The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.
Last Season: 41-41, lost to the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs.
I know what you did last summer: Not a whole lot. They had to unload Allen Crabbe for what amounted to a trade exception — albeit a large one — after signing him to a restricted free agent deal last season and failing to find a trade partner for him last year. The Blazers did draft Caleb Swanigan and Zack Collins. They also signed Archie Goodwin and Anthony Morrow. Portland failed to find a way to entice Carmelo Anthony to Rip City via a trade.
FIVE QUESTIONS THE BLAZERS MUST ANSWER:
1) Can the offense take some of the load off of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum? Lillard struggled with a nagging foot injury last year and indeed it was McCollum that ended up being the more important Blazer to Portland’s success. However, before Nurkic arrived in Oregon the Blazers were an easy team to scout on film.
Gone from this roster are two of last season’s biggest minutes guys — Mason Plumlee and Allen Crabbe. It’s possible that the Blazers have gotten rid of some of the duplication in both services and experience level, which could benefit their younger players with some structure. They have decided to commit to both Evan Turner and Moe Harkless, and having their roles defined could be easier for this team. With room to grow into their respective positions, several Blazers will be looked upon to provide more and take the load off of Lillard and McCollum.
2) Can Jusuf Nurkic play the entire season? This seems like an issue that folks in Portland are just too scared to broach, whether it be because of the team history or just the fact that they enjoy Nurkic so much.
The big man came over in a trade from the Denver Nuggets last year and played in just 20 games for the Blazers before bowing out due to an injury. Nurkic played most of the season approaching 300 lbs, and running in the Trail Blazers offense perhaps took its toll.
Much of media day in Portland was about the weight and eating habits of the players, Nurkic included. He has slimmed down some and that should help him come through the season with a bit more durability. However, the dark cloud hanging over Portland is not just one that’s filled with rain. I think Nurkic has to be able to play in 65 or more games this season for the Trail Blazers to have a chance in a Western Conference that is even tougher than it was last year.
3) Will the Blazers be any good on defense? This has been the question that has plagued the Blazers basically every season in Terry Stotts’ coaching tenure with the team, save for 2014-15. Portland was an abysmal squad on defense of last season, ranking just 24th the defensive efficiency.
Nurkic should help them a little bit and so too should a fully healthy an of Al-Farouq Aminu. Lillard and McCollum appear to have fully developed as much as they reasonably can on that side of the ball (and considering their expenditures on offense). It will be the rest of the team and the bench that will need to rotate in to make up for their deficiencies.
Terry Stotts said during media day that there are not any big shifts planned on defense for the upcoming season. Instead, we are looking for some defined roles to come out of Portland along with a fully healthy squad that has had more time playing together. Getting Ed Davis back into the big man rotation won’t hurt either.
Much like the title hopes of the Houston Rockets, the Trail Blazers’ playoff hopes will remain dependent on whether or not they can perform on the defensive side of the ball.
4) Will this be the last season of the Dame/CJ pairing? Uppity Blazers fans have been losing their mind asking this question for going on three years now. In fact, before Nurkic was traded to Portland, much of the discussion in Portland was around which of these two players they should swap. Indeed, most fans believed that McCollum was the player to trade, often being floated in the fan theories for then-Sacramento Kings big man at DeMarcus Ccousins.
But Portland GM Neil Olshey has a soft spot for McCollum, and he needed to give him and Lillard a full two seasons to play together as legitimate, dual superstars after McCollum won MIP in 2016. This season will give us the answer once and for all whether this tandem can be relied upon to lead this team. Again, it could come down to whether this team is fully healthy, but I don’t believe the Blazers would move McCollum until next summer. If management gets full season of healthy play out of this roster and they still are not great on defense, McCollum could be a move that happens.
Oh, and get it out of your head that Olshey is ever going to trade Lillard, Blazers fans. You remember how long you yearned for a star player at the point guard spot? Now you have a franchise one, you’re not going to swap him out and downgrade.
5) What is Evan Turner’s role on this team? Turner was abysmal for Portland during 2016, and he had only really started to figure it out after the turn of the new year before he was injured. After Portland lost out on Chandler Parsons and a few other free agents that summer, Turner was the panic move. He is certainly overpaid, but the whole idea of having him on the roster is to take away the ability of an opposing defense to trap Lillard and McCollum off the pick-and-roll.
Granted, Turner does do that somewhat and he now has more time dealing within this offense. No, Stotts’ offense is not tailored to Turner’s strong suits, but then again I’m not sure which kind of modern NBA offense is. Turner works best when he works his way to a specific spot on the elbow and not much else.
That can be a real weapon, and using him more in the pick-and-roll is a good idea. He will be more comfortable with his teammates this season even if he’s not a threat to shoot himself.
All that being said, it remains to be seen whether or not Turner can simply take some of the pressure off of Lillard and McCollum or elevate his game to another level within the confines of this offense. Like it or not, Portland’s success this season will rely on Turner as perhaps the fourth or fifth most important player on the roster.