Did Portland Trail Blazers Already Hit Their Ceiling?
The Portland Trail Blazers doubled down on the value of continuity this offseason.
All-Star point guard Damian Lillard signed a four-year, $196 million supermax extension that will keep him in Portland through at least the 2023-24 campaign, while fellow guard CJ McCollum signed a three-year, $100 million extension that likewise runs through 2023-24. With center Jusuf Nurkic signed through 2021-22, the Blazers have their foundation in place for the next three seasons.
And of course, that begs the question: Is this core good enough to contend for a championship?
Heading into the 2018-19 season, there was reason to be skeptical. The Blazers went 49-33 in 2017-18, only to get swept by the sixth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans during the first round of the playoffs.
In the midst of that sweep, Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer asked whether it was time for the Blazers to break up the Lillard-McCollum backcourt.
“It would be foolish to say that the Blazers need to blow up their entire roster. There is, indeed, talent on the team. But what they do need is a shake-up to create better roster balance and add stronger wing defenders who can shoot. Since they lack assets and high draft picks, the best way to get much better is to risk getting worse by making a big move.”
The Blazers did not take that advice. Instead, they re-signed Nurkic on a reasonable four-year, $48 million contract, signed Seth Curry away from the Dallas Mavericks and otherwise largely ran back the same core that got swept the year before.
That decision paid off, as Nurkic played his best ball, the Blazers went 53-29 during last year’s regular season and made their first appearance in the Western Conference Finals since the 1999-2000 campaign.
It took a grueling seven-game series against the Denver Nuggets to get there—and the Golden State Warriors promptly swept them in the conference finals—but Lillard and McCollum proved their partnership still has some untapped upside. Their sweet shooting, unselfishness and attacking skills have paired perfectly. Both are hardnosed competitors who pressure defenses while spreading the floor and the ball.
Defensive questions will always remain due to the pair’s size and skillset issues on that end, but modest improvements due to experience and chemistry are reasonable.
Though the Blazers bet big on their star backcourt this offseason, committing nearly $300 million to Lillard and McCollum, they didn’t stand pat otherwise.
With Nurkic having suffered a gruesome leg fracture late last season that will sideline him for at least part of 2019-20, Portland sent out Moe Harkless and Meyers Leonard to acquire Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside. Although Whiteside grew disgruntled in Miami due to a lack of playing time, his rim-rolling and rebounding should make him a welcome addition.
But while the Blazers found a potential stop-gap in Whiteside, their wing/forward depth took a major hit this summer.
Al-Farouq Aminu and Jake Layman left in free agency, while Harkless went to the Los Angeles Clippers as part of the Whiteside trade. The Blazers did re-sign Rodney Hood to a two-year, $11.7 million deal and took a no-risk, high-ceiling flier on 2015 No. 5 overall pick Mario Hezonja, but they’ll enter the season down three regular starters from last year.
Portland also traded Evan Turner to the Atlanta Hawks for Kent Bazemore, perhaps in anticipation of Aminu’s likely departure in free agency. While Turner thrived as a second-unit ball-handler, Bazemore should fill in as more of a conventional swingman: defending opposing forwards and firing away on open threes.
The 6’5″ Bazemore will concede size to bigger forwards, but his 7’0″ wingspan helps cover that up. He largely split time between the 2 and the 3 over the past two seasons, according to Cleaning the Glass, though the Hawks posted better net ratings with him at small forward during both seasons.
Lillard, McCollum and Whiteside figure to have starting spots locked up—at least until Nurkic returns—while the remaining two openings may be up for grabs. Hood and Bazemore will likely battle during training camp for the starting 3 gig, while the Blazers could slide Zach Collins next to Whiteside in the frontcourt.
Either way, wing/forward depth looms as a glaring weak spot, barring some drastic improvement from young players.
Hood won’t turn 27 until late October, which means he’s likely just entering his athletic prime. But after coming to the Blazers ahead of the trade deadline, he averaged only 9.6 points on 45.2 percent shooting in 24.4 minutes per game during the regular season, though his clutch-y performance in the Nuggets series hinted at his upside as a No. 3 scorer.
During that seven-game slugfest, Hood erupted for 14.7 points on 57.6 percent shooting, including 50.0 percent on 3.1 three-point attempts per game. He had a series-high 25-point outing with the Blazers facing a 3-2 series deficit in Game 6.
With a full offseason to further acclimate, Hood could wind up being a major X-factor, provided he can stay healthy and shake the inconsistency that had previously plagued him in Utah and Cleveland.
Portland will need a boost from its young guards and swingmen, as well.
The No. 24 overall pick in the 2018 draft, Anfernee Simons played only 141 regular-season minutes as a rookie and made a negligible impact outside of a 37-point eruption during the final game of the regular season. After a breakout performance at Las Vegas Summer League, however, he’s suddenly being hailed as the Blazers’ not-so-secret weapon and a golden ticket.
“I think if we didn’t believe Anfernee was ready to step into that role, then I would’ve played it safe and brought in a veteran,” Blazers general manager Neil Olshey told SB Nation’s Michael Pina.
The hype train has already left the station on Simons, but Gary Trent Jr. and Nassir Little could be in a similar position over the coming years.
Trent may struggle to get minutes behind Lillard, McCollum, Hood and Simons this year, but there’s little harm in spending an end-of-the-bench spot on a 20-year-old who’s continuing to develop behind the scenes. Blazers summer-league coach Jim Moran said he’s working on getting Trent to “buy in more on the defensive end,” according to Jamie Hudson of NBC Sports Northwest.
“I know he’s a scorer, I know he can shoot, he’s a talented player,” Moran said about Trent, per Hudson. “But I think as a coach, you’ve just gotta keep working on their weakness.”
Little will likely be in the same boat this year. The 19-year-old disappointed during his lone year at UNC relative to his recruiting ranking, and he averaged only 3.3 points in four summer-league games.
If the Blazers had to count on Little as a major contributor right away, yes, they’d be in trouble. Instead, he and Trent are more long-term plays for now, with the latter seeming like the closer option.
If either of them pop down the road, however—like Simons appears poised to this year—it could seriously raise the Blazers’ ceiling. Since they aren’t likely to attract stars in free agency—and currently lack the cap space to do anyway—they may need to rely on the development of young players to bolster their long-term outlook.
It’s entirely possible that the Lillard-McCollum Blazers peaked with their run to the Western Conference Finals last year, but internal development from Simons and others could give them championship upside moving forward.
Bryan Toporek is a contributor at The Basketball Writers. He’s also a Quality Editor for Bleacher Report, co-hosts The NBA Podcast and contributes at FanSided and elsewhere. He still trusts the Process.