The Trail Blazers are on the upswing. Despite being well-structured, well-coached and well-equipped, they had a history of success until they reached the playoffs, where too often they capitulated and fell short against lower seeds. Last season, things began to look more promising as they made the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2000, thanks to clutch heroics from Damian Lillard. Under the leadership of Lillard and Coach Terry Stotts, the team looks set up for another strong campaign with McCollum, Nurkic (returning from injury) and a new, improved assembly of role players to take them to new heights. With the Warriors’ ammunition taking heavy hits and many of the league’s stars in new settings, outsiders Portland could quietly make their way towards the top of the standings and cause some playoff upsets.
The 2018-19 season was Portland’s best campaign in recent memory. They completed a solid 53-win regular season and made the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2000. Things didn’t all go smoothly, however. Before the season began, Portland lost their owner, Paul Allen, who was a defining figure within the franchise. They clinched a playoff spot on March 25th but lost Jusuf Nurkic on the same night, who would be absent for the rest of the season with a broken leg.
Enes Kanter and Rodney Hood joined as mid-season acquisitions to bolster their ranks ahead of the playoffs, where they were aiming to overcome their habit of going home early. Damian Lillard was the centre of attention after he hit a series-clinching three pointer over Paul George. They maintained their momentum, progressing to the Western Finals with a 4-3 victory over the Denver Nuggets, before getting swept by the Warriors. In a season when most anticipated them fighting for a low playoff seed, Portland proved they are here for more than just making up the numbers.
The Trail Blazers are looking to go from strength to strength, building on last season’s success to make a run at The Finals. They drafted wing Nassir Little with the twenty-fifth pick, who was a top-five recruit before slipping down the draft after an underwhelming season at North Carolina. Hassan Whiteside joined to cover Nurkic’s absence, and he’ll be hoping to return to his best form in his new setting under Stott’s defensive scheme.
Their inventory of role players has undergone a renovation, losing Al-Farouq Aminu, Mo Harkless, Myles Leonard, Enes Kanter, Jake Layman, Seth Curry and Evan Turner. Instead, they’ve filled out their roster with Kent Bazemore, Anthony Tolliver, Pau Gasol and Mario Hezonja, in addition to Whiteside and Little. While they may be lower on numbers of effective bench players, Portland could still muster a strong playoff rotation of seven or eight players to make a run for the West. Sophomore Anfernee Simons could play a key role in their bench offense, with rumours circulating that he is set for a breakout season. The Trail Blazers will also be hoping for strong minutes from Zach Collins, who should maintain his promising development under the mentorship of Pau Gasol. They also extended their two main men, Lillard and McCollum, to ensure that their elite backcourt will be in place for years to come.
In a stacked and unpredictable western conference, Portland could just as easily miss the playoffs as they could make a push for a top seed. Trail Blazers fans, players and staff will be hoping to push on from last season’s success, to make a realistic run at the NBA Finals.
1.Time for MVP Dame?
Winning the MVP takes three things: an outrageous statistical season, jaw-dropping highlights and a strong narrative driving the campaign. Lillard has averaged over 25 points for the past four seasons, has no shortage of highlight-reel plays in his arsenal and enters another year of his prime (aged 29) as the lead man on a playoff-ready team. If Portland are on pace to achieve a mid-50s win total (or more) and solidify their playoff status earlier than anticipated, all eyes could turn to Damian Lillard as the league’s MVP. There’s no question he’s Portland’s most valuable piece, but he will have to produce his absolute best to outdo the like of Giannis, Curry and Harden. Likely? Probably not. Possible? Absolutely.
2.The return of Nurkic
When Jusuf Nurkic went down injured in March 2019, there was a collective sadness around the world of basketball – not only because of the nature of the injury, but because Portland were so looking forward to a playoff run on the back of Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic. As things played out, the Trail Blazers unexpectedly reached the Western Finals, without the defensive presence of the ‘Bosnian Beast’ on the floor. Portland will be hoping that Nurkic’s return will solidify their interior defense and propel them to new heights.
3.Anfernee Simons could be big time
This has certainly been one of the more bizarre rumors circulating during the summer. Simons enters his second year after managing only 141 minutes during his rookie season, picking up most of his game time in garbage time towards the end of games.
Nevertheless, he made his first start on the last game of the regular season, achieving 37 points, 6 rebounds and 9 assists against the Sacramento Kings. His performance, along with quotes from Portland staff and players, have fans anticipating a breakout year where Simons could provide some much-needed firing power into the bench unit. “The thing I’m most excited about is how easily the game comes to him. It’s very hard to put guys on the court that can’t score, and it’s something that comes very natural for him. It’s easy for him,” Blazers GM Neil Olshey claims.
Damian Lillard | 25.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 6.9 apg
The All-NBA guard scored the fifth-most points of anyone in the regular season and showed he can cope under the playoff spotlight, with some tantalising clutch plays to take his team to the Western Finals. A likely MVP candidate for sure.
CJ McCollum | 21.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.0 apg
A multi-talented scorer who, alongside Dame, makes up one of the most elite backcourts in the league. A creative scorer at the rim, mid-range and from behind the arc.
Jusuf Nurkic | 15.6 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 3.2 apg
The big man was enjoying a career year until he broke his leg in March. The Blazers will be hoping he re-finds his form and recovers no later than the February rumors floated by GM Neil Olshey. His return could bolster the Portland ranks perfectly in time for a Playoff push.