The Portland Trail Blazers did as well as anyone could have hoped for last season. Finishing the regular season with the third-best record in the Western Conference at 53-29. The best part? Portland found themselves playing their best basketball in the postseason. Behind the stunning play of guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, series wins over very quality teams in the Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets propelled the Blazers into the Western Conference Finals. Sadly, they met the same fate as all other Western Conference contenders in the past five years: eliminated at the hands of the Golden State Warriors.
With the loss in the Conference Finals now in their rearview mirror, Portland returns its two most crucial pieces in Lillard and McCollum, as well as retaining the services of Terry Stotts as Head Coach. However, the concern with this Blazers squad doesn’t lie with any of the proven pieces they’re returning to the court, but with the new additions to the roster and how different this Western Conference is from last year.
Internally, the Blazers know what they’re getting from Damian Lillard most of all, and it’s what they can rely on. The leader of the franchise in terms of both on-court presence as well as statistics, Dame posted averages of 25.8 points and 6.9 assists per game throughout last season, with the clearest example of his in-game dominance presenting itself in the Blazers’ first round playoff series against the Thunder. Lillard sealed his team’s entry into the next round with one of the greatest shots in the history of professional basketball. Simply put, having a player like Damian Lillard is an undeniable advantage and one the Blazers are glad they carry into 2019-20.
DAMIAN LILLARD JUST WON THE SERIES ON A RIDICULOUS GAME-WINNING BUZZER-BEATER pic.twitter.com/TWHdPltaFA
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) April 24, 2019
CJ McCollum, Lillard’s running mate in the backcourt, returns to the Blazers as one of the last few pieces that we can be certain will produce for Portland at a high rate. Managing to score over 20 points per game for the fourth straight season in 2018-19, McCollum provides elite caliber marksmanship that can, at times, seem unstoppable due to his efficacy for hitting contested jumpers. Needless to say, Portland isn’t worried about their star guards, but they need to be worried about other positions.
The offseason signaled the departure from the Portland Trail Blazers of key players Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless, Seth Curry and Meyers Leonard, with starting center Jusuf Nurkic still out indefinitely with a horrific leg injury sustained last season. Even Enes Kanter, brought in to provide depth at the center position due to Nurkic’s injury, has left the Blazers for the Boston Celtics. Most notable among those brought in to fill out the Blazers roster include Kent Bazemore, Hassan Whiteside, Mario Hezonja and, entering his 18th NBA season, Pau Gasol. With all of the aforementioned players bringing respectable qualities to the court, one aspect is notable in its absence: defense. Aminu and Harkless united as a downright fearsome defensive duo within the starting five, creating more room for Portland to open up their game and take increased chances. I don’t imagine the Blazers are under any delusions that Bazemore and Hezonja are going to match that intensity.
Nurkic’s injury also leaves the Trail Blazers with the unenviable position of having to split minutes at the center position between Hassan Whiteside, whose game comes across as one dimensional more often than not, and Pau Gasol, nearing the end of his tenure in the NBA. While a prime Pau Gasol was a terror on both ends of the court with the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Lakers, age has slowed his game and made him essentially a defensive liability with minuscule offensive production. With Nurkic displaying clear improvement in his defensive capabilities as well as his playmaking last season prior to his injury, Rip City is going to hope Nurkic can get back on the floor sooner than later.
While I don’t think this iteration of the Portland Trail Blazers is bad by any means, it’s hard to frame this roster as one that improved, or certainly one that is better positioned to make a postseason run once again. Elsewhere in the West, the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets have all assembled all-star duos with supporting casts whose capabilities exceed that of this Blazers team, making their potential road back to the Western Conference Finals incredibly perilous. Terry Stotts will have to pull something off that I’m not sure his roster will be capable of. The belief is that the tandem of Lillard and McCollum is still good enough to get you into at least the first round, especially if Jusuf Nurkic returns ahead of schedule. Expect bright spots from this team, but don’t expect a championship by any means.