Road to Redemption: Portland Trail Blazers Season Preview for 2018/19

By Amaar A. Burton

Six months ago, the promise of a magical season for the Portland Trail Blazers dissolved into the disappointment of a first-round exit from the NBA playoffs – a four-game sweep, no less – at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans.

Before that terribly-timed slump, Portland was one of the league’s hottest teams, winning a Northwest Division title and earning the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. Franchise centerpiece Damian Lillard was a serious contender for league MVP – he would end up finishing fourth in the voting – and the Blazers were a trendy pick to push the mighty Golden State Warriors to their limit had the teams crossed paths in the postseason.

That opportunity to play giant-killer never materialized, however, as the Blazers were ousted by the underdog Pelicans and could only watch as the Warriors eventually won another championship.

After a long summer of recovery, reflection and refocusing on the future, the Blazers enter the 2018-19 season with mostly the same core of a team that went 49-33 last season. Portland is bringing back seven of its top 10 rotation players from that group.

The regular season opener is October 18 against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Moda Center.

“We’ve got a lot of guys back. That’s a big deal for any team in the NBA,” swingman Evan Turner said before the Blazers’ preseason win over the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday. “Familiarity does a lot.”

Head coach Terry Stotts returns for his seventh season on the bench. Sometime around the turn of the calendar, Stotts (272 wins) should pass Rick Adelman (291) for second place on the Blazers’ all-time list for victories by a head coach.

Leading the way on the court will be Lillard, the three-time All-Star point guard who is in his prime at 28 years old and should maintain his spot as one of the league’s top performers. Lillard averaged 26.9 points and 6.6 assists per game last season and was voted to the All-NBA First Team for the first time.

“We’ve got a chance (this season),” Lillard said on Wednesday. “Everybody has been working hard. Everybody is on the same page.”

Lillard and shooting guard C.J. McCollum form what is arguably the NBA’s best backcourt after Golden State’s duo of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. McCollum won the league’s Most Improved Player award in 2016, and the 27-year-old is still climbing the charts to an eventual All-Star selection that could happen in 2019.

After averaging 21.4 points per game last season but seeing his shooting percentages take a dip from previous years, McCollum appears to have put some extra muscle onto his 6-foot-3 frame. He showed it off during the preseason with a more aggressive, attacking style and stronger finishes at the rim.

Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic are locked in to start at power forward and center, respectively. Aminu is a long-armed defender and rebounder who has added a decent three-point shot to his arsenal since joining the Blazers three years ago. Nurkic has the size (7 feet, 275 pounds) and strength to play the traditional center role, but he is also a good shooter and ball-handler who can adapt to the quicker-paced modern game in which centers are often asked to play on the perimeter.

The starting small forward spot could go to either Turner or Maurice Harkless. Although Turner’s versatile skill set probably lends itself better to an off-the-bench utility role, Harkless is coming off a knee injury that sidelined him for two of the team’s four playoff games. He had not played in any of Portland’s preseason games at press time.

While the starting lineup is mostly set, the distribution of minutes among the bench players is something that Stotts will continue to experiment and tinker with throughout the schedule.

The Blazers spent the offseason adding depth to the backcourt, signing Seth Curry (brother of Stephen) and Nik Stauskas in free agency, and acquiring Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr. in the NBA Draft. Wade Baldwin IV, a first-round draft pick two years ago, returns to the Blazers after splitting time last season between the main roster and the G League developmental system.

Frontcourt reserves expected to make Portland’s final roster include Jake Layman, Zach Collins, Meyers Leonard and Caleb Swanigan.

“I like the additions we made to the second unit,” Turner said. “We’ve got a lot of shooters, a lot of guys who can put the ball in the bucket. The depth is better. Spacing on the floor is better.”

A theme throughout the offseason and training camp has been Portland’s ability to spread the ball around and get more scorers involved. During their playoff cameo, the Blazers allowed the Pelicans to exploit their over-reliance on Lillard and McCollum for offensive production.

The numbers don’t lie. Last season, while Lillard and McCollum consistently got theirs, Nurkic (14.3 points per game) was the only other Portland player to average double figures in scoring. In the New Orleans series, Lillard and McCollum each attempted more than 70 field goals. Comfortably behind in third place was Aminu, who took 52 shots. Nurkic had only 39 attempts.

What the Blazers want this season is more ball movement, more balanced shot distribution, and to take more three-pointers. Portland ranked 30th out of 30 teams last season in assists and finished in the league’s bottom half in three-point makes and attempts.

Lillard and McCollum will get their shots. The trick for Stotts and his coaching staff is to create more opportunities for everyone else.

As they aim to repeat as division champions and stay among the best in the West, the Blazers will have to hold off rising contenders such as the Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz, just some of the teams who improved during the offseason and could make a run at a top-3 seed in the conference. That trio of challengers will be led by bona fide superstars LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Donovan Mitchell.

Portland’s own superstar, however, feels optimistic about his team’s outlook.

“We’ve got guys who show up on time, who work hard, who pay attention to detail, who want to do the right things and who care about each other,” Lillard said in the Blazers locker room. “As long as you can sustain that, the better your season will be.”

Photo Credit: Bruce Ely / Trail Blazers

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