The Portland Trail Blazers have nine players returning next season, assuming Rodney Hood and Mario Hezonja pick up their player options. With minimal remaining money to spend as well as the midlevel exception—both of which will likely decrease in value due to the COVID-19 pandemic pausing the season—Portland must be strategic in its acquisition of players to optimally fill out the depth chart in the offseason.
The primary areas of concern given the nine players coming back in 2020-21: a 3-and-D wing (as always), a backup veteran point guard, and a backup big.
The Blazers have lagged behind the league-wide trend of collecting wings who can shoot and play defense. In the age of analytics, such an athlete archetype creates the perfect supporting cast for ball-dominant stars. With Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless, Portland only got defense; opponents had no problem leaving them open on the perimeter to stifle the rest of the Blazers’ potent offense.
With Hood and Trevor Ariza in the fold, a noticeable upgrade has occurred in terms of outside shooting, but the defense has taken a step back. Hood doesn’t have the size to guard taller forwards, and when he starts alongside Lillard and McCollum, he’s frequently tasked with guarding opponents with a size advantage. Ariza doesn’t have the same lateral quickness in the twilight of his career, but he does have the veteran wherewithal to predict the offense before it happens.
3-and-D wings are a hot commodity in free agency, and Portland isn’t in any position to outbid other teams for an impactful player. Therefore, the Blazers should use its pick in the late lottery to draft a player with a high floor who can quickly become part of the rotation. There’s an abundance of wings who defend and shoot in this draft, but the list of NBA-ready forwards is relatively short.
Backup Point Guard
Portland’s 66 games of the 2019-20 season illustrated that Anfernee Simons isn’t ready to run the second unit. He’s a score first point guard and resembles McCollum more than Lillard. His ability to get a bucket will benefit the bench, but he shouldn’t be tasked with facilitation.
McCollum consequently assumed control of the reserve team’s offense, and while he’s displayed flashes of elite playmaking—averaging 10 assists in a four-game span at the end of February—he’s ultimately a scorer first, passer second. Plus, he thrives as the second option alongside Lillard.
In 763 minutes without his backcourt buddy, McCollum was -110 and shot 35.2% from three (of which, 47% were assisted). In 1,466 minutes with Lillard, he was +138 and shot 40% from three (of which, 78.3% were assisted).
The only way to keep McCollum with Lillard for a majority of his minutes, as well as take point guard duties away from Simons, is to sign someone to run the second unit. Preferably this signing is a veteran that can mitigate Portland’s youthful inexperience off the bench.
A point forward would fit this role best, even though such players haven’t thrived with the Blazers recently. Simons and Gary Trent Jr. should defend the two guard positions because of their size but adding a true point guard to the reserves forces Trent Jr. to defend wings instead.
This season, the Blazers were forced to trot out Anthony Tolliver as the starting center at times. A reality that exposed Portland’s lack of depth at the pivot.
Thankfully, Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins will be healthy by the start of the 2020-21 season, whenever that may be. They’ll likely be the starting four and five, creating a defensive nightmare for anyone trying to score in the paint.
As expressed by several different Blazer’s Edge writers, resigning Hassan Whiteside might be the best bet to deepen the depth chart at center. Portland has his bird rights, plus he’s better than most available centers in free agency no matter what you think of his contributions.
Questions exist about Whiteside’s ability to accept a reserve role given his departure from Miami, but it’s worth noting that in Nurkic’s two near-complete seasons with the Blazers, he played an average of 26.9 minutes per game. That leaves 20 minutes per night, plus the occasional foul trouble or matchup advantage, for Whiteside. Essentially, it’s not the reserve center role most teams offer. In the 2018-19 season, Enes Kanter turned down other suitors for the opportunity to flourish as Nurkic’s backup.
Terry Stotts abuses high pick and rolls, and Whiteside now has a year experience with that system under his belt. Potential conflicts with his role on the team aside, adapting to a reserve facilitator in bench role should go smoothly.
With space on the roster but not much in the balance sheets, the Blazers must be strategic with who they sign and draft to fill roster needs. I think the best course of action in a vacuum is drafting a 3-and-D wing, signing a point forward, and resigning Whiteside if he can accept a bench role.
That creates a solid 10-man lineup of Lillard, McCollum, Hood, Collins and Nurkic as the starters and a new facilitator, Simons, Trent Jr., Ariza and Whiteside as the reserves. Portland can then fill out the remaining roster spots with Hezonja and Little (to fill in when needed) as well as another draft pick and two way players.