The Portland Trail Blazers enter the 2020-21 NBA season with a remade roster and plenty of optimism. Anybody who’s watched the team over the past seven seasons knows that Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum will provide the fulcrum around which franchise fortune pivots. Nothing has changed there. The weight of the lever is far greater this year, or at least has the potential to be.
If the Blazers hope to contend, they will need a few, specific things to happen. Tomorrow we’ll look at team-wide factors, but today we’re going to concentrate on three, specific keys embodied by four players. These things could make the difference between another so-so run and a real chance to win in Portland.
Keeping Jusuf Nurkic on the Court
The Blazers will field more depth this season than at any time since 2014. If you count CJ McCollum as a reserve point guard, they’re double-stacked with minute-munchers at every position...three deep at most spots when you consider multi-positional players. For the first time in his Portland tenure, Head Coach Terry Stotts will be editing down playing time instead of struggling to find candidates to fill it.
Damian Lillard is the only hope to push the Blazers into real championship contention. Without him, they’ll not be a serious team. In that way, his health is the number one key in every season.
Looking beyond Lillard, though, another sneaky-important player arises: Jusuf Nurkic.
Even though the Blazers can brag about their cadre of bigs, Nurkic is the only one who does everything at once. He’s a multi-faceted scorer, percentage shooter, rebounder, passer, mobile defender, and space-eater. And nobody runs the screen and roll play with Dame the way Nurk does. The Blazers can bring Enes Kanter, Zach Collins, and even Robert Covington to the five spot, but none of them will be the anchor that Nurkic is.
The Blazers will be able to compensate just fine for Nurkic during the moments he sits. They can even lose him for a short while and come out unblemished. Giving up Nurkic for a longer period would have a greater effect. He makes the offense of Portland’s guards—and more importantly, the defense of their forwards—better.
Covington and Derrick Jones, Jr. will defend the best offensive players the opponent offers. They’re good, with a chance of ranging towards great. Neither one is Kawhi Leonard. Covington will look marvelous if his defense links up with Nurkic, the forward controlling the perimeter, the center helping to seal off the middle. Covington will still defend well if left on an island, but he can’t hold up the entire frontcourt himself. Kanter and Collins cannot provide the same kind of help over 72 games against opposing starters. In this sense, Nurkic is irreplaceable.
Nurkic and Covington are likely to become Portland’s version of Hope and Crosby, Psy and Gangnam Style, or Jeff Bezos and money on the defensive end. One won’t be the same without the other. Losing Nurkic would shave 40% off of Portland’s prowess at the center position, but it’d also drain 10-15% from everybody else. Besides Lillard, he’s the single most important player on the floor.
Buffing Robert Covington’s Three-Point Shot
Once upon a time, Robert Covington was considered a potential breakout player in the NBA. That was right around 2017, when his two-point shooting percentage hovered around 50% and his three-point percentage climbed to 37%. If he could add a couple more points to the latter, combined with his athleticism and defense, he’d become an official Big Deal in the league.
He got the three-point mark up to 38% in 2018-19 but only played 35 games. Last season he shot just 33.5% over 70 games...not exactly what everyone hoped for.
Caveats abound. Getting traded mid-season didn’t do Covington any favors. Neither did playing center in Houston. He shot 50% for the Rockets over a dozen playoffs games. His corner threes from the right-hand side of the court are magnificent. He’s mediocre from every other angle, but he shoots nearly 42% from that spot.
Terry Stotts has proven himself more than willing to get players the shots they covet. Traditionally Portland’s forwards get looks from both corners, but it’s likely the Blazers will bias that towards Covington’s strengths. They’ll hope he duplicates Trevor Ariza, who shot just 35% from the arc with the Sacramento Kings in 2019-20, but blossomed to 40% after being traded to Portland.
If the best defensive player in the lineup also becomes a reliable three-point shooter, the Blazers will have range at every position. They’ll take a step forward from “Dangerous Team on a Wednesday Night” to actual playoffs contender. Their already-scary offensive production will become seamless while their defense goes up a notch.
If Covington remains around Al-Farouq Aminu levels, the Blazers still have to find a way through the glass ceiling that dedicated playoffs defenses impose upon them by leaving a modest shooting, modest scoring forward alone while keying on the guards.
Good in the Hood
Rodney Hood and Gary Trent, Jr. won’t stand at the top of Portland’s rotation, but they could become the most important mid-level players the Blazers field. Both can shoot. Both can defend. Though they’re natural twos, either can swing between shooting guard and small forward at need.
These attributes will become critical in two situations:
- If the Blazers find they need more scoring and/or shooting at the three. (And they will.)
- When the Blazers want to give Damian Lillard some rest. (And they’d better.)
Right now, it looks like Portland will be safest sliding McCollum into Lillard’s spot when Dame sits, much as they did three seasons ago. Hood and Trent, Jr. can cover McCollum’s absence easily. CJ could end up filling both roles (starting two-guard and reserve point) and still play fewer total minutes.
This is important, as McCollum led the league in minutes played last year while Lillard came in fifth. Dame played 66 games, CJ 70. Had Lillard matched McCollum’s game total, he and CJ would have gone 1-2 in minutes played. Meanwhile, after just eight games in the Orlando bubble, the team started complaining about “fatigue”. This was just as their playoffs performance started to spiral, a near-annual occasion.
The Blazers have got to ease up on their starting guards at some point, if nothing else so the duo can enter the postseason with gas in the tank instead of a warning light. Hood and Trent, Jr. can make that happen. If depth makes a difference in 2020-21, that pair will be at the heart of it.
Tomorrow: Three team-wide keys that could give the Blazers a boost.