Blazers’ revamped bench, dominant starting five offer Damian Lillard and Co. best shot at true contention
In a strange way, the Portland Trail Blazers became the picture of NBA stability over the past half decade or so. For six seasons in a row, they had the same coach, general manager and two leading scorers. No other team in basketball could say the same, but you could argue that no other team would want to. After all, Portland’s continuity has grown stale in recent years. The Blazers have made it out of the first round only once in the past five seasons.
Not coincidentally, their six-year streak with that same foursome will be broken this year. Terry Stotts is out as head coach, replaced by Chauncey Billups, and the man who hired him, Neil Olshey, is on the hottest of seats entering the season. If he hasn’t put a winner around those two leading scorers, either one of them could be on their way out in the near future. Portland has been stably mediocre over the past several years. If it doesn’t take a step toward true contention, that stability is going to crumble in the very near future.
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Can the Blazers do it? This is probably their best chance since LaMarcus Aldridge left in 2015. The Blazers have never boasted such roster versatility. Damian Lillard is still in his absolute prime and now has a group of teammates behind him that is seemingly at least somewhat capable of playing defense while he scores. The Blazers aren’t a title favorite or anything close. But they’re better than what they’ve been for the past several years, and just how much better they can be will determine just how stable they’ll be moving forward. That stability starts with one of the best lineups in basketball.
Here’s a look at their roster and four things to know about the Blazers this season:
Portland Trail Blazers roster
1. The unstoppable starters
The Blazers didn’t get Norman Powell until the trade deadline. The rest of the NBA had a three-month head start on the Blazers in that respect. Yet over the course of the season, only four five-man lineups in all of basketball outscored their opponents by 103 or more total points. Portland’s starting five featuring Powell, Lillard, McCollum, Covington and Nurkic was one of them. Lest you believe that was a regular-season mirage, that same fivesome blasted the Denver Nuggets by 47 points in 112 minutes. That Portland somehow managed to lose that series is a testament to just how bad literally every other combination of players on that roster was last season.
The starters were dominant on both ends. The offensive formula isn’t hard to explain. Typically lineups featuring three high-end ball-handlers, four shooters, a versatile big man who can roll and pass all tied together by an MVP candidate should be able to score. The defense is a bit harder to explain. Powell is tiny by small forward standards. Nurkic has lost a bit of mobility to injuries, and the deficiencies of the Lillard-McCollum combination are well documented.
There’s no obvious statistical indicator that their defense was fake. Opponents didn’t just stop making open shots. They didn’t face an especially weak schedule. Yet the numbers just don’t square with the personnel. Lineups with such limitations in terms of size and mobility don’t allow 104.1 points per 100 possessions. If the starters can sustain that, Portland can genuinely contend. Its problems arose largely because of issues from the bench. Many of those issues have now been solved.
2. Fixing the bench defense
Those bench issues? They boiled down largely to two players: Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter. The Blazers boasted a backup frontcourt that featured perhaps the NBA’s worst defensive forward and perhaps the NBA’s worst defensive center. When the Blazers played them together, they allowed over 114 points per 100 possessions. That’s almost as bad as the Cleveland Cavaliers were without Larry Nance Jr. on the floor, as they allowed 115.3 points per 100 possessions in those minutes. With Nance? Their defensive rating dropped to a much more tolerable 107.4.
Cleveland was historically bad defensively without Nance, but with him, it was just fine. If his impact on the Blazers is at all similar, then Portland’s stellar offense should be more than enough for a top-six seed. Nance is essentially Portland’s dream role player. He can defend most wings but also serve as a small-ball center. The Blazers envisioned a similar role for Derrick Jones Jr. last season, but his offensive shortcomings made him almost unplayable. That won’t be the case for Nance, a bouncy athlete who excels as a roller like Jones, but brings significantly more shooting and passing to the table as well. If Sixth Man of the Year was awarded properly to the NBA’s best bench player rather than simply its leading scorer, Nance would be a leading candidate.
But he wasn’t the only significant addition here. Cody Zeller was a longtime starter for the Charlotte Hornets at center. Tony Snell invented the 50-50-100 shooting club last season as a member of the Atlanta Hawks, and Ben McLemore might be able to apply for membership if he wasn’t so eager to shoot. These are flawed players, but Portland got them for the minimum and only needs them to play 10-15 decent minutes per night. Considering how poorly its bench played last season, these reserves can’t be any worse. There’s even a bit of upside hidden on this bench.
3. Is there a breakout candidate here?
The Blazers have spent the past half decade buying lottery tickets. Harry Giles, Skal Labissière and Mario Hezonja are just some of the talent swings they’ve missed on in recent years, but eventually, they’re going to find a winner somewhere in the scrap heap. This year’s reclamation project is Dennis Smith Jr., who has shined in the preseason, and without a traditional backup point guard on this roster, will have a chance to earn minutes. Of course, there’s an even more promising upside play that’s been on this roster for years.
Only two Blazers are scoring more this preseason than Smith. Anfernee Simons is one of them. Once the youngest player in the NBA, Simons has flashed serious potential in spurts, but it has never materialized over an extended period. With restricted free agency looming, it will have to now. Smith probably isn’t going to push him out of a job, but this competition is healthy. The Blazers have a number of talented guards clawing for bench minutes. That’s going to bring the best out of at least one of them.
It’s going to have to. Look at contending rosters around the NBA over the past several years. The Warriors picked Draymond Green No. 35 overall. The Bucks got Khris Middleton as a throw-in to a sign-and-trade with the Pistons. Even in role player terms, the Lakers developed Alex Caruso out of two-way deals. The Miami Heat made the Finals with two undrafted free agents as starters. Unless you’re going to sign two or three superstars in their prime, winning in the modern NBA means finding one or two major contributors on the fringes. Portland has tried and failed to do that in recent years, and as it has found trading as much as it has for players like Covington, Nance and Powell, acquiring role players at market value gets expensive quickly. Whether it’s Smith, Simons or even Nassir Little, one of the young guys at the back of this roster has to pop for Portland to contend. If they don’t? Things could get uncomfortable quickly.
4. Now or never
Can you think of many star players who have had to publicly address trade rumors that didn’t ultimately wind up changing teams? It’s a short list. History tells us that we’re already beyond the point of no return with Damian Lillard. Superstars just tend not to be comfortable losing in the first round four years out of five, but he’s on the roster right now. He probably will be tomorrow. Until Lillard specifically asks to be dealt, Portland still technically has a chance to convince him to stay. It’s hoping that this year’s roster does just that.
It’s just worth asking what happens to this team if it doesn’t. The Blazers have invested several first-round picks in Covington and Nance. McCollum is 30, has three guaranteed years left on his contract and probably doesn’t make much sense on a losing roster, and more pressingly, Covington and Nurkic are both set to expire after the season. Simons and Little are the only Portland first-round picks on the roster since McCollum was taken in 2013. This is not a young team or an asset-rich one.
Yet sooner or later, this team is going to have to commit to a direction. Re-signing Covington and Nurkic to long-term deals makes rebuilding substantially harder, and without existing young talent, the pressure to move off veteran talent only intensifies. Ultimately, the Blazers need to know where Lillard stands in the very near future. If he’s committed to Portland, perhaps it can get a bit more aggressive in reshaping this group around him. If he’s not? It might be best to act quickly and maximize the return on a superstar with three guaranteed years left on his deal. Just ask Philadelphia what happens when you wait too long to move a superstar. Portland’s been stuck in purgatory for a half-decade. Wait too long to make a trade and it will be there even longer. That’s not an outcome the Blazers are ready to face yet, but if this roster doesn’t come out strong to open the season, it’s one they’ll be unable to ignore for much longer.