The Portland Trail Blazers go into 2021 needing to finally make some more progress in the playoffs. Back-to-back first-round exits are not going to keep Damian Lillard in Portland, and at some point, this team is going to have to rebuild. With the trade rumors continuing with CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard, the Blazers need to step forward into 2021 and see if they can reach the heights of 2019 when they reached the Western Conference finals.
The Damian Lillard problem
Had it not been for the rebellion of Ben Simmons, Damian Lillard would have been the most discussed star this offseason. After the Blazers’ first-round exit last season, falling in six games to the Nuggets, Lillard posted a photo of himself with the quote, “How long should I stay dedicated? How long til opportunity meet preparation?” This put the whole of the NBA on notice, with trade rumors circulating throughout the offseason.
Despite this, the Blazers go into the 2021 season with Lillard still with the team. At the Blazers media day, Dame said that he and the team had conversations throughout the summer about improving the team, and it seems Dame is going into the season with a newfound hope that this Blazers team can finally get deep into the playoffs.
Now, this is no certainty that come the end of the season, that Dame is still with the team. Considering the Ben Simmons situation developing in Philadelphia, the Sixers will be keeping a close eye on how the Blazers start the season and could look to make a move for the superstar if the Blazers begin the season poorly. It really is then crucial that the Blazers get off to a good start and are in a comfortable position right up until the trade deadline.
Strong Western Conference
The Blazers are slightly unlucky that it seems like going into 2021, both conferences have more than four teams that could make an NBA finals run. The league appears to be one of the most level it has ever been, excluding, of course, the Brooklyn Nets if they can stay healthy. It means the Blazers have a lot of competition heading into the season.
They finished the 2020/21 season as the sixth seed, tied on record with the Mavs and Lakers. The main problem the Blazers have to worry about is a couple of teams below them getting healthy. The Golden State Warriors should have a fully healthy splash brother partnership going into the 2021 season, and the Lakers are fully healthy and have added Russell Westbrook to one of the league’s most competitive rosters.
These teams will likely jump above the Blazers, meaning Portland needs to get past some of the teams above them. Hopefully, based on roster improvements and Damian Lillard playing at an MVP level, the Blazers will look to overtake the Mavericks, Nuggets, and even the Jazz in the west. They will need to if they want to have a home playoff round for the first time since 2019.
Who can step up?
The one certainty with the Blazers will be MVP-type performance from Damian Lillard. Lillard comes off the back of two phenomenal seasons, averaging 29.5 points per game across the last two seasons. Lillard combines his excellent scoring with improving playmaking, with 8 and 7.5 assists per game across the previous two seasons.
Lillard will still have his backcourt partner in CJ McCollum. McCollum comes into this season having just had his best points-scoring season of his career. The Blazers will not have to worry about the backcourt.
The Blazers’ problem is the same as it has been really since LaMarcus Aldridge left; they have a weak frontcourt. They attempted to improve this over the offseason, adding Cavs big man Larry Nance over the offseason. Nance has never been able to score more than 10 points per game across his season. But the former Lakers big man has added a three-point shot over the last few years.
Nance will likely partner with Robert Covington as the Blazers’ forward pair for the season. Covington is another 10 point per game scorer. The problem for the Blazers is not their scoring. The team ranked fifth in offense last season but had the second-worst defense in the NBA. Nance does not help that, being much more of a scorer than a defensive guy.
The Blazers also can’t get much defense from their center position either. Jusuf Nurkic is one of the premier scoring centers, but he does not offer much on the defensive side of the ball. Nurkic ranked as the 68th best defender in the NBA. Most of the defense in the upcoming season will have to be from Robert Covington. If he can step up and become one of the best defensive forwards in the NBA, it could be a massive help for the Blazers.
This season seems to be an all-or-nothing season for the Blazers. With Dame likely looking for a way out, the Blazers need to perform. I think they will do. With Lillard having extra motivation going into the year, I could see him having an MVP year, alongside more excellent scoring from CJ McCollum. This record would likely see them somewhere around the fifth spot in the west.
Playoff Prediction: Second round loss in six games.
The Blazers have a lot of motivation going into this year. I can see Dame carrying them through the first round, playing the series of his life. But the west is so powerful. If they make it through the first round, the Blazers may run into the Lakers, Clippers, or Suns.
If everyone is healthy, Portland just lacks that third star to help them get past some of these teams. It means likely another playoff disappointment for the Blazers, and we could see Damian Lillard in a different uniform after this season.