The Trail Blazers’ underwhelming defensive output in the 2019-20 season has combined with their offseason improvements to create a polarizing outlook in preseason rankings. Prior to Wednesday’s opening tip off against the Jazz, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor placed the Blazers at No. 17 in his preseason rankings.
O’Connor cited Portland’s noteworthy defensive struggles in his rankings.
Maybe things would be different if Jusuf Nurkic was the same enforcer that he was before a compound fracture of his left tibia and fibula ended his 2018-19 season. Nurkic was a turnstile upon returning to the floor in the bubble, and this preseason he’s still moving like he’s tied to an anchor. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum will lead a high-powered Blazers offense, but unless they’re at least average defensively, it won’t be enough to grab one of the top six seeds and a guaranteed playoff spot. Just like last season, the Blazers will probably find themselves in the play-in, and maybe they’ll be good enough to advance again.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe also focused on the Blazers’ defense in his tier-by-tier preseason rankings. Portland landed in Lowe’s third tier, but he was more optimistic than O’Connor.
I’m higher on Portland than almost every projection system is. If things break right, the Trail Blazers could finish No. 3 or even No. 2 in the West. When Zach Collins returns, the Blazers can flip between bigger lineups and several small-ball looks with Robert Covington at power forward. Terry Stotts has crafted average-or-better defenses from worse rosters.
The Blazers finished with 35 wins in the 2019-20 regular season and posted the fourth-worst defensive rating in the NBA. Coach Stotts’ squad will look to turn the page on last year when they open the 2020-21 season against the Jazz on Dec. 23.