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2019-20 NBA Season Preview Series: Portland Trail Blazers

Portland Trail Blazers v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Four

If there’s one NBA team that does a great job of utilizing the idea of disrespect, it’s the Blazers. For years everyone kept sleeping on Damian Lillard and all he did was become one of the best point guards/players in the entire league. A lot of people didn’t believe the Dame/McCollum backcourt could work, and all they’ve done is become perhaps the best backcourt duo in the entire league. Even last season they were projected to barely be over .500 at 42.5 wins and they won 53 games and were a 3 seed, which was their best season since 2013. Their run to the WCF was the deepest they’ve gone since 1999-2000. Yeah, they got swept by the Warriors but they are hardly the only Western Conference team to get waxed by a mostly healthy GS team and two of those losses were by 2 points. Despite their success last season, once again the basketball world is projecting a step back for the Blazers. Their win total projection is down to 45.5, which tells me Vegas isn’t sold that what we saw last season was for real. Despite back to back seasons as a 3 seed and over 45.5 wins, that’s going to be the story for me this season with POR. Can they prove that they truly are a top 3 contender in the West, and while all the teams around them loaded up this summer let’s not act like the Blazers haven’t been pretty damn good for the last few seasons. As always, before we look ahead to what we can expect from this group, we first must relive their pretty dominant 2018-19 season.

2018-19 Season Highlights

The Blazers enter this season with largely the same roster we saw end the season last year. Jusuf Nurkic is still out with his broken leg, and the replacement they’ve found for him in Hassan Whiteside on paper should do the trick holding down the center position until he gets back. Now with Whiteside it’s anyone’s guess what type of player you’re going to get. Are you getting the guy who when he’s motivated is actually a big of a monster and a walking double/double and legit rim protector?

Or are you going to get the version who is over weight, has no motivation and is a big of a locker room cancer? His stint in MIA certainly didn’t end well, but something tells me a new environment and a new role might do him some good. We saw last playoffs what losing Nurkic did to this team, and considering Whiteside is only 30 and most importantly in a contract year. That’s why I think we’re going to get the best version of Whiteside, he’s playing for his next NBA contract. A quick look at the rest of their roster

Screen Shot 2019-09-25 at 9.18.06 AM

and you are looking at the most expensive roster in the NBA and this doesn’t even factor in Dame’s supermax which will bump him to a starting salary of $43M next season or CJ’s extension which bumps him to $30M. When you’re writing these type of checks, you better win, and with the Blazers reinvesting in this core they believe they have the talent to truly contend. They added some nice offensive firepower to a team that was already 3rd in the NBA on offense, and there’s reason to believe this year’s version could be even better. That starts with the addition of the shooting that this year’s team will have. Sure they lost Seth Curry but they added Kent Bazemore who had a down year last year but is good for nearly 2 3PM a night. They kept Rodney Hood who proved to be a respectable outside shooter during last year’s playoffs. Maybe finally getting out of NYK will do wonders for Mario Hezonja. Someone like Anthony Tolliver is about as consistent and steady as they come from deep where he’ll live at around 37-42% and will be good for a couple of threes a night. He’s a guy who knows his role and won’t fuck shit up. This is important because last season the Blazers were 16th in 3PM, but a top 10 team in 3P%. Adding more options around the perimeter is going to be valuable when you have guards like Dame/CJ that command so much attention. This was a team that ranked in the 27th percentile in spot up shooting and shot just 35.7% in catch & shoot situations, good for 25th in the league. Any sort of improvement in this area is going to have a legit impact on how teams defend POR. Obviously the more shooting threats you have, the more things open up for your best players.

But of course, they will live and die by however far Dame/CJ take them. For someone who has sort of made a name for himself coming up in huge moments, Dame actually kinda stunk in the clutch last season, averaging just 3.1 points on 36/28% splits. I wonder if this season we’ll see them go more to CJ, who had about half the clutch time FGA but averaged 42/41% splits. Their usage rates weren’t all that close (33% vs 22%), and honestly CJ’s offensive bag is so deep this may be a small adjustment that ends up being beneficial. In terms of isolation, CJ is the better player by almost every metric. More points per iso possession, much better shooting splits, a higher scoring frequency and he ranked in the 70th percentile opposed to Dame’s 53rd. Dame is a cold blooded killer there’s no denying that, but a lot of the evidence suggests CJ should get more of the responsibility when things get close. I mean we JUST saw this in the postseason

But if the Blqzers truly want to cement themselves as a legit contender, they need to get a lot better on the defensive end. Their offense is great but if you pair it with a 16th ranked defense in a stacked conference, that’s just not going to get it done. If we just look at where they ranked among Western Conference teams, they finished 7th and guess what every team around them (UTA/DEN/GS/LAL/HOU) has loaded up this summer. This was especially apparent in the postseason where their Drtg ballooned to 110.6 and opponents were scoring an average of 111 points against them which was the 13th worst among all playoff teams. As a reminder 16 teams make it. They had a real problem with defending without fouling and one thing we’ve learned is once you get to the postseason you have to be able to defend at a high level. Just look at what the Raptors did, they may not have had the most talent, but they defended their fucking asses off.

I’m also pretty intrigued by a couple of the Blazers young pieces in Anfernee Simons/Zach Collins/Nassir Little. They just picked up both Simon’s and Collins’ team options, and Simons had himself a hell of a summer league

Collins showed flashes last year

And Little is an intriguing wing who fell in the Draft who will probably be motivated as hell

Simons is going to have a real opportunity on that second unit with guys like Evan Turner and Seth Curry gone, and if he proves to be legit then that could be a difference maker for a team that was below league average in bench scoring last season.

What we know is the Blazers are once again going to be one of the best P&R teams in the NBA and they have the star level talent to be a real factor in a loaded conference. If they can show their shooting and defense has improved there’s no reason to think this team can’t once again fight for a top 3 seed. I know there’s a ton of hype surrounding a lot of other teams in the West, but all that tells me is once again the Blazers are being disrespected and history has shown they thrive when that happens.

Official Greenie Prediction: 49 wins