We’re an 1/8th of the way through the NBA season and the arms race in the Western Conference is as entertaining as ever. There are still plenty of games to get through, but so far the Portland Trail Blazers look like an elite team. We asked Fireside Sports co-hosts Bryant Knox and Casey Mabbott to break down what they’ve seen so far, and most important – if the Rose City has a legitimate title contender for the first time since 2001.
*Due to NCAA restrictions that have nothing to do with our staff, the podcast must be off the air this week as our writers’ union that doesn’t exist only tolerates three episodes per 28 days. We promise to have a show for you next week, but for this week only, we present an online, off-air debate!
1. Through their first 10 games, the Portland Trail Blazers are 8-3 and in third place in the Western Conference. What do you attribute to their fast start, and barring any major injuries, do you expect them to keep pace toward a record of 58-24?
(CM) I expected them to slow down last week after a great first few games, but here they are chugging right along and not making it easy on their opponents. I’ll be curious to see what they do against Golden State or a Houston team at full strength, but there is nothing I can take away from what they have done so far. They are beating the opponents they are scheduled against, nothing more you can ask for. Improved supporting cast is absolutely the reason for their success, along with Lillard and McCollum finding ways to be even more efficient. Only time will tell if they can sustain it, but I like what I see from them so far. For the first time in years, they have a very solid 7-8 man rotation that is looking as good as any other lineup in the league, on paper at least. Barring injuries or scoring slumps, I think they can absolutely finish with at least 50 wins.
(BK) The Blazers were always going to be better than their 41.5 over/under odds, given to them by the oddsmakers residing in America’s gambling capital. But tracking to eclipse 49.5 is a different story, and it’s one that a lot of people are embracing. As Casey stated, Portland’s early-season success has come from an improved second unit. Damian Lillard said as much in his walk-off interview after Thursday night’s victory over the LA Clippers. Can the Blazers keep the pace? Yes. Will they? Not likely. But don’t expect them to fall off the map either. As predictable as this group has become, I think it still has a few surprises up its sleeves.
2. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are arguably off to their best start since McCollum opened the 2015-16 season as the starting shooting guard. There has been plenty of discussion in the past about dealing one of them. Do you think this puts an end to those rumors, or will this only increase until one of them eventually gets traded?
(CM) Well this is absolutely going to ratchet up trade talk since every team in the league other than the Warriors and Rockets want one of them. Olshey has not budged on his stance to never trade “his” guys and I don’t think seeing them at peak power is going to all of a sudden cause him to change course. That said, if they can get an elite defender with a good outside shot, you have to at least listen to offers if it gives them a chance to improve. I’d like to see if they can build a contender with both of them and one elite wing defender, but so far that hasn’t happened. Collins is developing in to an elite rim protector, but they still lack a legitimate on-ball defender.
(BK) Sorry, Blazers fans. Talks aren’t dying down anytime soon. So far this season, Lillard has proved he’s the heart and soul of the team while McCollum has struggled to be a consistent blip on the national radar. But that’s why his outbursts, like we saw against Milwaukee, are so important for his own stock. As we approach the February trade deadline, the national media will find one of two storylines to grasp onto: Either McCollum is playing so well the Blazers must capitalize on the trade market, or he’s playing so poorly the Blazers need to enter the Tankathon. There’s no right answer—especially this early in the year. But to really answer the question: No, there’s no putting an end to the rumors.
3. Zach Collins appears ready for a starting role – do you want to keep him fresh and coming off the bench, or would you like to see him start alongside center Jusuf Nurkic? And will Collins and Nurkic being on the court together create problems trying to run an open court up-tempo offense?
(CM) Sooner or later they are going to need to switch the rotation so that Collins is the starter and Nurk is the reserve—or at least give Collins the bulk of the minutes in games that require a faster tempo, similar to how Golden State has managed their rotations in the last few years. If you are going to spread the floor, you have to have a 5 who can shoot outside and move with athletic forwards. I really like Nurk’s game, but he struggles keeping up with guys with quicker feet. Collins appears more and more each game to be the “unicorn” the team was after when it drafted Meyers Leonard. Having them on the court at the same time will definitely disrupt the flow of the offense over the course of a game, and if they knew what Collins would be right now, they may not have given Nurk such a big increase last year. Hindsight is always 20/20, so they made the right move with limited options, but now they will need to see if Nurk can handle playing backup minutes, or if he will demand a trade.
(BK) I agree with Casey—mostly. Where I disagree is that I want, very badly, to see Zach and Nurk on the court together as the 4 and 5, respectively. I think Collins is quick enough to keep up with traditional 4s, and he has a stroke good enough to keep defenses honest. Where there would be trouble is when teams go small ball and Collins fails to keep up. Assuming the Blazers quite ready to usher in a new era of old-school big-man lineups, Collins will remain the Sixth Man—even if he’s more deserving of starting than the incumbent starting 5.
4. Free agent acquisitions Sauce Castillo (this is his legal name as far as we are concerned) and Seth Curry have paid early dividends. Now that we have seen them in action, do you agree with GM Neil Olshey’s decision to pass on signing Ed Davis and instead spending on Castillo and Curry?
(CM) I admit, I hated the moves at the time, but seeing how things are going, I’m a believer in what Olshey has built. I don’t know if it will last long term, but at the moment, they appear to be the right moves, and Collins has absolutely proven he can handle the minutes Davis was previously occupying. I don’t know that Leonard or Biggie can take that on if Collins forces his way in to a starting role, but time will tell. I really like the depth off the bench, and the reserves are proving they can keep the tempo going when Lillard and McCollum need a breather. It’s been very inspiring to see the bench keep up regardless of the opponent; the Blazers haven’t had depth like this since 2013 when Mo Williams, Will Barton, and Allen Crabbe rounded out a quality eight-man rotation.
(BK) In a vacuum, I still hate letting Ed Davis go. He was a true enforcer, which the defense otherwise lacked; he was also a highly efficient offensive player at the rim who outright refused to take shots outside the paint. But we don’t live in a vacuum, do we? No, we don’t. We live in a universe with context and consequence. Context, specifically, is key here. Casey nailed it above: Zach Collins is killing it. Olshey let Davis go for pennies, which was a bummer—but he also had the foresight to know there was a Davis-in-waiting around the corner. The move will never be considered a popular one, but looking back on i—even in #SmallSampleSizeSZN—it was the right one.
5. While they have absolutely presented a more well-rounded offense, the Blazers still have issues stopping opponents. Do you think they can make a deep playoff run without at least one elite on-ball defender?
(CM) They can make a run with who they have, but it will be challenging since most of the top teams in their conference have an elite defender playing on the perimeter. It’s going to make life tough for the backcourt and put increased pressure on the frontcourt to maintain the offense, and they won’t be able to provide the same discomfort to their opponent. I don’t like the idea of dealing one of their best players to get the roster they need, but it won’t matter how well the guards shoot in the regular season if they suffer another disappointment in the playoffs. Ideally, you can deal a pick or Nurkic for a wing defender and move on to the Lillard-McCollum-Collins offense you really want to see. You’d have an elite rim protector who can score, two elite shooters in the backcourt, and a defender who can make trouble for the opposing team’s best guard or forward. Essentially, it would put Portland on the same map as 2014 Golden State. Unless the Pelicans or Raptors are comfortable dealing Jrue Holiday or Kawhi Leonard, they need to somehow make a move for Jimmy Butler before Houston finalizes their plans, giving them one of the best two-way players in the league and would cement them as a top-5 team.
(BK) Here’s a name you’re not going to hear a whole lot of early this season: Maurice Harkless. Harkless, who has been oddly quiet (so has his camp), and for that matter so has the team, regarding his injury, isn’t looking or sounding ready to contribute on a regular basis. That’s a big deal. For fans who read box scores and nothing else, you wouldn’t guess it. But Mo is the kind of stretchy, switchy wing who can defend multiple positions and can handle a little point-forward duty as well to take pressure off the team’s go-to scorers. At the moment, the Blazers are struggling to find consistency on defense, but they’re getting by. That’s good for now, but if Harkless can’t contribute throughout the year, that’s all they’ll be during.