The 2013-14 Trail Blazers are one of my favorite teams of the millennium. Watching them almost inexplicably leap from 41-win also-ran in 2012-13 to 54-win-near-contender the next season was some great basketball and fun.
Weirdly, it seems largely forgotten how unexpected those 54 wins were for the Blazers. I vividly remembering a text conversation during the summer of 2013 that can be paraphrased like this:
Me: Man, this team is stuck on the treadmill. What the hell can they do to get better?
My brother: Oh, they’ll be fine! All that needs to happen is Damian Lillard avoids a sophomore slump, LaMarcus Aldridge makes the leap from iffy all-star candidate to All-NBA player, Robin Lopez turns into a serviceable starter, Wesley Matthews continues his working man’s version of an ascendant rise, Nicolas Batum stays healthy, and a couple of the bench guys like Joel Freeland can play some serviceable minutes.
Me: hahahahhahahahahha lolz
Bro: yea, pretty much.
Yeah, somehow all of that happened. It was awesome.
The current iteration of the team finds themselves in a similar spot — Portland did win 49 games last year, but with continued improvement from Western Conference competitors while the Blazers mostly stand pat, combined with the unsustainable(?) injury luck last season, most prognosticators will slot them into a very low playoff seed. So, what can the 2018-19 Blazers do to make a leap into contendership like the 2014 Blazers?
CJ McCollum Diversifies His Skills
CJ McCollum is very good at basketball — it’s not easy to score 50 points in three quarters. But his statistics noticeably plateaued this season, to the point that it’s fair to openly wonder if he’s overpaid.
Compounding the plateau is the fact that he’s generally poor at drawing fouls or getting teammates involved in the action and his game is largely based on isolation:
This all paints the picture of an elite one-dimensional isolation scorer who cannot be relied upon to do the “other” things that help make a team efficient and alleviate stress on Lillard to be the primary scorer AND playmaker. McCollum will need to make a leap and become a more multi-dimensional player next season for the Blazers to significantly improve.
Moe Harkless Plays 82 Games AND Is Perceived as a 3-Point Threat
True story: Midway through last season several writers on the Blazer’s Edge Slack channel spent an entire game basically saying “Why does Harkless look so mopey on the bench?” We didn’t tweet anything because trying to read into player’s attitude via on-screen body language is perilous, at best (sorry, Bill Simmons). And then it turned out that we weren’t the only ones noticing.
To make the leap next season, the Blazers will need two things from Harkless. First, he must stay in the rotation and put forth consistent effort for 82 games for the first time in his career.
Second, they will need him to continue to shoot 3-pointers with this amount of effectiveness:
Once defenses begin to see Harkless as a legitimate threat, and not an Al-Farouq Aminu-esque streaky shooter who can be left open, they will be forced to cover him which will open up the court for Lillard. Throw in an improved attitude to the point that Harkless is effective and engaged for an entire season, and then the Blazers might be able to make a leap.
No More Flippy Shots from Jusuf Nurkic
I already wrote about it in this article, but Nurkic had an unfortunate tendency to resort to what I like to call “flippy $#1+” last season around the rim:
Nurkic did correct this problem, at times, later in the season culminating with 21 bruising points on 8-for-8 shooting in the restricted area against the Rockets in March. He’s stated that his goal is to continue playing with that level of aggression next season, and the Blazers will need it to make the leap.
Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan — Can They Both Make a Leap?
The Blazers will also need two of their youngest players, Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan, to make a leap next season if the team hopes to compete with the elite teams of the Western Conference.
Collins needs to become the team’s stretchiest big man, with the shooting ability and switchy perimeter defense that is prototypical of 2018 NBA power forwards/centers. Last season he did show potential on defense, but had little aptitude on offense beyond passing. He must improve on both ends, significantly, in 2019.
Swanigan spent much of last season in the D League, but with Ed Davis playing backup center the Blazers did not need suffer for his loss. Davis is now gone, meaning the Blazers are one Collins or Nurkic sprained ankle from leaning heavily on Swanigan or Meyers Leonard for rotation minutes. That could be a short-term disaster if Swanigan doesn’t step up his game significantly from last season.
Readers — do you think the Blazers’ players can make these improvements? What other leaps would you like to see next season? Let us know in the comments!