The Portland Trail Blazers are only a day away from beginning scrimmage play in the NBA’s Disney World bubble, and their first seeding game tips off on July 31 against the Memphis Grizzlies. In other words: Blazer basketball is very, very close. Here at Blazer’s Edge, we’ve previewed the upcoming season restart, from breaking down the roster to highlighting things to know. Let’s walk through some strengths and weaknesses for Portland with actual games right around the corner:
Strength: The star backcourt
In a pressure-packed environment where Portland’s season hangs in the balance, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum can be depended upon to carry the load. When the Blazers faced a feisty first-round opponent in OKC in last year’s playoffs, Lillard became a supernova, averaging 33 points, 6 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 2.4 steals. He ended that series in Game 5 with a downright heroic performance of 50 points, including 10 made threes and the game-winner.
McCollum took the baton from Lillard in the second round against Denver to deliver his own outburst. The former Most Improved Player led the team in scoring with 26.4 points per game and showcased his elite ability to create shots against even the toughest of defenses. Game 7 was a particularly memorable performance by McCollum, who played 45 of a possible 48 minutes while scoring 37 points and hitting the game-clincher.
With the Blazers’ sights set on the playoffs, their backcourt will go down fighting.
Weakness: Figuring out small forward
Losing Trevor Ariza for the season restart hurts. The 15-year veteran provided stable offensive contributions (11 ppg on 40% from 3-point land) and handled tougher defensive assignments. Without him, Portland is likely looking at Carmelo Anthony to start at small forward, with Gary Trent Jr. and Nassir Little providing additional support at that position.
There’s hope that Melo can handle his defensive assignments. Besides coming into the bubble as “Skinny Melo,” head coach Terry Stotts believes the 10-time All-Star will find support on defense from his teammates.
Figuring out the small forward rotation without Ariza will be crucial for the Blazers as they enter scrimmage and seeding play.
Strength: Season suspension provided time to recover, improve
It’s clear that Portland has benefitted in some ways from the season suspension that occurred in mid-March. First off, it gave players a chance to rest after an up-and-down season. Damian Lillard is currently the league leader in minutes per game at 36.9. He was already destroying defenses while logging heavy minutes — imagine what he’ll be like as a refreshed player entering bubble play.
Furthermore, the season suspension allowed Portland to get Zach Collins back into the fold. Lillard recently said that the team expected Collins back at the very end of the regular season, but now he’ll get to play an involved role as Portland chases a playoff spot. The return of both Collins and Jusuf Nurkic is a strength all on its own.
Lastly, the Blazers were one of the first teams to start individual workouts, which has allowed them to get their conditioning back on track before other teams. Second-year guard Anfernee Simons noted that Portland’s diligence in individual workouts before the season restart helped them get back into game shape. The layoff from regular-season play also gave a young player like Nassir Little a chance to work on his game. Coach Stotts recently highlighted Little’s work ethic during the season suspension:
“His shot is looking really good,” Stotts said. “In the two, three months since March 11, he has probably gotten up as many or more shots than anyone on our team. He’s playing with a lot of confidence.”
Portland now enters the bubble well-rested but also positioned to shake off early rust quickly.
Weakness: Schedule in Orlando
The Blazers will need to overcome a less favorable schedule in Orlando if they want to fulfill their goal of making the playoffs. Portland originally had two matchups with the Memphis Grizzlies on their pre-suspension schedule, but now they will only face off against the eighth-seeded Grizzlies once: in Game No. 1. That first seeding matchup will likely determine if the Blazers’ playoff chances are legit.
Portland is currently 3.5 games back of the Grizzlies with eight seeding games to put themselves in playoff position. One hope for the Blazers is the play-in tournament that will take effect in Orlando if the ninth seed finishes within four games of the eighth seed at the end of the initial eight-game seeding schedule. In that scenario, the ninth seed would need two straight wins to advance to the playoffs, while the eighth seed would only need one victory to clinch a playoff berth.
Portland’s opponents in Orlando have a combined winning percentage of 60%. The Grizzlies’ opponents have a combined winning percentage of 59.7%, but Portland also has teams behind them like the Pelicans (combined opponent winning percentage: 49.5%) and Kings (combined opponent winning percentage: 52.9%) to worry about.
Here’s Portland’s entire seeding game schedule:
- July 31 vs the Memphis Grizzlies
- August 2 vs the Boston Celtics
- August 4 vs the Houston Rockets
- August 6 vs the Denver Nuggets
- August 8 vs the Los Angeles Clippers
- August 9 vs the Philadelphia 76ers
- August 11 vs the Dallas Mavericks
- August 13 vs the Brooklyn Nets