2019–2020 NBA Season Previews: Portland Trail Blazers
Head Coach: Terry Stotts
Last Season: 53–29, 3rd in Western Conference
- PG: Damian Lillard
- SG: C.J. McCollum
- SF: Rodney Hood
- PF: Zach Collins
- C: Hassan Whiteside
Additions: Kent Bazemore, Moses Brown (R), Pau Gasol, Mario Hezonja, Jaylen Hoard (R), Nassir Little (R), Anthony Tolliver, Hassan Whiteside.
Losses: Al-Farouq Aminu, Seth Curry, Moe Harkless, Enes Kanter, Jake Layman, Meyers Leonard, Evan Turner.
The Portland Trail Blazers have been one of the most slept on teams in the NBA over the past few seasons. Despite not being expected to advance past the second round over the last three years, Portland has exceeded projections and made a surprise trip to the Western Conference Finals last year for the first time since 2000.
Entering the 2019–20 season, Portland brings back most of its core including Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and an injured Jusuf Nurkic. The Blazers have been a model of continuity as they have now played the playoffs six years in a row. Things will be much tougher this season, however, as several Western Conference teams are poised to progress and make a run at the final playoff spots.
The recipe for success for Portland has been their stabilized core led by the explosive backcourt of Lillard and McCollum. Lillard put together another great regular season last year, but it was his postseason play that garnered the most attention. After putting up a dud in the 2018 playoffs, Lillard bounced back in a big way in 2019 and helped Portland prove the doubters wrong yet again. He also had one of the greatest moments in NBA history last season, as the 37-footer he knocked down on Paul George to eliminate the Thunder will go down as one of the more clutch shots in NBA history.
Lillard has made it very clear that he has grown tired of being overlooked. He considers himself a superstar, and his performance speaks for itself. Lillard has proven that despite not having an elite supporting cast, he can lift an offense to the top or very near it. Portland was 12 points worse per 100 possessions last season when Lillard was soft the court, a testament to his abilities.
Next to Lillard is McCollum, who put up 14 30-plus point games last season and averaged 21.4 points per game. While he’s limited defensively, McCollum has proven to be a great number two option for the Blazers. Like Lillard, McCollum is a fearless scorer who can knock down shots from anywhere on the court with ease. McCollum agreed to a 3-year, $100 million deal with Portland this summer, as the Blazers appear to be set on having McCollum and Lillard together despite rumblings of potential trades.
Outside of their star guard duo, the Blazers roster looks a lot different heading into the season. Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu are gone, while players such as Kent Bazemore, Hassan Whiteside, Rodney Hood and Mario Hezonja are in. While Bazemore isn’t going to set the world on fire, he’s a serviceable wing on both ends of the court. The 6-foot-5 wing knocked down a career high 38.9% of his 3-pointers two seasons ago, but saw that percentage drop to 32 last year. He can hold his own on defense as well, although he’s better suited covering guards.
Bazemore may not be as good defensively as Harkless or Aminu, but he makes up for it with his ability to shoot efficiently and run the offense as a secondary playmaker. Bazemore should split time at the three spot with Rodney Hood, who is more known for his offense. The Duke product thrived upon being traded to Portland last year, as he posted a effective field goal percentage of 51.9. This increase was highlighted by accuracy increases around the rim (10%) and mid range (4%), per Cleaning the Glass. Hood is a sparkplug on offense who can take over games in stretches. While he is projected as the starting small forward, he can also thrive in a bench role as the primary scorer for the reserve unit.
At the center position, Jusuf Nurkic emerged as one of the best big men in the NBA. The Bosnian Bear posted a top 15 net rating last year and was arguably the second best player on Portland’s roster behind Lillard. Nurkic fits perfectly into the Blazers scheme as an elite rim protector with a surprisingly good touch around the basket. Nurkic is one of the few traditional big men left in the league who excels at rolling to the rim and defending the interior.
With Nurkic injured and out until the All-Star break at minimum, Hassan Whiteside will take over as the starting center. Whiteside had a rather uninspiring end to his tenure with the Heat, as it appeared both sides were ready to move on from one another. Whiteside is the perfect center for Terry Stotts: a rim-roller who is made to the protect the paint defensively. Whiteside still leaves much to be desired on offense, especially as a post scorer and screener. On top of his limitations on the court, his attitude and work ethic have been questioned on numerous occasions. His immaturity when things don’t go his way is no secret.
Whiteside is currently under a $27 million expiring deal, which makes him a very interesting trade piece. Look for the Blazers to explore trading Whiteside once Nurkic returns. One deal that has been rumored is a Whiteside-Love swap. Given that Whiteside has just one year left on his contract, he will be a very flexible trade piece for Portland come mid-season.
X-Factor: C.J. McCollum
The biggest question surrounding McCollum at this point in his career is whether or not he will become more efficient. Last season, McCollum shot a career low 37.5% from long range. While this is by no means a bad number, more is expected from the Blazers shooting guard given his role in the offense.
With Nurkic out for most of the season, the Blazers will need everyone with the exception of Lillard to step up and replace his production. McCollum got off to a rocky start last year, but his offensive rating skyrocketed to 120 after the All-Star break. McCollum excelled in the playoffs last year as well and emerged as the second star the Blazers need. If he puts together a full season of good production, the Blazers have a chance of returning to the Western Conference Finals.
How does this team fare defensively?
The Blazers ranked 16th in defensive rating last year, and that was with two defensive-minded wings in Aminu and Harkless in the starting lineup. The additions of Bazemore, Hood, Whiteside, Pau Gasol, Anthony Tolliver and Hezonja won’t dramatically improve their defense, which raises the question: how good will this team be on that end?
The biggest key for Portland will be how Zach Collins fares defensively. Collins will be playing out of position at power forward, which will result in him being switched onto the perimeter more often than not. Collins is one of the better defenders on this Blazers team, especially in the paint where his instincts and shot-blocking timing is impeccable. Outside of him, I expect the Blazers to take a step back defensively. Whiteside does not provide the same impact as Nurkic, and most of the other additions fare better on offense than the other end.
How does the backup point guard spot pan out?
The only true point guard on the Blazers roster outside of Lillard is Anfernee Simons, who played sparingly in his rookie season last year. Simons strengths lie in his athleticism and pullup shooting, as the 20-year-old guard is due for an uptick in playing time this season with a chance to showcase those abilities.
Simons has the raw talent to succeed in the NBA, but should experience a steep learning curve this season as he projects to be the Blazers third guard. Simons should be decent on offense this year and will flash potential of his abilities every now and then.
What should we expect from Nassir Little?
Nassir Little was the only draft selection for the Blazers this season, as Portland used the 25th pick in the draft to select the one-and-done wing out of North Carolina. Little did not start a game all season at UNC and struggled to find his rhythm under Roy Williams. Originally a top prospect who looked like a lottery pick, Little was nearly left out of the first round of the 2019 Draft.
Little is a freak athlete who projects to be a good defender in the NBA, but his offense is still very raw. He struggles to take care of the basketball and has yet to develop a consistent jumpshot. Little was in the 22nd percentile last year with the Tar Heels in spot up shooting, which is concerning for his offensive potential in the NBA. He also had just a 0.6 assist-to-turnover ratio. Little is a project that will take plenty of years to develop.
I’ve underselled this Blazers team the past few years, and I won’t make the same mistake again this time. There’s no guarantee this team will make the playoffs in what will once again be a tough Western Conference, but the Blazers have been as consistent as it gets over the past few seasons. The Blazers should be back in the postseason in the lower half of the West’s top eight, but I can’t see them exceeding last year and making the Finals.