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. The first game of the 2020-21 regular season comes tonight! Before the Blazers face the Utah Jazz at 7:00 PM, Pacific, we’re going to spend some time catching you up to everything that’s been going on.
Steve Dewald will complete his series on Portland’s key rotation players today. We’re also going to have a brand new Dave and Dia podcast to prepare you for the season. Plus we have the second half of this feature: 20 Things that have Changed Since Last Season. If you missed Part 1, it’s right here. It covered the players the Blazers picked up over the last couple months, plus some changes for returning players. Today we’re looking at systemic changes that might make you blink twice when watching the Blazers over the next few weeks.
Here’s what’s likely to be different in 2020-21.
Portland didn’t just focus on name recognition in their offseason acquisitions, but defensive ability. New additions Robert Covington and Derrick Jones, Jr. are potentially great defenders. Gary Trent, Jr. and Zach Collins can get after it as well. Young Harry Giles III and veteran Rodney Hood aren’t bad. If Jusuf Nurkic stays steady, the team has plenty of bodies to throw at opponents.
Defensive depth won’t be the only change. The Blazers should be able to gamble more, forcing turnovers and getting up into ball-handlers. Aggression will be the benchmark by which their defensive transformation is measured.
Fair Warning: Portland’s potential was nowhere to be seen in the preseason. They didn’t look like they were taking over games as much as asking out their crush. They hesitated, stalled, looped around the subject. The results were predictable. (The Denver Nuggets said, “Defend me? Not if you were the last person on earth.”) Portland will need to commit hard to their game, good or bad, if they’re to have any chance at achieving their dream.
No lie, Portland’s defense is probably going to look ugly for a while as they struggle to get over old habits and into new timing. Whether they have the guts to stick with it will be the first question facing them, but not the last. Ultimately any sustained improvement depends on that end of the floor, so hopefully those questions will be answered soon.
Pressure and Immediacy
We’re used to thinking of the Blazers as a young and fairly stable team. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have been earning their way to stardom for the last seven seasons. Neil Olshey’s reticence to make big roster moves left the team in a long, slow learning curve during that span.
Neither of those things holds true this season. Lillard is now 30; McCollum is approaching it. The learning curve has peaked. It’s time to win.
The 2020-21 Blazers don’t have the luxury of doing anything else. Only three of their top ten rotation players—Lillard, McCollum, and Covington—have iron-clad deals past the summer. Enes Kanter, Carmelo Anthony, and Giles are playing on expiring contracts. Jones, Jr. has a player option. Collins and Trent, Jr. are due qualifying offers or are up for renegotiation. The contracts of Nurkic and Hood are non-guaranteed and they could demand extensions.
Even if everybody stayed happy and agreed to re-up with the franchise, holding this team together would be extremely expensive. The only thing that could possibly justify keeping the squad intact, or even close, would be a serious run at the NBA Finals. Absent that, the team will get picked apart like a Bloomin’ Onion following the season.
This is also a sink-or-swim year for Terry Stotts. The Blazers have done everything they can to assemble a complete, win-now roster. If they don’t actually win, the experiment has to be termed a failure. When teams fail, right or wrong, the head coach is usually the first person to go.
The season could also be a final referendum on the Lillard-McCollum pairing. Long story short, changes might run deeper up and down the roster, and front office, than we’ve seen in a decade if Portland doesn’t excel. The Blazers haven’t faced pressure like that since 2001. It’ll be interesting to see how they deal with it.
Upping the Pace
Portland’s first unit should play faster this year with Jones, Jr. and Covington in the fold. Halfcourt offense from the Big 3 will still be the highest percentage move, but forcing turnovers and running out will augment the slow-paced attack. The Blazers will pass quicker and shoot quickly, hallmarks of the Stotts offense. They should also add a few transition points this year.
This may not hold true with the second unit, particularly if Anthony and Kanter hold sway. But overall the Blazers will be brisk compared to their old selves...a welcome sight.
Resurrecting the Mid-Range Game
CJ McCollum has long been the champion of the mid-range shot, an impresario, nearly peerless among his colleagues. That’s true, in part, because the rest of the league looks at shots between 4 and 23 feet as table scraps, preferring to feast on analytically-friendly three-pointers and layups.
McCollum will not be alone this year. Hood, Covington, and Nurkic are all comfortable with middle-range shots. Carmelo Anthony has made a hall-of-fame career scoring that way. If the Blazers plan to keep the ball moving (with meaning, anyway) and scoring plentiful, they’re going to need to be OK with those shots going up. Portland won’t free up distance shooters with drive-and-dish plays. The Blazers may become a bit of a throwback, or part of the new wave, bringing the two-pointer back into vogue.
Enes Kanter is a beast on the offensive glass. He’s unmatched on the roster, but he’s not alone. Portland should be able to corral plenty of offensive boards this season, scoring extra points and keeping the opponent rooted in place trying to secure rebounds instead of running out. This will be a welcome return to days of old, one of the subtle aspects that could push the Blazers from good to great.
The new travel schedule will be a change for all NBA teams. The league has turned towards baseball-like series, with teams playing consecutive games in a single arena. That’s not the only scheduling anomaly. Between January 5th and January 25th, Portland plays 10 of 12 games at home, with both away games being short hops to Sacramento. They’ll also get stuck with big road sweeps before the year is done, but is the road really the road if no fans are in the arena? How much home court advantage will matter this season remains to be seen.
On the upside, the Blazers are stocked with veterans who know how to travel and take care of themselves. On the downside, they’ve lost the familiar advantage of knowing each other like the back of their hands and they might fall prey to vagaries of schedule or inconvenience as much as any team.
We’ll have to see what happens with these trends. All we know now is that it’s not going to be normal.
Rest and Load Management
Portland’s season won’t be judged on their ability to win a given game, or even a streak of them. The only barometer that matters is whether they can win four of seven when the playoffs roll around.
In order to do that, they’ll need a quality they’ve utterly lacked in past postseasons: daisy-fresh stars. One of the big advantages to depth is letting Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic get more pine time, or even a day off. McCollum led the league in minutes played last season while Lillard finished fifth. If that repeats, either something has gone wrong or somebody in the organization is too stubborn for their own good.
With the short-term nature of the roster comes an increased willingness to trade. If the Blazers aren’t going to hold onto everyone anyway, they might be more amenable to moving players during the middle months of the year. Depending on who is available in return, even big moves aren’t entirely out of the question, especially if the season doesn’t start well.
We haven’t forgotten that COVID-19 is still the most pressing issue facing the United States right now. Neither should the NBA. The NBA opening up a semi-regular season instead of a bubble makes players and assorted personnel vulnerable. It remains to be seen how soon professional athletes will receive vaccines. Even then, we don’t know for sure how safe they’ll be.
The number one change COVID brings is focus. Winning a championship should no longer be the highest goal for any fanbase. Having all players, coaches, and other team (and family) members come out of the season healthy takes top priority.
After that, we have to admit that the season could change, perhaps even stop again, because of the virus. Until everyone is inoculated, nothing is secure. The best players in the league are just as vulnerable as 15th men. A huge rush could get derailed by a positive test. We just don’t know what’s going to happen.
That, in itself, is a significant change. First and foremost, as the season starts, Blazer’s Edge wishes sustained health and an illness-free year for everyone across the league.
Those are the changes we have. Did we miss any? Share them in the comments below, and stay tuned as we count down towards the tip-off for the season opener versus the Jazz. Don’t forget to join us tonight for the very first Gameday Thread of the year!