The Portland Trail Blazers are one of 22 teams headed to Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, for the NBA season restart. League play was suspended on March 11 after the rise of the coronavirus pandemic, which is still very much going on. After months of planning, the NBA has agreed to a “bubble” environment at Disney World to try to complete the 2019-20 season. Portland will enter Orlando as the ninth seed, 3.5 games back from the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. Here’s what you need to know about the team as they vie for a playoff spot:
1. Portland’s season hasn’t gone as expected
The Blazers came into this season as hopeful title contenders, but the season quickly unravelled. Starting power forward Zach Collins, who was expected to be a potential breakout player, suffered a dislocated left shoulder in the third game of the season, requiring surgery that has kept him out of the lineup since. Starting small forward Rodney Hood, who has become an important piece of the Blazers’ offense since arriving in February 2019, went down with an Achilles tear in early December, ending his season prematurely.
Add in the absence of Jusuf Nurkic due to the leg injury he suffered in March 2019, and Portland was suddenly down three starters before 2020.
Portland’s injuries have required numerous lineup experiments: 16 players have started at least one game for the Blazers this season. The arrival of Carmelo Anthony in November and Trevor Ariza in February provided some stability to the starting lineup, with both players become instant starters as soon as they joined the team. Through all of the volatility, the Blazers managed to stay within reach of the eighth seed before play was suspended, led by their franchise star, Damian Lillard.
2. Damian Lillard is superhuman
It’s scary when a perennial All-Star and All-NBA player finds another gear. Lillard has done just that this season.
During the 2019-20 campaign the star point guard is averaging career highs in points (28.9) and assists (7.8) per game. He’s also posting his best field goal percentage (45.7) and tied for his best 3-point shooting season (39.4%). This is all while being the league leader in minutes per game (36.9).
When Lillard isn’t in the lineup, his impact is even more obvious. In the eight games that Lillard has missed during the 2019-20 campaign, Portland has lost six of those matchups.
The Weber State product has constantly reminded the league of his ability to single-handedly take over games. In January, he set franchise single-game records for points (61) and 3-pointers (11) to lift Portland over Golden State. It is the highest scoring performance ever on Martin Luther King Jr. Day:
Only 11 days later, he put up 48 points in honor of Kobe Bryant as Portland edged out the Lakers:
In Orlando, with the Blazers’ backs up against the wall, Lillard will be right there leading the charge.
3. Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins are expected to return in Orlando
Lillard will likely have two very big reinforcements joining him on the Blazers’ playoff push. First is Jusuf Nurkic, who was already expected to make his return on March 15 against the Rockets before the season was suspended. Nurkic’s season debut has been highly anticipated after he suffered a gruesome leg injury against the Nets in March 2019. Recent videos show that Nurkic has possibly added a 3-point shot during his rehab, which would make the 7-foot center even more of a problem for opposing defenses.
Portland’s second reinforcement is Zach Collins, who was recently cleared for full basketball activities after rehabbing from left shoulder surgery. Collins was in line for an elevated role this season as starting power forward. His return along with Nurkic will provide head coach Terry Stotts with various options in the frontcourt in addition to the current starters, Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside.
4. Portland needs a new starting wing. Again.
Rodney Hood’s injury already set Portland’s wing rotation back. The arrival of Trevor Ariza from Sacramento provided a solid presence at small forward, with Ariza starting each of the 21 games he played in for the Blazers this season. However, Ariza has opted out of the NBA’s restart in Orlando in order to fulfill a one-month visitation period with his son. Ariza’s absence is a blow to a team hoping to make the playoffs.
Now, Portland must look to internal solutions to fill Ariza’s 33.4 minutes per game. One option could involve slotting Zach Collins in at power forward and moving Carmelo Anthony over to small forward. Another option would be to upgrade one of Portland’s bench players — Gary Trent Jr., Nassir Little or Mario Hezonja — to starter. The Blazers’ signing of point guard Jaylen Adams could signal that Trent is getting a promotion from the reserves and Adams is coming in to play a bench role.
5. Gary Trent Jr. is this season’s breakout player
While all eyes were on Anfernee Simons heading into this season, it’s Gary Trent Jr. that has earned fans’ attention. Trent only registered two double-digit scoring efforts from October to December, with his highest being 13 points. But something clicked for the second-year player as the calendar turned to 2020. From January to March 11 (when play was suspended), Trent put up double digits in 15 contests, with performances of 20 (x2), 22, 24 and 30 points under his belt.
After playing in just 7.4 minutes per game during his rookie season, Trent is posting career highs in points (7.7) and 3-point percentage (38.8) in 20 minutes a game this year.
Despite Trent’s smaller frame — 6-foot-5, 209 lbs. — he has actually split his time between shooting guard (48%) and small forward (50%) this season, per Basketball-Reference. He has also shown his ability to hound opposing players on defense:
Trent posted 1.5 steals per game during the month of February when his playing time increased. That mark would be just below Ariza’s team-leading 1.6 steals per game. Trent’s tenacity on defense is something Portland will need against the supply of impactful wings across the league.
6. Carmelo Anthony: Blazer at last
After rebuffing previous recruiting attempts led by Portland’s stars, 10-time All-Star and future Hall-of-Famer Carmelo Anthony signed with the Blazers in November. As Portland’s season started to trend downward, the team needed to make a move to shake things up, and adding the aging star finally brought them a starting power forward to lean on.
For Anthony, it’s been an opportunity to play again in the league. He has taken a prominent role in Portland’s offense, starting all 50 games he’s appeared in while averaging 32.5 minutes per contest. Anthony’s Blazer tenure hasn’t been without complaints about his iso-heavy tendencies or lacking defensive contributions, but for a team that needed consistent production, Melo has provided. His 15.3 points per game have helped shoulder the scoring load from the team’s stars.
When Anthony gets into his zone, it’s extremely fun to watch the 16-year veteran still torch defenses, like he did against Toronto with 28 points and the last-second game-winner:
Melo said during the season that Portland “is where I want to retire,” so it’s possible that 2019-20 with the Blazers isn’t just a one-off for him.
7. The Blazers must overcome their Orlando schedule for a chance at the playoffs
Portland has a chance at making the NBA Playoffs even as the current ninth seed. However, they’re 3.5 games back of Memphis, leaving little room for error. If the Blazers stay as the ninth seed when play in Orlando ends, they need to be within four games of the eighth seed to force a play-in tournament. In that scenario, they’d need to win two straight matchups against the eighth seed to make the playoffs, while the eighth seed would only need one win to advance.
Portland was scheduled to play two games against the Grizzlies down the stretch of the season, but the Orlando schedule only features one Portland-Memphis matchup, which is Game No. 1 for both sides. That contest could determine if the Blazers’ playoff chances are real right out of the gate.
Portland also has teams behind them to worry about, especially the New Orleans Pelicans, whose Orlando opponents only have a combined win percentage of 49.5%, compared to 59.7% for Memphis and 60% for the Blazers.
If there’s one thing that’s become clear in the Damian Lillard era, it’s that Portland relishes its role as an underdog. They’ve made experts look like fools for picking against them. Whether that was in 2014 when Houston was favored in their first-round series, or last year when only one ESPN personality picked the Blazers to beat OKC in the first round — we know how both of those ended.
Portland is down two of their starting small forwards, and will have to work two of their important big men back into the lineup, and has a difficult schedule ahead, but the Blazers aren’t ones to shy away when the odds are against them.