If you last tuned into the Portland Trail Blazers as they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, you’ve missed a whale of an offseason. Opening night of the 2020-21 regular season comes on Wednesday, Before the Blazers face the Jazz in Game 1, we’re going to spend some time catching you up to everything that’s been going on.
Steve Dewald and company are going to give you in-depth looks at Portland’s rotation over the next three days. Dan Marang and Dia Miller will have podcasts, plus we’ll poll you on your expectations for the season. In addition, we’re offering the following feature in two parts: 20 Things that have Changed Since Last Season.
Part 1 focuses on the players: every new addition, plus changing roles or expectations for incumbent players. That will encompass the first ten changes. The second ten will be systemic, and plenty interesting.
Here’s your catch-up on who’s new and what’s changing as far as personnel. If you haven’t kept up on the team, you can assess and process. If you have, chime in with additions or omissions in the comment section!
10 Personnel Changes for the Blazers in 2020-21
One of Portland’s favorite centers is back and just as offensive rebound-y as ever! Enes Kanter brings size, efficient scoring, and board-work to the middle of the floor. He’s just as helpful and optimistic as you remember from Portland’s 2019 run to the Western Conference Finals. The flaws haven’t changed. He’s not a quality defender and he plays slower than the first unit will want to, but he’s not as big of a style clash as Hassan Whiteside was last season. Kanter is still the closest thing to Jusuf Nurkic you can find in the NBA, providing continuity to the center position no matter which group is playing.
Derrick Jones, Jr.
The 2020 NBA Slam Dunk Champion is a one-man air show. You haven’t experienced his game until you’ve seen him soar to the rim. It’s like watching a majestic condor soar through rainbow mists, emerging high over the crashing Pacific Ocean. Jones, Jr. is going to return the baseline cut and the fast break to Portland’s arsenal. He can also defend, making him the most likely season-long starter at small forward. The three-point shot is missing from his portfolio. He hit just 28.0% in Miami last season. That’s the only thing keeping him from a secure starting position for the next ten years. It’s a big omission, though, as anyone witnessing Portland’s playoffs runs during the 2010’s can attest.
Neil Olshey hunted down defense this season like Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli hunting orcs. The ceaseless journey led him to veteran Robert Covington, once considered a prime candidate for stardom at small forward, now languishing in the vacant center position for the Houston Rockets.
The good news: Covington did a credible job at the five, despite standing just 6’7. That’s how good he is: hard-nosed, rangy, and skilled. Portland won’t ask him to fill that position, starting him instead at power forward, where he’ll watch stretch fours and rotate into passing lanes.
The bad news: Covington is neither the star nor the complete player his youth promised. He’s a modest scorer. He shot just 31.5% from the arc on 7.6 attempts per game for the Rockets last season.
True 3-and-D wings are as rare and valuable as Playstation 5’s in the modern NBA. The Blazers did the best they could. Covington will add a whole new layer of threat on the defensive end. If he can pull a Trevor Ariza and up his three-point percentage to .400 when he hits Portland, watch out.
Rodney Hood isn’t new to the team. He’s returning from a year-long recovery after a torn Achilles. Quickness and leaping ability are often casualties of that kind of injury. Fortunately Hood’s game depends on length, craftiness, and skill as much as raw athleticism. He’s as smart and opportunistic as ever. If he can regain the confidence that allowed him to shoot 49% from the arc last season, he’ll be a potent weapon, providing the missing ingredient that other Blazers forwards lack.
Hood may face a minutes crunch with Jones, Jr. and Gary Trent, Jr. at his favored positions. Hood wasn’t as good in Cleveland, or even in his late Utah years, when he his confidence and sense of purpose waned. He’ll need to assert himself—using minutes and touches aggressively—to avoid becoming the lost man on the roster.
Harry Giles III
Eyebrows raised in several corners of the NBA when the Sacramento Kings released Harry Giles III just two years after drafting him 20th overall in the 2017 NBA Draft. The Blazers traded up to get forward Zach Collins that year. Their pick allowed the Kings to select Giles. Now Portland has them both.
Giles is 6’11, 22 years old, and has a head on his shoulders worthy of his Duke pedigree. He’s quick and athletic, but those attributes look 50% better because he anticipates well. He’s an efficient scorer inside the arc and a fine rebounder. His defense is a work in progress, but he did well in preseason.
Giles’ ascension has been prominent enough to make people forget the injured Collins is still waiting in the wings. If Giles can continue to improve on the defensive end, he’ll become an ideal non-stretch forward or reserve center: lithe and fast, a leaper who can cover ground and all the basics. He’s looking to earn a bigger contract. This may be his opportunity to get it.
Jusuf Nurkic has been with the Blazers since 2017, but this will be a different season for him. When he first arrived, “Nurk Fever” brought him accolades independent of the team’s performance. One high screen-and-roll with Damian Lillard was enough to demonstrate the promise of the new pairing. Over the next two seasons, the Blazers challenged him to become an all-around player, which he did. When he broke his leg in March of 2019, he was one of the best centers in the league and a centerpiece of Portland’s plans on both ends.
Nurkic is practically starting over after having missed all but eight games last year. He may be ready physically, but the Blazers need him to resume his broad and critical role from two seasons ago. He’s the connecting piece between defenders, not just a backstop protecting the rim, but an important perimeter piece when closing out or guarding screens. Even with better defenders at the forward positions, the Blazers still can’t lock out every opponent individually. Those better defenders won’t make a difference if they can’t play aggressively. Nurkic is the key to Portland’s cohesion. Without him, the other players don’t have anyone to link to when building the defensive dam.
This is true to a lesser, but still significant, extend on offense. Nurkic is the only screen-setter in the starting lineup. He’s also a primary rebounder. The team will rely on him to score from the middle, but also to pass, whether that’s to a three-point threat or a cutter. If he’s slow or turnover-prone, they’re stuck whipping the ball around the perimeter or driving 1-on-3.
Damian Lillard is still the most important individual player on the roster, but from a team perspective, nothing works without Nurk. If he’s not ready to become a big-time, bankable center, he and the team are going to slip into murky mediocrity together.
Gary Trent Jr.
You’ll remember Gary Trent, Jr. from his run in the bubble last summer. He scored in double figures in 7 of Portland’s 8 regular-season games in Orlando. He also shot an amazing 41.8% from the field last year, playing sharp defense in the process. He was one of the bright spots in an otherwise confusing campaign.
You don’t remember the Gary Trent, Jr. you’re likely to see this year: confident, practiced, pushing hard for minutes and a contract. During preseason he reprised his moves from last season, just quicker and more decisively. Sandwiched between McCollum, Hood, and Jones, Jr., you’d think Trent would have a hard time finding the floor. Instead the coaches will have a hard time keeping him off of it. Be prepared to see Trent, Jr. become a key cog in the Blazers machine, or at least go down trying.
Carmelo Anthony was the starting power forward for the Blazers for most of the 2019-20 season. He won’t be that anymore. It could be argued that ‘Melo is no better than third on the depth chart at either forward position. Yet he’s still going to get minutes based on his experience, scoring ability, and flat-out respect. How he adjusts to the new role, particularly if it fluctuates, will be one of the big sidebars of the season. He’ll probably be fine no matter what happens as long as the Blazers win. If they don’t, there’s not a lot of skin for Anthony in the game apart from minutes and shots. The relationship will either be smooth as silk or...interesting. Stay tuned.
Zach Collins was last year’s Trent, Jr., expected to grow into an important contributor. Injuries derailed those aspirations. Acquiring Kanter, Giles, and Covington (and re-signing Anthony) made Collins’ once-assumed position precarious. He’s no longer the starting power forward. He may not be the first back-up. He’s not automatically the first call off the bench at center either. Zach will have to fight for everything he gets. That’s going to be a bit of a cultural shock, both for him and the team. How he handles it might say everything about his future with the Blazers. This will not be same old Zach. Either he’ll grow or we won’t see him nearly as much. He’s in the army now: get promoted or prepare to be mustered out of the rotation, maybe off the team.
As should be evident, the Blazers have far more depth than they had last year, or anytime since 2014, really. If McCollum slides to point guard when Lillard rests, the Blazers are double-stacked, minimum, at every position. Several players can swing between multiple positions. Most of them bring multi-faceted games to the floor. They’re interlocking, interchangeable, and fascinating.
Portland’s bench will play with a much different style than the starters: slower, more isolation-based. But the second unit shouldn’t be a disaster, or even a placeholder. Portland might be able to press an advantage with their bench players. That hasn’t happened around these parts forever. The late first and early second quarters will no longer be an automatic snack break. Fans will actually have to watch the whole game instead of playing Call of Duty on the spare TV and praying after the starters go out.
Stay with us all week for our season run-up coverage and watch for Part 2 of the 20 Things feature on Wednesday!