The 2019-20 NBA season resumes in two weeks in Orlando, Florida with 22 teams competing for the 2020 NBA Playoffs and a chance at the championship. This will be the strangest end to a season the league has ever seen. Will the Portland Trail Blazers be poised to take advantage of the circumstances and leapfrog into a playoffs seed? If so, what will they ride? These are the subjects of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
New season. New goals? It’s a weird situation with the 8 games and long rest and no home floor and imbalanced schedules. Should I go on? How do you think the game changes when we start up games again and how will the changes affect the Blazers?
It’s going to be a wild ride. Eight games in the regular season should allow teams to settle in, but you really don’t know how a team will perform until they’ve played 25-30 times in a normal year. By that point, they’ll already be at the Conference Finals stage. Expect a fair amount of randomness.
The point is underlined right now as half of the Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets rotations are not showing up, either explicitly because of positive COVID tests or for unknown reasons. We’re not talking 9th men, but legit stars. This reminds us that every team is one test away from dramatic change. That’s going to be a subtext throughout the process.
Again, futilely, I’ll argue that participation should have been limited to the top four teams in each conference, at most. Or they should have arranged a system where fewer teams had to stay on campus at the same time and in-market quarantine began for each franchise as their time to travel to Orlando approached. Trying to preserve financial normalcy, the NBA went for all the games and teams they reasonably could. Playing with abnormal rosters, and thus matchups, will prove one of the costs of that decision.
Some familiar aspects of the game should translate into Orlando fairly seamlessly, though. Think of the infamous “things that can’t be taught”. Big players will still be big. Good rebounding teams should sail into the restart expecting dominance on the boards. Though they’re rare nowadays, players who can score with compact post moves will prosper early. Isolation scorers with size should be fine too. Look for an early return to the matchup basketball from 10-15 years ago. If a player scores because he’s two inches taller and 15 pounds heavier than most defenders, he should get plenty of opportunity. Teams with three-point shooters around that player will have an even bigger advantage than usual.
Teams with complex schemes or delicate roster balance will probably take longer to come around. If the Lakers haven’t solved their LeBron James-Anthony Davis pecking order or if the Bucks haven’t decided that Giannis Antetokounmpo is THE man, sorting that out in Orlando may be more difficult than it would have been in a normal playoffs progression. The Houston Rockets are an interesting case, with a relatively straightforward system but competition between two stars in Russell Westbrook and James Harden. I could see them doing well out of the gate, then fading when opposition gets stiffer.
The Trail Blazers are an interesting case, a real wild card. They now have a more complete roster than they did during the regular season. Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins returning gives them size, exactly what you want heading into the restart. They also have isolation scoring machines in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum (maybe Carmelo Anthony too, depending on the day). There’s absolutely no doubt who the leader is. All of those things speak well of their chances for a quick restart.
Trevor Ariza sitting out isn’t great, but Portland could go big with Anthony or small with Gary Trent Jr. at the three. Or they could just disguise the position, hoping defense from Nassir Little or Wenyen Gabriel would be enough to carry them through. The forward positions are the biggest concern, but they weren’t riding forwards to begin with.
Back to Nurkic and Collins...their size could balance out a potential problem for Portland: reliance on volume scoring. Portland ran a 2.1-point deficit in three-point scoring and a 1.5-point deficit in points at the foul line this year. They made up for it, at least partially, with a +2.0 margin on two-point shots. They achieved that edge by getting up more total attempts than opponents: 90.9 per game, 6th in the league. That’s the crux upon with their high-scoring offense rests.
Portland might be able to freewheel through the first eight games, but shot attempts come dearer in post-season play. If the Blazers end up making the playoffs, opponents are going to key in and take away their extra attempts. At that point, percentages will weigh more than total number of shots. They’re 4th in the league in three-point accuracy, but their most accurate shooters are either out or down the rotation. They rank 15th in overall field goal percentage. Their free-throw shooting volume doesn’t make up for it.
Returning Nurkic and Collins might help the situation. More defense could trim the scoring deficit, reducing the need for those extra shots. Big men become a scoring asset when the game slows down. Rebounding equals ball possession, and ball possession equals control. If the Blazers do plan to thrive with their “lots ‘o shots” system, ball control will become critical. Controlling the glass on both ends is a simple way to hide Portland’s deficiencies and opponent advantages.
We’re talking margins here, not absolutes. Success will be determined as it usually is: the team with most talent on the floor will usually win.
The variable of who plays and who doesn’t in Orlando will be the foundation upon which everything else rests. If all teams show up with a full roster, variables will mean less. Give or take the infamous, “team getting hot at the right time,” we’re going to see results similar to those from October-March. If health and participation throw a wrench in the system, any team could find the door opened in a playoff series they otherwise would have lost. For teams that expected to contend anyway, that’s a major curse. For teams hoping to get their foot in the door, it’s an opportunity.
Thanks for the question! You can send them along to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll fire up the embers of the Mailbag again!
—Dave (email@example.com / @DaveDeckard / @blazersedge)