It seems like the NBA season just wrapped up, because it did, but have no fear because the new regular season is just a week away and the Portland Trail Blazers are ready to get back in action on Wednesday, December 23. They’ll have their hands full as they will be taking on the Utah Jazz in that game, but it merely serves as just one piece of the puzzle for a team that drastically underperformed last season and is looking to bounce back in a big way in 2020-21.
Last year was a bit of a 180 of what was expected of this Blazers team. Damian Lillard is one of the premier talents in the NBA and he has a solid supporting cast around him but it didn’t come together last year as we all expected. The Blazers were just 35-39 and they barely were able to squeeze into the playoffs via the bubble play-in-game against the Memphis Grizzlies, a roster that was much younger and less experienced. They ranked third in offensive efficiency, a stat that makes you go “HELL YEAH.” But they followed that up by ranking 28th in defensive efficiency, a stat that makes you go, “WHAT THE HELL??”
Needless to say, the way the Blazers played on opposite sides on the floor was completely opposite of each other. There is no way you are winning games with the third best offense in the league if your defense is letting the worst offenses in the league score at will. This should be different this year as Terry Stotts looks to change his defensive philosophy. I think this alone is what makes the Blazers a better team this year and will help them win far more games than they should have last year. It’s a jarring change and will take some getting used to from the Blazers, but it is a necessary change. In this new defense, the big man on the floor will be pressuring the ball holder and it will be a more aggressive style that should lead to more steals and takeaways.
“I was reluctant to make the change because we had some good defensive teams with that coverage,” Stotts said. “But I just think the game has changed, and we kind of have to adjust how we attack things.”
The defensive philosophy change isn’t the only thing that will make this Blazers team better. They have also brought in different personnel and players that should make them a better defensive team. The additions of Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. has made this team more aggressive. That was a goal entering the season in executive Niel Oshley’s mind.
“Clearly (defense) was a need,” Olshey said last month. “Some of that will have to be addressed strategically in terms of how we are planning to play, but the majority of that needed to be solved from a personnel standpoint, which is my responsibility.”
The Blazers look to have a really top notch starting lineup with guys who are proven stars and other players who could really take a positive step into blooming this year. The Blazers will look like this on the floor:
PG- Damian Lillard
SG- C.J. McCollum
SF- Robert Covington
PF – Derrick Jones Jr.
C- Jusuf Nurkic
The obvious is that Damian Lillard returns at the star of this league. He is one of the top 10 players in the National Basketball Association and he has been extremely loyal to Portland despite a lack of winning at the level he would like to win at. Next up is his sidekick, C.J. McCollum. He may not be an All-Star or the top of his position but he has been next to Dame for a long time and they lean on each other to win games. The best addition will be Robert Covington who is a Top-10 player at his position. Gary Trent Jr. was the starter last year but this is a massive improvement for the Blazers who will get to pull him off the bench now.
The player I am most excited for in this lineup this year will be Jusuf Nurkic. He has become a top-10 center in the NBA and this could be the year where he takes another big step. He was only able to play in 8 games last season due to a fractured tibia and fibula and then coronavirus complications, but this could be the season where he is fully healthy and ready to shine for the Blazers. In his last healthy season he played in 72 games, averaging over 15 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, and one block per game. I think if Jusuf takes a step up from there, we could be looking at an All-Star season or something close to that. He is just 26-years-old with a ton of success in store for the future. Sports Illustrated recently ranked Nurkic as the 44th best player in the league and raved about him.
“With his playmaking and sheer size, Nurkić has fashioned himself into one of the NBA’s best screen-and roll threats, able to command an extra shred of attention while teammates create off him, punish switches, and elevate to the rim when given space. Opponents can ill afford to counter him with smaller bigs, and while he’ll never defend much on an island, he’s harder to play off the floor defensively due to his toughness and commitment. Nurkić was inching closer to his fully realized self even before reshaping his body. He may have unlocked something extra in the process.”
The Blazers will also have great depth this season. They welcomed back Carmelo Anthony, who said that it was tough to take on this lesser role but nonetheless he will be wearing a Blazers uniform and will be the perfect veteran to have on this team. They added back Enes Kanter from Boston, a guy who knows what it is like to be successful in Portland and had success in Boston, getting within two games of playing in his first NBA Finals. Maybe the most exciting reserve addition is Harry Giles, who comes from the Sacramento Kings and was a star in college. He will be a bit of a project for Stotts but management thinks there is plenty of untapped potential in the big man.
“I would describe my career as ‘on the way,’” Giles said when he first arrived in Portland this month. “I’m still growing. I think I haven’t been able to show my full self yet.”
In general, this Blazers team looks much better on paper than they did in 2020. There will be large expectations for them and if they want to continue making a star like Lillard happy, it’s important to improve this year. The Western Conference has never been as tough as it is now and the Blazers will have roadblocks along the way. Our prediction for the Blazers will be in between 35 and 40 wins and a chance at winning either the seventh or eight spot in the Western Conference. It’s unlikely that a lopsided record like last year will get the job done so expect more competition and hopefully more wins from this Portland team.