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Nurkic, Covington Key to Blazers’ Push Towards Contender Status

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The Score’s Joseph Casciaro and Joe Wolfond explained that the Trail Blazers’ potential defensive improvements could make them legitimate contenders in the Western Conference.

Portland Trail Blazers v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

On paper, the Trail Blazers’ offseason had a clear goal in mind: improve one of the NBA’s worst defenses. Now with Jusuf Nurkic slotted to return for a full season and the addition of former All-NBA defender Robert Covington, coach Terry Stotts’ squad appears ready to do just that.

In an analysis of potential contenders in the competitive Western Conference, The Score’s Joseph Casciaro and Joe Wolfond focused on the Blazers’ busy offseason when evaluating Portland’s Lillard-led title hopes. After highlighting the impact of Nurkic’s return, The Score’s analysis turned to the other players in Portland’s frontcourt.

With Nurkic in the middle, Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. arriving to shore up the forward spots, and burgeoning on-ball menace Gary Trent Jr. set to step into a bigger role after breaking out in the bubble, Portland, at long last, appears to have struck the right balance between offense and defense. Their wing situation is as good as it’s been at any point in the Lillard era.

Covington, in particular, is going to completely change the shape of this team. He’s the kind of help defender who can cover for Lillard and McCollum and give Jusuf Nurkic some cover in the pick-and-roll. There may not be a better player in the league at blowing up drives and rolls by pinching in from the wing. Add in his effectiveness and willingness as a spot-up 3-point shooter, and he will fit like a glove. He and Jones also give the Blazers the kind of lineup and schematic flexibility they’ve lacked throughout the Lillard era.

Wolfond’s positive assessment did include a noteworthy dose of perspective when looking at the Blazers’ previous postseason struggles.

Generally speaking, it’s really difficult to build a legitimate contender around a backcourt as diminutive and defensively deficient as Lillard-McCollum. Despite all the memorable playoff moments he’s authored and all the improvements he’s made when it comes to dealing with hard traps, Lillard’s overall productivity consistently dips in the postseason.

The Blazers, after enduring an injury-filled season, secured 35 wins in the 2019-20 campaign. In 2018-19, coach Terry Stotts’ crew marched to the Western Conference finals after securing the No. 3 seed with a 53-win regular season.

You can read the full list of Western Conference contenders at The Score.