The new NBA season starts today as the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors all meet in their conference Game 1’s of 2017-18. Portland Trail Blazers fans will have to wait one more day, as the Blazers kick off their campaign against the Phoenix Suns at 7:00 pm, Pacific tomorrow night. As we await opening night, we begin our season preview with five things that should be different about the Trail Blazers this year. Coming off a 41-41 season, these evolutions—most foreshadowed in preseason—might make the difference between success and more of the same.
Whether the frontcourt was manned by Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas, Jerome Kersey and Buck Williams, or Brian Grant and Arvydas Sabonis, aggressive rebounding has been a hallmark of every era in which the Trail Blazers have flourished. Portland’s rebounding has seldom been horrible—teams have to work hard to stink in this category—but they’ve been pedestrian for most of the current decade. They finished 3rd in offensive rebounding percentage in 2015-16, 5th a couple times earlier, but they’ve not had the inside scoring presence to convert those rebounds into points, making them a credible threat.
Jusuf Nurkic raises Portland’s put-back potential to a new level this year. Caleb Swanigan, Ed Davis, and even Noah Vonleh have offensive rebounding in their arsenal as well. They, and most of the forwards and guards, are capable defensive rebounders as well.
A distinct rebounding advantage doesn’t gather as much attention as transition hammers or stabbing three-pointers. It smothers opponents: a slow, but consistent, route to victory. Good defensive rebounding puts pressure on the opposing offense, forcing them to make the initial shot. Offensive rebounding allows more leeway for one’s own shooters. Teams can’t sustain themselves on rebounding alone, but board work magnifies edges and makes them count more over time.
It’s been a while since the Blazers enjoyed this value-added multiplier on either end of the court. If they can enforce their will on the glass, shots that used to catch them up may become shots that put them ahead, while possessions that used to kill them may become survivable.
Turnovers haven’t been in Portland’s lexicon since Coach Terry Stotts took the helm back in 2012. They haven’t had enough defensive integrity to make a push for the ball. Instead they’ve stuck to percentage defense, keeping in front of men while closing out on three-point attempts, ceding anything the opponent wanted from mid-range.
Portland’s leaky guards often get blamed for the team’s (at best) nondescript defense...and rightfully so. The parade of opposing backcourt scorers has been hard to watch. But even when the guards have appropriately channeled their men into the arms of a center, lack of mobility and shot-blocking have rendered the effort moot. Trapping in the middle with multiple men has been the only sure way of stopping easy buckets, and that only worked when bulky Robin Lopez patrolled the paint. Even when the defense functioned properly, the rim was still insecure most possessions. Lack of a reliable backstop—or any kind of back-up plan—made the idea of risking perimeter position for poke-aways as ludicrous as dumping gasoline on a Sriracha sandwich.
One of the bigger surprises Nurkic provided Portland last season was the ability to eat space and block shots in the lane. The effect was hampered by his lack of mobility and stamina, conditions which may lessen with his weight loss. The Blazers will be able to take more risks in the passing lanes and trapping dribblers out on the floor knowing that they have a shot eraser behind them in the lane.
Forcing turnovers won’t be a mainstay, but Portland’s old philosophy of, “Don’t get them, don’t commit them” may evolve into, “Still don’t commit them...but get them sometimes.” As with rebounding, this is less about foundation change and more about finding angles that eluded them in past seasons (when their defense was about as threatening as a comatose hamster). They won’t heist their way into Golden State territory, but the difference between 42 and 49 wins amounts to small edges like this.
Rediscovering the Mid-Range
CJ McCollum has been the King of Mid-Range Shooting for a while now. He may be the best in the league at shots that mathematicians sneer at. He may also get some company from teammates this year.
Nurkic relies on a quick post spin move, but he struggles to score down low when it doesn’t work. Portland’s forwards have tried desperately to stretch the floor with three-pointers, to little success. The Blazers may decide shots from Al-Farouq Aminu, Vonleh, and Swanigan that actually fall do more damage than longer attempts that don’t end up putting points on the board and allow the opponent to sag in against other scorers with impunity.
Portland’s “layup or three” offense has been fantastic when it connects, but it’s also the equivalent of “cross-uppercut” in boxing. Where’s the jab to set up the other shots? Unpredictability—feeling threatened from multiple players and positions—is critical to any passing-based attack, lest the defense simply wait for the ball to hit an actual scorer’s hands before committing.
McCollum has countered that impulse heretofore, but he’s now a prime target, circled on opposing clipboards. Nurkic facing up for the jumper and forwards demanding that defenders stay near them could be just as important to opening up the floor as three-pointers have been. Given the make-up of the current roster, the Blazers may have to earn respect between 12-20 feet before they get it from 23 feet and beyond.
More Transition Buckets
Once upon a time Portland’s acquisition M.O. revolved around length and grace. LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, and Brandon Roy weren’t necessarily the best athletes, but they could reach, flow, and score. The 2017 Blazers won’t turn down height and smoothness, but they’re far more oriented towards quick, athletic players. Inconsistent rebounding and non-existent defense have kept them from taking advantage of those attributes in transition.
Every year we claim the Blazers should do better scoring on the run. Every year they rank in the bottom third of the league. One hates to claim that “this will finally be the year”, but...this may finally be the year. With rebounding not only stabilized but an actual strength, with shot-blocking finally registering, with turnovers more of a possibility, the Blazers are going to look silly not taking advantage of wings like Vonleh and Moe Harkless...even Nurkic and Meyers Leonard on the secondary break or (gasp!) McCollum leaking out and setting up at the arc.
The Blazers may not have the overall talent from four years ago 1-12, but they have the horses to go faster, for longer, than they once did. They’re not going to up Damian Lillard’s scoring average from 27 to 32 that way, but Aminu will look far more threatening when he’s dunking on the run than he does in the halfcourt dribbling against a set defense.
Coming to Peace with Isolation Plays
For years, now, any isolation play that didn’t involve an Aldridge mid-range turn-around (or perhaps a Lillard layup) was considered “outside the offense”, even when jacked three-pointers off the dribble were built into the system to keep two-point land open for passes and cuts. Last year the Blazers discovered the power of the Lillard-McCollum backcourt, but that was nearly mandatory with the rest of the team proving unequal to the task.
Damian and CJ are sure to return to their high-scoring ways this season, but they’ll also be accompanied by Nurkic in the post against weaker centers along with newly-featured Evan Turner against smaller, second-unit guards. With Allen Crabbe gone and nobody else’s three-pointer ready for prime time, the Blazers don’t have the shooting to justify all their passing. They’re likely to mix old-school, matchup-advantage basketball into the five-dish sets. Given their top-heavy scoring structure, it’s probably a good idea.
Stay tuned for more Season’s Eve coverage today, then kick off tomorrow with a Very Special Mailbag and more thoughts from Blazer’s Edge staffers on the year about to commence. Don’t forget to come together with other Blazer’s Edge Readers on opening night at Spirit of ‘77 too!