After a dramatic offseason which saw a head coaching change and discontent from their franchise star, the Portland Trail Blazers head into the 2021-22 NBA season facing uncertain storylines. In his ongoing series in which he gives offseason grades and team goals for the upcoming season, The Athletic writer Zach Harper gave the Blazers’ offseason a C+ and listed the team’s end-of-season status as “Playoff Hopeful.”
Harper said the major storyline of superstar Damian Lillard’s status in Portland will continue to hover over the team and will largely depend on the Blazers’ improvement. While the additions of Larry Nance Jr., Cody Zeller and other offseason acquisitions are minor changes from a talent standpoint, Harper said they give the roster greater balance and fit. This difference, along with the presence of Lillard, keeps the Blazers “dangerous.”
Some decent tweaks to the balance of the rotation could end up making the Blazers a real pain to deal with on random nights in the NBA. They already were plenty of times on offense, but even becoming just mediocre on defense, instead of historically awful, would give them a massive boost.
However, since the changes were minimal, Harper said a large amount of the Blazers’ development will rest on the shoulders of Chauncey Billups. Harper said whether the first-year head coach has better answers than his veteran predecessor remains to be seen.
Parting ways with Stotts and bringing in Chauncey Billups is going to be a big change. Billups doesn’t have much experience coaching. Stotts wasn’t a perfect coach, but he was better than how Neil Olshey sold him out when it was time to part ways. This is still a pretty similar group from its disappointing showing last season with a green coach.
Ultimately, Harper said there are too many questions surrounding the coaching change and the roster to accurately assess Portland’s chances at the moment. While the team is dangerous, Harper concluded “we just don’t know if they can be contenders.”
Most of that likely will be on Billups and how he coaches this team. Will his schemes and leadership from the sidelines be the difference they need? Will everybody come back more dedicated to defense? Will Robert Covington be the defensive glue guy we didn’t really see from them last season? Will the mere presence of a healthy Nurkic keep things in order, considering this team was much more competitive on that end of the floor when he was around?
Giving you answers to what next season could mean for Portland doesn’t seem possible right now. There is too much up in the air.
In the second half of the piece, Harper asked The Athletic’s Blazers expert Jason Quick three questions surrounding the team. In his assessment, Quick said the biggest question facing the Blazers will be whether Billups can fix the defense. While Billups is saying similar things about accountability and effort compared to Terry Stotts, Quick said roster changes alone should bring some sort of improvement on the defensive end.
Powell, who is a better defender than Gary Trent Jr., will play a full season. And the bench, which was a train wreck last season when Kanter and Anthony played together, should be fortified with Nance (very good defender) and Zeller (capable defender). And since Nurkic has been in Portland, the metrics show that when he is on the floor, the Blazers can be a top-10 defensive team. The problem has been keeping Nurkic healthy.
Quick also said nobody on Portland’s roster “has more room to improve on that end” than Lillard.
You can read Harper’s full piece here.