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Portland Trail Blazers Season Preview

Photo by: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

By Matthew Zimmer

Now, before we get started, I’ll admit … I’m no Peter Sampson. However, I think I can give you a good look at the 2020 Portland Trail Blazers season.

Offseason Moves

If you haven’t been paying attention to basketball news with football going on, I get it. In that case, you may not know about everything the Blazers have been up to in their short offseason.

Portland added:

  • Enes Kanter (3-team trade with Boston, Memphis)
  • Robert Covington (trade with Houston)
  • Derrick Jones Jr. (signed in free agency)
  • Harry Giles III (signed in free agency)
  • Rodney Hood (re-signed in free agency)
  • Carmelo Anthony (re-signed in free agency)
  • CJ Elleby (drafted in second round of NBA Draft)

With all these additions — and yes some are just guys returning like Hood, Melo and Kanter — Portland is hoping to reclaim the magic it had to go deep in the Western Conference playoffs. I’ll talk about each player a little more in depth later.

Portland’s exits:

  • Hassan Whiteside (signed with Sacramento)
  • Trevor Ariza (traded to Houston)
  • Mario Hezonja (traded to Memphis)
  • Jaylen Adams (signed with Milwaukee)
  • Wenyen Gabriel (signed with New Orleans)
  • Caleb Swanigan (unrestricted free agent)

Honestly, these players leaving won’t really have a huge impact on Portland to me.

Whiteside was a stat stuffer, but also a good low post defender. Replacing him with Kanter will boost the offense with the second unit, but hurt the defense.

Ariza was getting older, and replacing him with Covington, Jones Jr., and a healthy Hood won’t make Ariza’s absence really noticeable.

Hezonja was just a nightmare, and we all held our collective breath when he was forced into action.

Adams and Gabriel were actually fun to watch in the bubble, and I’m genuinely sad to see Gabriel go. He wouldn’t have gotten a chance to play much with the Blazers suddenly crowded front court, but he was entertaining.

Caleb Swanigan was never going to be back with Portland.

The Starting Five

The Blazers had four preseason games, where they went 1-3. They only had the same starting five twice.

One game Jusuf Nurkić wasn’t available due to finishing the NBA’s COVID-testing protocols, the other Damian Lillard sat out simply for rest.

Now, Terry Stotts could choose to go with a matchup-based lineup each night, but that’s not really what we’ve seen in the regular season in the past.

So, based on the preseason, expect the following starting five (as long as they stay healthy).

  • PG: Damian Lillard
  • SG: CJ McCollum
  • SF: Derrick Jones, Jr.
  • PF: Robert Covington
  • C: Jusuf Nurkić

The Bench

The next batch of players could rotate each night, but there’s a clear indication Gary Trent Jr., Rodney Hood, Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter will get consistent minutes each game.

After those four, I don’t expect to see a lot of other bench players. However, Anfernee Simons will likely get some backup point guard minutes, but if he struggles then Stotts will likely just let McCollum and Lillard split time with the second unit.

I don’t think we’ll see much from Keljin Blevins, CJ Elleby, Harry Giles III or Nassir Little, unless somebody needs a game off or players get injured. Also, we haven’t seen Little yet in any preseason action.

When Zach Collins comes back it will be really interesting to see how Stotts integrates him back into the lineup. Does he only play off the bench? Would he and Trent be the sixth/seventh men off the bench?

One thing we know, this is one of the deeper teams Stotts has had in his time in Portland. Even though players may not like their minutes per game, it’s obviously better to have more options than not enough choices to pick from.

The Positives

The big three are healthy:

  • Dame, CJ and Nurk will start the season together after Nurkić missed the regular season before playing in the Orlando NBA bubble.
  • Honestly, everyone but Zach Collins is healthy, that we know about.
  • Nassir Little is out for the opener against Utah, though the reasoning hasn’t been announced.

The defense will be in both the positives and the concerns category:

  • On paper, the defense should improve drastically with the additions of Covington and Jones.
  • On the court, it will take a little longer, as indicated by the Blazers getting blown out in their two preseason games with Denver (126-95 & 129-96, oof)

Continuity and Chemistry

  • Despite the long list of additions I mentioned at the top, three of them are not totally new. Melo, Hood and Kanter have all played with the Blazers at some point in the last two seasons.
  • Covington and Jones will be the biggest players who need to adjust to their teammates and who the team will need to adjust to, but they looked like solid fits in the preseason.
  • Neil Olshey sold continuity and chemistry almost since he got to Portland, and the last two years he’s shaken things up. Portland hopes the players will mesh quickly because with only 72 games, they won’t have time to rally like they did last season in the bubble.

Damian Lillard

  • He’s getting MVP hype
  • He’s one of the most clutch players in the NBA
  • He’s one of the best leaders in the league
  • As long as the Blazers have him, they’re going to have a chance.

The Concerns

The Defense

  • As mentioned, they looked … not good in the preseason on defense.
  • In six of eight seasons with Stotts at the helm, Portland has ranked in the bottom half of the NBA in defense.
  • Covington, Hood, Jones and Trent should all help with Portland’s defense, but as we saw against Denver, it will not be an overnight fix.
  • Along with the new guys/returners from injury, Lillard and McCollum acknowledged they also need to help more on defense. They can’t just let the others fix the defense, they have to help. We’ll see how much they can.

Spreading Minutes Appropriately

  • With depth comes juggling player minutes; Terry Stotts has his hands full with this roster.
  • As detailed above, I think it’s obvious who will and honestly should play. However, Stotts has control and knows the guys better than I ever will because he sees them every day.
  • In the regular season, Stotts tends to play an eight- or nine-man rotation. During the postseason, Stotts usually prefers a reduced rotation like seven or eight, if need be.

Backup Point Guard

  • Last year, Olshey talked up Anfernee Simons so much there was no way he could live up to the hype… and he didn’t.
  • Lillard and McCollum played the role of point guard for the Blazers second unit, and that can work, but it means 35+ minutes per game for both guys for almost all 72 games.
  • If Simons improves that’s great, but also he may not get the real chance to do that with 10 fewer games.
  • Could Stotts go unconventional with Hood running the point? Sure, but I don’t see it happening. I think he’ll go with what he likes more, Dame or CJ in charge.

Prediction

I believe in the Blazers. I think they could be one of the best teams in the NBA.

Taking potential injuries out of the equation — aka everyone stays healthy — I think the floor for Portland is the No. 8 seed. However, their ceiling is an NBA Title.

Yes, I know that sounds like I’m being a homer, but say all my “if’s” from above work out, they could win the title.

The likeliest scenario is obviously somewhere in the between those two options.

With unpredictable situations like positive COVID-19 tests or unforeseen injuries, it’s likely the Blazers finish as a middle of the road team in the West.

I think Portland could beat almost anyone in the West, but they could just as easily lose to anyone in the West.

Damian Lillard hasn’t missed the playoffs since his rookie year, and I’m not betting against him.

If I’m looking at things from a realist’s standpoint instead of an optimist’s outlook, here’s what I think.

Portland will be a Top 4 seed. They will win at least one postseason series.

Beyond that, I’m not sure they could beat either LA team in the second round of the postseason. If they do, then the Blazers have a chance to win the NBA Title.

For now, I’m predicting a second round exit for Portland.

Season Opener

If you’ve read this far, thank you! Here’s what you need to know about Wednesday’s opener for the Blazers.

Where: Home at the Moda Center vs. Utah

When: Tip-off at 7 p.m.

Watch: NBC Sports Northwest

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