After securing their backcourt for the long term, the Portland Trail Blazers pivoted and put the rest of their faith in the unknown.
When Klay Thompson tore his ACL and Kevin Durant broke for the Nets, the rest of the Western Conference sensed an opportunity. As the Clippers, Lakers, Jazz and Rockets all jumped at the chance to fill the Warriors’ void, Blazers GM Neil Olshey did everything in his power short of trading Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum to shake up a core that seemed to have established a hard ceiling on itself.
The Blazers have one of the NBA’s preeminent stars and culture-setters in Lillard and a dynamic complementary scorer to boot; such a situation all but mandates that a team does everything within its power to contend. Drastic changes, however, come at a team’s own risk. Portland locked in its backcourt for the foreseeable future only to place the rest of its faith in the unknown.
The theory of the Blazers’ pivot is perfectly justifiable, though highly precarious. The Blazers could have waited to see how another year with the same core might have played out in a postseason run played against new opponents and under different terms. But the clock is ticking on Lillard’s prime, and desperation for teams in Portland’s situation seems to grow with each passing year.
Rather than testing the bounds of last year’s team and risking becoming stale, Portland remade its roster almost entirely by importing players who could more capably alleviate strain from Lillard and McCollum in the playoffs — even if it came at the expense of talent and continuity. For all their admirable work in niche roles, the limitations of Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Evan Turner repeatedly and agonizingly hampered the team in the postseason as opponents disregarded non-shooters and blitzed McCollum and Lillard. Once Jusuf Nurkić’s left leg gave way, Portland simply had no way of keeping defenses honest:
With Nurkić slated to miss much of the 2020 season, Portland’s guards will have a completely new cast of role players — and skill sets — to learn, accommodate, and mesh together, and precious little time to do so in a deep conference. Few new Blazers are proven commodities, either.
Kent Bazemore provides serviceable 3-and-D capabilities without taking much off the table, but lacks the size to physically compete with the West’s elite wings. Hassan Whiteside’s productivity and defensive engagement seem to vacillate by the game, and Portland is thin in the frontcourt as it is. Rookie forward Nassir Little struggled to play within offensive and defensive schemes in college, while Mario Hezonja has thus far shown little ability to affect winning basketball. Seth Curry — who returned to Dallas on a four-year $32 million deal — was instrumental in spacing the floor around his fellow guards. And yet, Portland grinded out the NBA’s fourth-best offense last season — even after Nurkić went down. Better marksmanship throughout the rotation could give Lillard and McCollum all the space they need to improve upon that mark.
The Blazers placed a significant amount of stock in Anfernee Simons popping, Zach Collins making the leap and Rodney Hood replicating a breakout playoff performance. All three have shown flashes of promise, but now face the challenge of sustaining it. Collins may have the biggest jump in store, particularly if he possesses the wherewithal to play center on defense.
Portland’s opponents attempted and converted shots less frequently with Collins on the court last season and saw a minimal dropoff in defensive efficiency when he played. Much of that is a product of Collins playing alongside another big man — and thus fortifying Portland’s rim protection — but may also be an indication that he could eventually anchor a solid defense. The third-year big has the length and agility to defend in space or around the basket and has no fear of confrontation at the rim, provided he’s in the right place:
His troubles come before plays become airborne. As most young bigs do, Collins tends to rotate a beat late on many actions, an issue compounded over his first two seasons by occasionally sloppy footwork and ill-advised reaching:
Collins held opponents to just 55 percent shooting in the paint, but was among the most foul-prone players in the league last season. The Blazers defended at an elite rate in limited minutes with both Collins and Nurkić on the floor but struggled when Collins played without his Bosnian teammate. Playing an expanded role — and missing Nurkić for most of the year — will demand that Collins find a more tenable balance between aggression and discipline.
He projects to shoot well enough to stretch defenses away from McCollum and Lillard — even if he lacks for consistency — and is a clever mover without the ball. He can function in either frontcourt spot, affording Stotts the flexibility to play Collins or Whiteside as the lone big in second units. Nurkić’s eventual return represents an infusion of scoring, creation and rim protection into a lineup that will desperately need it. But even that scenario is wrought with the myriad physical and mental complications that accompany returning from a traumatic injury, and neither Collins nor Whiteside offers any approximation of Nurkić’s playmaking. Without a meaningful step forward from Collins or Hood, Portland lacks a dangerous third option on offense — a flaw that cost them dearly last May.
The trade market could also serve as a means of improvement. With its backcourt solidified for the next four years, would Portland surrender Simons in a trade that would push them closer to the brink of a championship? Will the asking prices for players like Kevin Love or Andre Iguodala be low enough to keep two of Collins, Simons and Little while significantly upgrading the rotation? Given the seismic changes that took place in the West this offseason, even a marginal step back can read as steep drop-off. Portland ventured that risk with the hope that the upside might be worth it. The Blazers will likely remain squarely in the playoff hunt, but their hopes will rest more heavily than ever on the shoulders of their stars. Sometimes all a franchise can do to improve its ceiling is double down where its faith is strongest and leave the rest to chance.