The Portland Trail Blazers will embark upon their regular-season schedule on October 18th against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. Riding a wave of continuity, with a veteran starting lineup and few significant off-season additions, their fortunes appear to be running steady. That impression isn’t entirely accurate. The Blazers may face less uncertainty at the start of this season than in years past, but their remaining questions run deeper.
Here are five important variables the Blazers will need to account for this season, along with their sometimes subtle, but ultimately crucial, impact.
Is Anfernee Simons for Real?
Portland’s first-round selection from the 2018 NBA Draft is not likely to make an impact this season. He’s young and didn’t come through the NCAA system. The NBA game is going to catch up to him quickly. It’s debatable whether he’ll see meaningful minutes at all.
That said, there’s sharpness to the buzz surrounding him, an edge sticking out of the normal white noise. He’s got a nose for spacing and scoring, plus a natural fluidity to his moves. The last time the Blazers experienced this kind of aura around a non-lottery pick was Will Barton. Simons has a long way to go before being compared to the perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate, but both the Blazers and their fans will be watching for signs (and the occasional wonder).
Unlike every other significant player on the roster, Simons is temporally agnostic. Contracts and age make forecasting bright spots for Portland three years down the road dicey. If he’s here and producing, Simons will become a rare, long-term bright spot.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum on Offense
Nobody has questions about Portland’s star guards anymore. They’re brilliant to the point of being enviable. 20 points per game for each is all but guaranteed.
The big question this year will be how they get that 20. Pre-season talk surrounds ball movement and open shots. In theory, that’s the best move. In practice, the Blazers might not field players good enough to justify taking the ball out of the hands of the starting guards. Neither Lillard nor McCollum plays as selfishly as their talent would allow. Both can pass. How many bricks and losses will it take (in theory) before they and the team come to the conclusion that victories ride on their shoulders?
In one potential future, everything clicks. The Blazers happily share the ball, generate wins, and their offense becomes a juggernaut. In another potential future, they try to run the system adjustments but the offense isn’t enough to push them past opponents on a nightly basis. (Keep in mind the shiny, new shooters that make this system possible aren’t exactly proven NBA stalwarts.) In that case, Lillard and McCollum taking over becomes the sensible move.
Unfortunately, the latter eventuality would leave the team essentially where they’ve been the last couple seasons: good, but not great. It would also serve as a referendum on the roster, a message sure to stick over the next couple critical seasons. That’s not good.
Either way, we should know plenty about how Portland’s season is going by watching how Lillard and McCollum are getting their points in February.
Jusuf Nurkic’s Involvement
Portland’s starting center has been paid and is now locked up for the foreseeable future. While the amount may not have been as significant as speculated in “Fever” days, Nurkic should still be as happy and secure as he’s been in his professional career.
What will that look like, though? Will Nurkic be selling out on defense like he was in late 2016 or will “good enough” be good enough? Will his shot selection improve? Will the ball move quicker through his hands? Will he fit in, no matter what sacrifices that entails, or will we continue to notice the fouls, rest time, and curious decisions as much as the promise?
Zach Collins is the new Golden Boy when it comes to potential (more on that in a minute), but Nurkic remains the biggest pivot point for the Blazers when it comes to performance and earned victories in 2018-19. The center of gravity will shift in ensuing years, but right now the Blazers need Nurkic to step up.
The “Other” Starters
Portland’s other veteran forwards are mostly ignored (except when it’s time to ask, “Who missed that three?” in the same tone one would use sniffing flatulence in a sixth-grade classroom). Despite that, both Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu present significant variables heading into the season.
Harkless must recover from knee surgery, then prove he’s an 82-game-reliable utility player rather than a “42-games on, 22-games off, 18-games-didn’t-play-at-all” guy. He likes starting. With the current roster, he fits. But “veteran” is supposed to mean more than just years served. Harkless needs to evolve out of NBA adolescence into “ready to go” maturity.
Aminu has maturity in spades, but his contract situation leaves him vulnerable to a deadline trade. If the Blazers are doing well as the All-Star Break approaches, they’ll have a hard time losing Chief. If they’re struggling and apparently going nowhere, they’d have an even harder time re-signing him next July. In that case, their choice will boil down to trading him for a potential asset in February (likely a cheap one, to save tax penalties) or watching him walk at the end of the year for nothing...not even earned cap space. Whether they’ll value future playing chips or the final four months of his service remains open to debate, but the question will arise.
Zach Collins’ Expectations
Finally, we get to the player the Blazers would like us to focus on, second-year center Zach Collins. He displayed a precocious instinct for defense during his rookie season. His offense was...spotty. He’s got physical tools and he should be carrying more weight on his frame this year, but he’ll also need time to put it together.
Will the Blazers lean towards developmental minutes or will they insist on victories at any cost? Collins might embody the answer to that question. In an ideal world he fits into the rotation seamlessly and begins to push for a greater role right away. In a less-than-ideal world he struggles and senior center Meyers Leonard starts to compete for backup minutes. That would create a slightly queasy, and quite telling, scenario for the coaching staff.
The question isn’t so much whether Collins will play, but how, in what situations, and how deeply down the rotation. Until those answers are sure and positive, he’ll become an unintentional yardstick, measuring the distance between where the Blazers are and where they aspire to be.