For a while now, the Portland Trail Blazers have been a team centered around the scoring exploits of their star guards, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. That’s a setup that’s worked fairly well for them, as the Blazers have won an average of 45 games and finished fifth, eighth, and third in the Western Conference during the three seasons they’ve been led by Dame and CJ.
Last year looked like it might be the best one yet for Portland as they won 49 games and grabbed the No. 3 seed in the West … only to then get swept right out of the playoffs by the Pelicans, whose size advantage on the perimeter smothered Portland’s offense to the point where the Blazers could barely even get to the actions that typically kickstart their “flow” system. Lillard and McCollum were held below their combined regular season scoring average (48.3 points per game in the regular season, 43.8 in the playoffs) and the rest of the Blazers were largely too offensively impotent to make the Pellies pay for devoting so much attention to the stars.
For seemingly the third or fourth straight year it sounded possible that the Blazers would make a drastic change over the offseason, but instead they ended up bringing back largely the same group of players, shuffling only on the margins. They retained Jusuf Nurkic on a four-year, $48 million deal but let Ed Davis, Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton walk, all at discount prices. In their place, the Blazers signed only Nik Stauskas and Seth Curry, after drafting uber-athletic project guard Anfernee Simons and Duke Sniper Gary Trent Jr. They neither cut salary nor added significant talent nor changed the composition of their roster in a meaningful way. It seemed odd, to say the least.
We’re barely two weeks into the 2018-19 season, but at least so far, the Blazers are being rewarded for their faith in the players they already had on their roster.
In letting Davis leave, the Blazers opened up larger roles for Jake Layman and Zach Collins. Layman has been solid if unspectacular as a ceremonial starter, but Collins is crushing it off the bench behind Nurkic. The Blazers were extraordinarily reluctant to include Collins in any trade talks last year or during the offseason, and his hot start is exemplifying why that was the case. He’s easily the team’s most versatile two-way big men, capable of both creating space on offense and guarding it on defense. He can also shoot with a level of consistency from outside the paint, which is something that cannot really be said of Nurkic. He’s showed off sparkling decision-making when asked to make plays off the catch in pick-and-rolls. And his screens and hand-offs have played a crucial role in multiple victories. It helps that he’s light on his feet, able to cover for the defensive shortcomings of the Blazers’ guards.
Even the decision to have Evan Turner work with the ball in his hands more often when he’s on the floor is looking good so far, as Portland’s offense has gone from dropping off by 5.3 points per 100 possessions with Turner in the game to largely holding steady when he’s on the floor, per NBA.com. Turner had the ball in his hands 9.3 percent of the time he was on the court last season, per Second Spectrum tracking data, but this year that number has rocketed up to 18.7 percent. He’s now possessing the ball far more often than McCollum—a big change from the past two years. This shift has minimized the negative impact of his inability to shoot, while also freeing up McCollum and the two backup guards to work off the ball, where they are each typically more dangerous. The Blazers also seem to have potentially hit on valuable bench contributors with those backups guards, as the sharpshooting Stauskas and Curry are providing more of what the Blazers seemingly need than did Napier and Connaughton.
In other words, this year’s “other guys” seem like a better fit to help a Dame and CJ-led team succeed. At least, that’s what it looks like so far. The Blazers do play the Pelicans in their next game on Thursday, and it’s there that we’ll get to see if the shifts they’ve made are enough to help them overcome their clear weaknesses against teams with as much size and foot speed as New Orleans has. Sure, Rajon Rondo is gone, but Elfrid Payton is there in his place and the Pellies still have Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis and they’ve added Julius Randle. They should be able to employ a similar, aggressive blitzing scheme against Lillard and McCollum as they did during their sweep six months ago.
It will be up to Layman and Collins and Turner and Stauskas and Curry, as well as holdovers Nurkic and Al-Farouq Aminu to prove they can actually make teams pay for doing that kind of thing this year. They weren’t able to get it done during that series. Whether or not Portland actually has a shot to make this team different than the 2015-18 versions will largely depend on whether they can do so now. Early returns are good, but early returns only matter so much. If it looks like more of the same, we may finally see the Blazers have to change course by the end of this season.