The Portland Trail Blazers will open their 2021-22 NBA schedule tonight against the Sacramento Kings. For the last week, we’ve prepped you with a player-by-player look at the roster. As our season preview culminates, we want to welcome in those who might not have been following off-season or preseason developments. Here’s a look at six things that have changed about the Blazers since the last time we saw them.
Portland didn’t change their offensive personnel that much this summer. Damian Lillard will still handle the ball and probably score a billion points doing so. CJ McCollum still looks like an offensive wizard. His game is like fine wine, improving with age. The starting lineup looks the same as last spring’s too, with Norman Powell, Jusuf Nurkic, and Robert Covington rounding out the five.
That lineup will not be coached by Terry Stotts this year, though. The nine-year veteran was replaced by rookie head man Chauncey Billups. With the new coach comes a new offense.
Portland’s focus has shifted away from the three-point arc and early, isolation shots. Instead they want to work the ball inside more. Guards are penetrating, either solo or curling around screens. Nurkic is setting up at the elbow or in the post, catching the ball and looking to score or facilitate. Distance shooting is still in Portland’s repertoire. They just want to get the ball to the middle before launching a shot from the edges. The goal is higher-percentage shooting and more open shots on the perimeter when they do take them.
The strategy isn’t foolproof. Nurkic has looked shaky catching, passing, and scoring. If the play is quick-hitting and he’s on the move, he seems to make it instinctively. As soon as he stalls or thinks, trouble awaits.
To the limited extent we saw Portland’s starting guards in the preseason, they seemed to prosper playing the old style more than the new.
The Blazers will need to adjust to the new system before we can judge it fairly. For now, let’s just say it entails risk. Portland excelled offensively last season for two reasons: they took a ton of shots and they hit three pointers with frequency and amazing accuracy. This offense takes longer to develop and brings the Blazers inside the arc. Higher-percentage looks are welcome. (Portland’s two-point percentage ranked 28th in the league last year.) But the percentage will need to be way higher to make up for taking fewer shots overall and earning fewer bonus points on threes.
The biggest change on defense happens against screen plays, the bread and butter of most NBA offenses. Under Stotts, Portland bigs retreated to the hoop against screens. They depended on guards to inhibit the ball-handler while the center set up to prevent easy conversions at the rim.
All too often, guards couldn’t contain their men well. Give or take a Hassan Whiteside, the Blazers didn’t field good shot blockers either. Even with Blazers big men retreating to the lane, opponents found easy shots.
Billups is attempting to solve this by having the big men run up to the level of the ball-handler on screens, helping the guards contain the dribbler with a two-man trap.
Sometimes the Blazers generate a steal that way, either poking the ball out of the dribbler’s hands or intercepting a pass. When they don’t, they tend to get in trouble. If the opposing guard passes the ball past the outer shell of the pinching defense, other defenders have to rotate to compensate. The Blazers are usually good to that first rotation. But with one big man recovering from the initial screen point and another forward having just rotated to take his man, the next rotation often ends up in chaos. The other players haven’t figured out how, or when, to make that next defensive rotation. One pass from the middle of the floor to a shooter or cutter ends up in a wide-open shot.
Throughout preseason, Portland’s new defense gave up a ton of open three-pointers while simultaneously proving ineffective at the rim. That’s a toxic combination, no better than the old defense. Sending a big man high against screens certainly results in better “D” at the point of attack, but whether the defense performs better overall remains to be seen.
Turnovers were a non-factor in the Stotts era. The Blazers didn’t cause them; they didn’t commit them either. They enter a whole new world this year.
Every time the ball passes to a new player, that’s an opportunity for a mistake. In the traditional, familiar isolation offense, passes were minimal. In the new offense, the ball might pass through three players’ hands before a shot goes up. One of those players might be Nurkic, who is prone to turnovers in the halfcourt offense.
During preaseason, the Blazers fought a constant battle not against the enemy, but against themselves. Turnovers soared to the moon as the team found itself unable to adjust. Fractured lineups surely played a part, but it’s pretty certain that turnovers are going to be higher this year than anytime in the last decade. That’s going to diminish overall shot attempts. It might give easier looks to the opponent at the same time. Improved defense and shot accuracy will need to make up that difference.
Fortunately Portland’s new, extended defense also creates more turnovers. If they can capitalize with easy points, the deficit caused by the offensive adjustments will ease. If the Blazers fail to create or convert turnovers, though, it could be a long season.
Anfernee Simons at Point
A familiar face returns at backup guard this year. Anfernee Simons, king of the quick three, is slated for more minutes and more opportunity than he’s ever seen. Here’s the catch: it’ll be at point guard, not shooting guard. Simons has been the early choice as Lillard’s replacement when the superstar sits.
This muddies the waters a little. Simons’ shot rhythm has been developed off-ball, largely off of catching and shooting rather than dribbling into his own attempt. He can penetrate, but he has yet to show consistent scoring capability at the rim. He’s shown even less playmaking. Suddenly, he’ll be expected to practice all three new disciplines at once.
Early results have been mixed. He’s made plays when they’re clear...the first job of any reserve point guard. He’s also missed reads. His shot was semi-broken during preseason. He almost looked as if he were questioning attempts instead of taking them instinctively. The new role is going to be an adjustment for him.
Fortunately, Simons’ defense looks better, at least against non Steph Curry guards.
Whether the Blazers can live with his growth curve, and where that curve ultimately leads, will be one of the fascinating variables of the early season.
Welcome Larry Nance, Jr.
Portland’s big off-season acquisition is exciting. Larry Nance, Jr. is long, quick, and a sneaky good defender when helping in the passing lanes. He moves with a grace and athleticism that make his teammates look almost stodgy. If he can light a fire under the roster, Portland’s defense should improve almost automatically.
Where and how Nance, Jr. will play remains in question. He’s technically a power forward/center, but at 6’7 he’s not huge at either position. He can probably spell Covington without missing a beat, Whether he can crack the center rotation is up in the air. He’s not a great one-on-one defender down low. It wastes his natural advantages. But he may not shoot well enough to play small forward either.
Either way, Portland’s second unit will need to play good defense around him, lest his talents go to waste in a sea of permissiveness. You may also see him push Covington for the starting spot before the season gets too old.
A Different Bench
Nance, Jr. will be about the only part of Portland’s bench you’re going to recognize. Last year with Carmelo Anthony, Enes Kanter, and Rodney Hood coming off the pines, the Blazers reserves were a Who’s Who of the NBA. Now they’re more like a, “Who’s that?” Portland will carry 14 players as the season starts. 8 of them are on rookie scale or minimum-level contracts, the most inexpensive lower roster possible.
On the bright side, you won’t see ‘Melo and Kanter gunking up Portland’s defensive schemes anymore. On the other hand, either one of those players is more accomplished than the bottom half of the Blazers’ current roster combined. Integrating the mid- to deep bench—presuming they can play those players at all—will provide an immediate challenge for the new coaching staff.
Portland and Sacramento tip off at 7:00 PM, Pacific. Check out the site for how to watch articles, player profiles, and much more. Join us for our Game Day Thread tonight, then come to read the recap and analysis after!
Happy Opening Day of the Season, everyone!