Dame. Time. Those are two words that instill fear across the NBA landscape. Paul George couldn’t handle it. James Harden and the Rockets wanted none of that smoke. If you’re an opposing NBA team and you look at your watch and the hand is hovering over a little picture of Damian Lillard’s head, you know there is no hope. Dread it. Run from it. Lillard is inevitable.
Unfortunately for Portland, the clock doesn’t strike Dame Time every night, it’s impossible even for one as godly as him. A peak at the rest of the roster shows why the Blazers have come up short of the NBA finals, year after year. They either have lacked the shooting or the defense to properly support a superstar like Damian Lillard in order to overcome the hurdles that the postseason flings up in their path. The Trail Blazers hope that 2021 will be different in that respect.
A couple of weeks ago, we took a look at how the defense for the Blazers projects during the upcoming season. It’s now time to turn our eyes to the offense, to see if they can properly space the floor around their franchise icon.
First up on that list will be Dame’s backcourt partner, CJ McCollum. Entering his 7th year as a Blazer, he’s been operating as Portland’s secondary creator/scorer. It’s a role that McCollum has become accustomed to… almost to his detriment. It’s never been the most seamless fit, as CJ is also a ball-dominant, score first guard. His shooting numbers means that he can fit into lower usage role, draining 37.9% of his threes last season on seven attempts per game. One can fairly wonder how an offense solely led by McCollum would look like – as well as the type of numbers he could put up – but he seems to have gladly accepted his secondary status. He also should be fully healthy again after a back injury slowed him down in the bubble, meaning Lillard won’t quite have to shoulder the same load he did late last season and postseason.
The biggest change to the Blazer’s starting line-up will come at the forward spots, as Zach Collins is injured, and Carmelo Anthony will be coming off the bench for this coming season. Coach Terry Stotts has already announced that free-agent signee Derrick Jones Jr will start the season at small forward and will bring quite a different dynamic than last year’s options. One intangible that he won’t be bringing to the table is shooting ability as Jones has never knocked down threes at a higher rate than 31% in any given season. While certainly not ideal, DJJ brings a different type of gravity that opposing defenses need to account for. He’s an absolute freak of an athlete, a willing cutter and monstrous finisher, hammering in 68% of his two pointers last season. If defenses decide to trap Lillard this season, Jones can take advantage of the four-on-three by crashing the paint. No rim is safe when the former NBA dunk champion is near.
The biggest acquisition this offseason has been Robert Covington, mainly for his tendency to wreak havoc on the defensive side of the ball. Fortunately, that’s not all he offers a team, as he has developed into a pretty good off-ball shooter. While last season was his first time posting a subpar shooting percentage (34.6%), he’s a career 36% shooter and attempts nearly seven three-pointers a game. He isn’t a flamethrower but operates as a positive floor spacer who can also put the ball on the floor and attack the rim when closed out. His passing vision and ballhandling is highly suspect, but thankfully with Dame and CJ in the line-up his on-ball usage will be highly minimized.
Most importantly, the Blazers will be welcoming back a fully healthy Jusuf Nurkic (the Bosnian Bear) back to the starting line-up. In the NBA bubble, Nurkic threw up a stat line of 17.6 ppg, 10.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists. That’s important production and highlights his status as the third star on this team. But it’s the subtly of his game that really makes the offense sing, mainly his partnership with Lillard in the two-man game and his passing vision. He’s an excellent screener and roll man, allowing Lillard both space and an outlet when he operates the high pick’n roll. Nurkic is also a key outlet for the Blazers when teams attempt to trap Lillard crossing half court, as he can either mash whatever match-up is switched on to him or spin a pass to the open man before the defense can reset. With the Bear manning the middle of the offense, Portland becomes a multi-dimensional puzzle for the opposition to figure out.
While these upgrades and the return of healthy players are nice, the Portland offense will be monstrous regardless. Even with the zombie supporting cast that he was forced to play with last season, Lillard still put up a stat line of 30.0 ppg, 4.3 rebounds, 8.0 assists on 46.3% shooting. He has proven he can thrive regardless of situation and drag the Portland offense with it, as the 2020 Blazers finished with a 113.7 offensive rating. What all these new pieces around him will accomplish is to let the Blazer’s star chill. Stotts played Lillard a ridiculous 37.5 minutes per game, which clearly affected him in the playoffs when the Lakers brushed them aside without trouble. A healthy McCollum can take some of the load, with Nurkic helping out in the scoring and playmaking departments.
What would further help is a deep bench, as having adequate back-ups will also let Dame kick back and relax. Carmelo Anthony, Enes Kanter and Rodney Hood have all proven to be offensive creators, with Anthony and Hood doubling as plus shooters (38.5% and 37.2% from three, respectively). Zach Collins (36.8%) and Gary Trent Jr (44.4%) are also good shooters, bring a defensive impact, and are young players that have a chance to take yet another step forward. Anfernee Simons is the biggest X-factor though, as he is the like-for-like replacement for Lillard. At only 20 years old, Simons got his first taste of NBA action last season which went… not great. As the backup point guard, Simons struggled to score efficiently (.469 eFG%) and create for teammates (1.4 ast per game). Despite these struggles, the Blazers remain high on him and are having him return in a similar role. If he can take a step forward, Terry Stotts would feel a lot better scaling back the minutes of his superstar.
The Portland Trail Blazers are deep, versatile and have a dark horse MVP candidate leading them. Offensively they should be nigh unstoppable on route to a top-5 regular season finish in terms of points scored. Mix that with some positive injury luck, the Blazers could be heading into the postseason with a rested superstar to contend with the leagues best. Pair that with a top 15 defense (previewed previously) and Portland could find themselves returning to the Western Conference finals with a shot at getting over the hump to the finals. A ton will need to go right and a ton more will have to not go wrong to get there, but the current roster construction has put them on the right path.