The Portland Trail Blazers have had a pretty drastic offseason, all things considered. After trading for Robert Covington in exchange for two first round picks, signing Derrick Jones Jr. and Harry Giles in free agency and reacquiring Rodney Hood, Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter, the 2020 Blazers will have a whole new look and feel. Along with a return to full health for Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic, the team that limped into the 8thseed last season will have much higher aspirations this coming season.
First and foremost, this revamped roster should allow coach Terry Stotts the ability to be more flexible on the defensive end of the floor. For much of 2019, Hassan Whiteside was the only center in the rotation which required Stotts to play exclusively a drop-coverage defense. His slow footedness made anything else impossible and teams were more than able to exploit the interior of Portland’s defense.
Portland won’t be ditching this defensive scheme, but the 2020 version of it is a lot more palatable. While Nurkic isn’t the nimblest, his defensive discipline is much higher than the departed Whiteside and should make the paint a much more difficult place to attack. Carmelo will be returning but only in a bench-role, meaning the much larger Zach Collins or the more mobile Robert Covington will be playing those starters’ minutes at Power Forward. Covington, in particular, is a monster help defender coming off a season where he averaged 1.6 steals and 2.2 blocks per game. Gary Trent Jr will also feature heavily for the Blazers this season at both the 2 and 3. Just by a switching of personnel, Portland should finish well above it’s 28thranked finish on defense last season.
How much that defense will improve is the real question. While Hassan Whiteside was a bit thirsty when it came chasing blocks and was a statue when it came to perimeter defense, he did hold teams to 53.0% shooting at the rim. Nurk will have to seriously step up his at-rim defense to meet that number but will make up for it simply by being more active in both transition and the half-court. Portland also has the option to be more variable by taking Nurkic off the floor and sliding Zach Collins to center if they need to match-up against a small ball line-up.
Robert Covington is a welcome addition, but he doesn’t offer quite as much in man-to-man situations. Lebron had no trouble scoring on him in the playoffs, while bigger wings in the same mold were regularly able to get the better of him. RoCo will have no problem racking up defensive stats as he rotates in help defense, but Portland will still be in trouble against the best in the game. If Portland draws either LA team in this year’s postseason, the better option in that role may be Derrick Jones Jr. Long (6’11” wingspan), athletic (46-inch vertical) and smart, DJJ physically matches up with the best in the league. At the young age of 23, he has already proven to be a trusted part of the rotation in the Miami Heat’s final run and could be huge for Portland in the right match-up.
The biggest issue is and will forever be Portland’s guard rotation. Damian Lillard is one of the most destructive offensive forces in the league. His backcourt partner CJ McCollum isn’t too shabby himself. But both max out as below average defenders and therefore represent a weakness against the enemy’s point of attack. But with the upgrades in the front court, Dame and CJ don’t need to be relied upon as defensive grinders. Instead, they can focus on keeping in front of their marks and funneling drivers into the paint.
The Blazers made enough upgrades that they should climb out of the cellar in defensive ratings and with it put themselves back where they belong as contenders for a higher seed. While their guard rotation is still weak enough that teams still have an area to exploit, Portland’s defense should float somewhere around 10th to 15th in the league. Pair that with the mind-melting offense they showed in the bubble and Portland has a pathway to the Western Conference finals. Get there, along with the right mix of factors going their way, Portland even has a shot of finally getting over the hump to the NBA Finals.