one of the game’s most useful two-way centers before suffering a devastating lower left leg injury in late March.
Nurkic’s success is largely dependent on the limited scope of his responsibilities within Portland’s schemes. He isn’t a three-point shooter despite rare touch for a player his size; plus, Nurkic can still struggle to finish over length even though he’s made obvious progress in that regard recently. The Blazers don’t ask him to leave the paint defensively, either, a strategy Terry Stotts has long preferred and one that best suits the center’s physical profile, but nevertheless leaves Portland susceptible to elite pull-up shooters.
But Nurkic, who’s graded among basketball’s best rim-protectors each of the last two seasons, is the rare traditional big man who makes a consistently positive impact on both sides of the ball regardless. Here’s hoping the growth he made last season, especially on offense as a finisher on rolls to the rim and high-post passer, hasn’t been forever wasted by an injury that will sideline him until the All-Star break at the earliest.
At 25, Nurkic’s best days should still be ahead of him.
Best New Addition: Kent Bazemore
Bazemore isn’t a panacea on the wing. He faded as a long-range shooter last season after connecting on a career-best 39.4 percent in 2018-19, and, perhaps more importantly, isn’t quite as versatile on the other end as his reputation suggests. Bazemore is a dogged, physical one-on-one defender with a freakish wingspan, but is far better suited to check star guards than forwards. At 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds, he’s just not big enough to make life hard on the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, even though he’ll be their primary defender when the Blazers face the Los Angeles-based Lakers and Clippers.
Still, Aminu and Harkless, effective as they were at times, were never true stoppers of oversized playmakers and Bazemore offers far more offensively than either. He can capably run a second side ball screen and attack aggressive close-outs by stepping into mid-range jumpers. Bazemore shot just 32.0 percent from deep in 2018-19, but that number was deflated by a larger share of pull-ups, attempts he’ll only take in a pinch with Portland.
Most potential contenders still have more on the wing than the Blazers. But with Bazemore, as long as his jumper reverts back to recent norms, Portland finally has a defense-first wing who won’t be easily schemed off the floor due to his broad offensive limitations.
– Jack Winter
WHO WE LIKE
1. The Hassan Whiteside Trade
The 2019-20 season could very well be the best opportunity for the Blazers to win a championship during Lillard and McCollum’s prime. Whiteside’s presence addresses that likelihood twofold: first as a worthy replacement for Nurkic, and second as a human trade exception should Portland opt to swing for the fences come mid-February.
Whiteside is a perfect fit for what Stotts asks of his centers defensively and, though he leaves much to be desired as a screener and dribble hand-off partner, gives Lillard and McCollum the lob threat they’ve never had with the Blazers. But the veteran’s greater utility could come courtesy of the $27 million he’s owed this season on an expiring contract, affording Portland major flexibility at the trade deadline it normally lacks.
The most intriguing possible trade target? Kevin Love, who grew up roughly 20 minutes from Moda Center and would surely rather spend his extended prime playing for titles with the Blazers than lottery balls with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
2. Anfernee Simons
Neil Olshey has every incentive to pump up Simons ahead of 2019-20. He’s not only next up in Portland’s long, successful history of promoting deep reserves to major rotation roles, but also this team’s most valuable trade chip.
A live-wire athlete with deep range on his pull-up jumper and the ability to get wherever he wants with the ball, Simons figures to be the Blazers’ third guard this season. Playing most, if not all, of his minutes next to either Lillard or McCollum is the ideal scenario for the 20-year-old to get his first taste of sustained playing time in the NBA.
Simons no doubt possesses the raw talent needed to make an impact; Olshey said in June that he has as much “natural, god-given basketball ability as anyone” he’s ever drafted. Of course, he almost certainly won’t live up to that status this season, but Simons could be the difference between home-court advantage and fighting for a playoff spot should he flash it on a game-by-game basis.
3. Anthony Tolliver
Tolliver may not be in Stotts’ rotation to begin the season. He’s certainly not starting, and it would be in the Blazers’ best interest, both this season and long-term, if Mario Hezonja and rookie Nassir Little were ahead of him in the pecking order.
Either way, there will come a time when Tolliver’s number will be called, and he’s likely to deliver. The 34-year-old is limited athletically, but makes up for it on defense by constantly talking, staying scheme sound and playing with unrelenting energy every time he steps on the floor. Tolliver’s bigger influence will come on the other end, where he’s a willing, deadeye three-point shooter that has worked tirelessly to extend his range far behind the arc.
It would be disappointing if Hezonja didn’t carve out a consistent role, and Portland would be best served by Little – who has the raw physical tools of an impact multi-positional defender – finding his niche early. But in whatever role he takes on, Tolliver will be ready.
4. Pau Gasol
Gasol appeared in only three games last season after signing with the Milwaukee Bucks in March, beset by the same nagging pain in his right foot that previously caused him to miss 28 straight games with the San Antonio Spurs. Even with a clean bill of health heading into 2019-20, there’s no guarantee the 39-year-old is up to the task of playing a more minor role off the bench – especially after undergoing surgery to repair a fractured navicular bone in his left foot, a dreaded injury for big men.
Still, Gasol brings three attributes to the table that will help ease the pain of Nurkic’s absence in the season’s early going: Rim-protection, three-point shooting and perimeter playmaking. Mobility was Gasol’s greatest weakness even before his surgery, but that deficiency matters far less in the Blazers’ defense, where he’ll very rarely leave the paint, instead using his 7-foot-5 wingspan as an obstacle between penetrators and the rim.
The margins matter for teams with title aspirations. Gasol won’t be a cog for Portland, and there’s an outside chance that injuries and age have left him almost unplayable. But if he’s indeed a part of the Blazers’ rotation, Gasol could be very useful in a low-minute bench role – especially if Whiteside is actually dealt at the trade deadline.
– Jack Winter
The Blazers’ trump card is self-evident: No team in basketball, with the possible exception of the revamped Clippers, boasts a better pair of shot-makers than Lillard and McCollum. Simons, in a perfect world, will provide the type of dynamic offense from the bench they’ve lacked for years and Stotts won’t hesitate to go small with Rodney Hood at power forward when necessary. Portland, second in offensive rebounding last season, could be even more dominant on the glass while starting a pair of seven-footers.
It would be something close to shocking if the Blazers’ offense wasn’t again among the league’s best. But their greatest strength is, and long has been, the unwavering sense of culture instilled by Stotts and Lillard. Portland is among the league’s most well-coached teams, consistently outperforming preseason forecasts despite annual churn in the middle and bottom half of the rotation.
For well over a decade, the San Antonio Spurs were the league’s gold standard of chemistry, culture and the ideal that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. Now, it’s the Blazers who have earned and own that distinction.
– Jack Winter
Portland finished 16th in defensive rating last season and lost its two most flexible defenders without replacing them with like-sized wings. Whiteside just isn’t as reliable on the backline as Nurkic, that goes without saying. But slotting Collins, a more personnel-dependent switching option, at power forward for major minutes will undoubtedly leave the Blazers subject to more frequent defensive rotations. Bazemore is undersized; Rodney Hood, better engaged on that side of the ball after signing with Portland last season, still doesn’t hang his hat on defense.
The Blazers feature several impact defenders, both on the perimeter and interior, and will fight like hell. The lack of wing depth on this roster will be a huge problem against specific opponents, though, while its holes and redundancies overall could lead to struggles defensively that few are anticipating.
– Jack Winter
THE BURNING QUESTION
Are the Blazers real contenders in a stacked Western Conference?
The Clippers stand alone in the conference as the team just as likely to win the conference’s top playoff seed as they are to reach the NBA Finals. The Lakers, like all LeBron-led teams, are bound to reach another gear in the playoffs. The Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz will rack up regular season wins with ease, and have clear championship ceilings by virtue of internal growth and star-level summer additions.
Where does that leave Portland? Everyone within the organization insists it belongs with that group above, a belief indeed rooted in more than wide-eyed hope. But the Blazers simply possess less overall talent than other teams with championship dreams. Moreover, the Conference Finals appearance that’s made them more believable than ever come with asterisks of favorable matchups on the way there and a sweep at the hands of the Warriors.
Bottom line: It’s easier to envision Portland missing the playoffs altogether than hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy come mid-June. Yet writing the Blazers out of the championship picture entirely, as they’ve proven time and again over the past few years by defying expectations, would still be remiss.
– Jack Winter
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