Additions: Seth Curry, Anfernee Simons, Nik Stauskas, Gary Trent Jr, Cameron Oliver
Subtractions: Shabazz Napier, Pat Connaughton, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh
Projected Starting Lineup:
PG: Damian Lillard
SG: CJ McCollum
SF: Mo Harkless
PF: Al-Farouq Aminu
C: Jusuf Nurkic
Key Bench Players: Seth Curry, Caleb Swanigan, Jake Layman, Evan Turner, Gary Trent Jr, Zach Collins
The Portland Trail Blazers didn’t get any better or worse than last season. That is exactly their problem. They definitely overachieved last season when they took the 3rd seed in the Western Conference and were ultimately swept by Anthony Davis and the Pelicans in the first round of the playoffs. With borderline playoff teams like Denver, Dallas, and Memphis all upgrading in areas of need, the Trail Blazers lost their top big man off the bench, Ed Davis, and replaced Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton with a mixture of Seth Curry, Nik Stauskas, Gary Trent Jr, and Anfernee Simons. Then again, with the two-headed shooting behemoth of Dame Lillard and CJ McCollum, maybe they’ll be able to squeak into the back-end of the playoff race.
Damian Lillard is an extremely valuable talent for Portland, so much so that he basically carried this team to the three seed last season behind 26.9 points on 43.9/36.1/91.6 shooting and 6.6 assists per game. Now a three-time All Star and First Team All-NBA point guard, Lillard is recognized as one of the premier point guards in the NBA behind Curry, Westbrook, CP3, and Kyrie Irving. He deserves the recognition as a top-five point guard in the league because year-in and year-out, Dame Dolla puts on a show. If Lillard can drag this Trail Blazers team to the playoffs while putting up those same numbers in an improved Western Conference, not only will he secure another All Star appearance, but he also will be be in the MVP race once again (4th place last year).
Lillard’s supporting cast consists of primarily CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. McCollum is one of the deadliest snipers in the game right now as a career 40.8% shooter from deep over his first five seasons. Next to Lillard, they form the second-best shooting backcourt in the NBA behind the Splash Brothers from the Bay Area. Not known for his defense, the Lehigh product makes up for it plenty as a 20+ PPG scorer over the past three seasons. Luckily for the Blazers, McCollum still has two more seasons on his contract after the 2018-19 campaign.
Jusuf Nurkic is starting to come into his own as the starting center for Portland after being traded from Denver halfway through the 2016-17 season. Every star guard duo needs a big man down low where they can dump the ball and tell him to get a bucket. That is what the Bosnian big man can do. He has essentially no jump shot, but uses his strength and footwork to score in the post. His main role on this team is to snag rebounds, which he does well. In just 26.4 minutes per game last season, Nurkic was able to reel in 9 caroms per game. In order to help this team this season, the big man must work on conditioning because without Ed Davis backing him up, coach Terry Stotts will need Nurkic to eclipse 30 minutes per game.
Mo Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu both make their money on lockdown perimeter defense, which is essential next to Lillard and McCollum. Luckily for the Blazers, last season both of them knocked down career highs in three point percentage at 41.5% and 36.9%, respectively. Neither will likely ever take over a game, as neither are sufficient shot creators, but are both long and athletic, capable of running the floor, cutting, and knocking down open threes.
The Trail Blazers will not only live and die by Damian Lillard, but also the performance of their bench. How can they fare with Dame and McCollum getting their rest? Both played over 36 minutes per game last season with Shabazz Napier as the primary backup point guard. Seth Curry will step in as Napier’s replacement, and like his brother Steph, is a premier sharpshooter, splashing in 43.2% of his threes for his career. However, he is not as skilled as a playmaker as Napier was. Terry Stotts will look to second year big men Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins for improvement to replace the production of Ed Davis, more specifically Collins who was taken with the 10th overall pick in 2017 out of Gonzaga. The second unit wings for this squad will consist of a mixture of Evan Turner, Jake Layman, Gary Trent Jr, and Nik Stauskas. With Seth Curry in the fold, we could even see Turner take over as primary backup point guard, as he is a solid playmaker and ballhandler off the wing. Rookie Gary Trent Jr out of Duke will make his money off his sharpshooting after serving in the same role alongside Marvin Bagley, Wendell Carter, and Grayson Allen last year. Stauskas is still looking to live up to his 8th overall pick hype in 2014, and this could be the right situation for him, as Portland loves to shoot the three. The bench unit may be improved from last year as they look much deeper.
With Denver, Dallas, and Memphis all improving over the offseason, it is difficult to see Portland advancing to the postseason. Luckily for them, Dejounte Murray is out for the year in San Antonio, and may drop out of the playoffs (I wouldn’t count on it). This team will go as far as the Splash Brothers 2.0 will take them.
Picture Courtesy of ESPN
*For yesterday’s article on the Phoenix Suns, click here
Up next tomorrow: Sacramento Kings
University of South Carolina ’21