The Post-LaMarcus-Aldridge era Portland Trail Blazers can be referred to in several different ways: Underdogs. Overlooked. Overachievers. Unfortunately, another applicable phrase could be “slow-starting.”
Over the last three seasons, the Blazers have not fared well through the first 32 games (roughly 40 percent) of the season. In the 2015-16 season, Portland, expected to win around 30 games that season) were 13-20. In 2016-17, the team was 13-19. Last season, despite a fairly easy opening stretch of schedule, the team struggled to a 16-16 record.
That’s not going to get it done this season.
Each of the last three seasons saw the Blazers go on second half tears that got them into the playoffs. Despite the second excitement we’ve seen in late-season rallies, Portland simply can’t rely on “turning it on”. If you’re constantly willing your way into the playoffs from behind, eventually your luck will run dry.
The challenge will be especially daunting this year. Golden State and Houston are still there. Utah will likely be solid. Denver and Oklahoma City will be hungry, and probably healthier. New Orleans probably isn’t going anywhere. San Antonio upgraded from nine games of Kawhi Leonard into a full season of DeMar DeRozan. Oh, and the Lakers got LeBron James.
The Western Conference is going to be a gauntlet. It won’t get easier after New Year’s Day as the experienced playoff teams start to ramp up for the closing stretch.
The Blazers won’t have a relatively benign schedule through their first 18-20 games. In fact, in Portland’s first 19 games, they’ll play 13 teams that made the playoffs last year. Three of the six games against non-playoff opponents come against LeBron James and the new-look Lakers.
Clearly, it’s imperative that the team starts the season off playing well, and not repeating the early season mistakes that we’ve seen over the last three years. This means three things; not standing around waiting for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to make things happen, reliable bench play with adequate floor spacing, and Jusuf Nurkic playing efficiently within himself.
The first point is the most critical. We’ve seen the team stagnate around their backcourt duo for long stretches. Blame can be placed on both sides; Lillard and McCollum need to get the other guys involved, but if no one else can get anything going, it’s probably better for them to just look to score themselves. Unfortunately, this is the type of problem where there’s no easy solution. Guys need to be trusted to hit shots. They actually have to hit them once in a while, too.
The bench unit as a whole didn’t improve on paper, but I think the team is built to play more to Evan Turner’s strengths while downplaying his weaknesses. The idea is to let Turner be the ball handler while playing with one (or neither) of Lillard or McCollum and surround him with 3-point shooters. Curry? Check. Stauskas (if he sees the court)? Check. Simons and Trent? Check. Collins? Check-minus. Leonard, now that the big man rotation is so thin? Check.
What has been lost in pure playing ability may be made up for with putting guys in a position to succeed, or at least fail less. Last year the team flowed better when Harkless was the starter and Turner played the reserve role. Don’t look for Stotts to change that this season, but keep an eye on how much Turner is handling the ball during his shifts. Don’t be surprised if it increases.
A big reason the Blazers didn’t come out of the gate red-hot and rolling last season was Jusuf Nurkic’s inefficient play early on. This issue is easily correctable, the one I’m worried about the least. Early in the season, Nurk had a massive usage rate in the post, where he still hasn’t worked out a go-to move. The results weren’t pretty. Stotts quickly limited Nurkic’s post touches and got him back into an effective pick-and-roll/pop scheme with Lillard. Look for that to continue from day-one this season.
The Blazers have their work cut out for them. Based on S.O.S, they have the fifth most difficult schedule in the league, playing in the NBA’s toughest Conference (and division, if you still care about such things). Despite that, they cannot stumble out of the gate for the fourth year in a row if they want to play into late April.