As part of his series previewing the 2021-22 NBA Season, John Hollinger of the Athletic ran down the prospects for the Portland Trail Blazers today [subscription required]. The review ends up in the middle, neither glowing nor hopeless. The big question for Hollinger, and ultimately for the Blazers, is whether “in the middle” is good enough.
Hollinger began his lengthy piece by recapping Portland’s 2020-21 season, featuring terrible defense, injuries to stars CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, and a brilliant, season-saving offense headlined by All-NBA point guard Damian Lillard. He also mentioned the secret sauce that allowed the offense to be so productive: attempting more shots than any other team in the league.
He continued through Portland’s off-season moves, praising their acquisition of Larry Nance, Jr. (and to a lesser extent, Cody Zeller), but panning the claim from President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey that coaching, not roster construction, was to blame for Portland’s defensive problems. Hollinger also noted that the Blazers once again opted not to sign a notice-worthy back-up point guard, leaving fourth-year guard Anfernee Simons in that role, for better or worse.
At that point Hollinger dipped into Portland’s salary cap situation, which he termed “brutal”, and ran down the current roster. Then he got to the meat of the matter: will Portland’s progress be enough?
The giant elephant in the room that is Portland’s 2021-22 season is whether Lillard tries to push his way out after years in the honorable mention portion of the Western Conference playoff picture. The Blazers won 54 games and made the second round of the playoffs in Lillard’s and Stotts’ second season; they won 51 games a year later. In the six seasons since, they’ve had only one 50-win season and won a total of three series. Recently, they’ve only gone backward: Since the Blazers’ heady talk about winning championships following a 2019 conference finals run, they’re 77-69 and have won three playoff games.
Lillard is 31 now, and while he’s still at his All-NBA peak, he surely hears the clock ticking more loudly in the background.
He also suggested that the clock may be ticking on Dame Time in more than one sense:
...the other looming question over Portland is how long Lillard can remain at this absurdly high level offensively. Even if he were to just softly decline to merely All-Star rather than All-League, it would have pretty severe implications for any potential contender equity here.
Combining all of these factors with his super Hollinger formulae, the pundit ended up prognosticating Portland’s future as, quote, “Same as it ever was.” He left them 6th in the West with 45 wins, excelling because of their stars, suffering because of the lack of talent off the bench, and riding the question marks of coaching and new players into the traditional mid-bracket ranking.
Hollinger explains all of this, and more, in detail in his full piece.