The Dame, CJ, and Nurk Core, Version 3.0

I'm just a fan. I claim no special knowledge of the game other than watching for the last 50 years. Because I grew up in a family of hard core wrestlers, I didn't play organized basketball beyond middle school Goldenball. So I don't presume to know more than anyone else around here.

Having said that, I really find the general hostility to Neil pretty hard to take. I don't know Olshey. I don't know if he is a good guy, a loving husband, or a decent boss. What I can see is that he has consistently brought in players with decent character. He seems to have been pretty loyal to Stotts and to his commitment to a core of Dame, CJ. and Nurk. You can question whether or not that is the correct strategic decision, but I think it has been pretty admirable.

Version 1.0 and 2.0
Many of you have concluded that the Blazers Big 3 isn't good enough to really compete for a title. Maybe you are right, maybe not. I think a strong case can be made that Dame/CJ/Nurk core has never had a solid supporting cast that as both offensively and defensively competent. Since the spring of 2016 when Nurk arrived, Olshey has spent time trying to build a winning supporting cast around that threesome. Version 1.0 was Aminu and Harkless and included Crabbe and ET. Version 1.1 added Curry and Hood in 2019. That was enough support for Dame and CJ to get the Blazers to a 3 seed and to the WCF, without an injured Nurk.

Version 2.0 was an attempt to upgrade the forwards to get more shooting and better spacing. ZC and Hood were penciled in as the new starting forwards. Whiteside was a very expensive short term rental while Nurk rehabbed. The bench depth was depleted. Injuries to both ZC and Hood wiped out the 2019-20 season. A heroic run in the bubble showed that team could be competitive against quality teams, but ZC went down again, Nurk ran out of gas, and the Blazers couldn't hang with the soon-to-be Champion Lakers. Last season was limited by injuries and a defensively deficient bench.

Version 3.0
Last year, Olshey set about a third try at building a successful supporting cast around his core. RoCo was acquired. Then Powell at the deadline. Finally this offseason came the trade for Nance. Three Top 100 players added in 13 months. Solid veterans Zeller and Snell were picked up on minimum deals, additional vets have been brought in as viable injury protection.

Version 3.0 of the Dame/CJ/Nurk Blazers now has six players in the Top 100. Most media people and a significant share of the fan base either haven't noticed or don't seem to think it matters. I hope they are wrong. Many have become so narrowly focused on top end talent, they have forgotten that basketball is a team game. It isn't just about having two or three top 50 players, it is about having a solid playoff rotation with no significant weaknesses that can be targeted and exploited by opposing teams.

Clearly, top level talent has won most of the time, but there have been exceptions. I think there are interesting parallels between the Blazers and the Suns. I ill try to make that case in another post on another day. Certainly good solid teams have made deep runs in the playoffs even if they haven't gotten all the way to the top of the mountain.

Last season's late run by the new starting 5 was reason for optimism. +14.2 per 100 possessions is very strong play, especially for a group that had two guys coming off injury and a third trying to fit in. We have heard ad nauseum about the 29th ranked defense. We have heard less about the fact that the new starting 5 had a defensive rating of 104.8. That rating placed them 9th of 30 lineups in the league that played together for more than 300 minutes. Combine those numbers with the replacement of Kanter and Melo by Zeller and Nance, and it seems likely that much of the team's defensive deficiencies have been addressed.

Can the Blazers Become a Top 10 Defense?
I'm sure many will be quick to point out that Dame and CJ are still the starting guards and to argue that this defense can never be top 10 with two such small guards. I wonder how many realize or remember that Dame, CJ, and Nurk have already been a part of a top10 defense?

The Blazers finished #9 in defensive rating in 2017-18. That roster featured Aminu and Evan Turner as the starting forwards. A rookie ZC was the back-up center, Ed Davis was the back-up PF and Mo was the backup SF, although he played most of his minutes with the starters, while ET played twice as many minutes total.

So what made that group so much better than the Blazers teams that came before and after? Did Dame and CJ play better D? Was Stotts a better coach? The answer is pretty simple, Jusuf Nurkic played 79 games that year. The combination of Nurk, Aminu, and Mo as starters was enough to cover for most of the limitations of the McLillard back-court. ZC, ED, and ET was enough to make the bench unit work with Shabazz and Connaughton in the back-court.

I think it is reasonable to compare this year's Version 3.0 with the 2017-18 roster.

Nurk equals Nurk
RoCo > Aminu (about equal as man defenders, edge to RoCo as a help defender)
Norm approx. equal to ET (ET taller but short armed, similar standing reach, similar strength)

Zeller >> Rookie ZC
Nance > Davis (ED better rebounding, Nance better help defender and on perimeter)
Nas < Mo (I am expecting improvement from Nas but Mo was sneaky good)

To my eye, this year's group looks slightly better overall. The real question is health. That 2017 group had good health. Aminu played in 69 games, Mo 59, ZC 66, everyone else was over 70. If this year's group has anywhere near that level of good fortune, I don't think it is crazy to expect similar results.

That 2017-18 team was good defensively but was mediocre offensively with a Offensive Rating that ranked 15th. This year's group is likely to be Top 5 offensively. If they can put that together with a defensive rating like the 2017-18 team, they will be in the hunt for a top seed.

A Reason for Hope in a Season of Hope​
Obviously there are a lot of variables and this comparison is rather simplistic, but I think it demonstrates that a McLillard back-court can be moderately successful defensively. They aren't doomed to be 29th again. With a little luck and good health this roster has a chance to be special. They would probably need a few breaks for a deep playoff run, but those predicting that this team can't compete should take another look.

I don't think being hopeful is just wishful thinking. I think it is a reasonable, rational assessment of the roster and the situation.