The Portland Trail Blazers’ 2022-23 NBA schedule opens tonight as they face the Sacramento Kings at 7:00PM, Pacific. This will be the first building block of their 82-game campaign, but hardly the most important. The Blazers have bigger fish to fry as they seek a return to relevance in the NBA’s Western Conference. They enter the year with multiple open issues. The same dynamic off-season that opened up hope also disrupted the formerly-placid roster. Once upon a time you could count on the Blazers for sustained mediocrity. This year? It could go either way.
Here are five make-or-break issues the Blazers will face in 2022-23, keys on which the fate of the season ultimately hinges.
Is Dame Healthy?
This is the question of questions. Damian Lillard missed most of last season while recovering from surgery for an abdominal issue. He spent the summer assuring Rip City he is just fine now. Early preseason returns indicate that the pep has returned to his step. But if injuries or age dim Lillard’s lights (he is 32, after all), Portland will not be the same team.
Almost every teammate who sat in front of a microphone on Media Day three weeks ago hailed Lillard as the heart of the franchise. If the heart doesn’t beat strong, neither will Portland. Many observers doubt the Blazers’ ability to contend as it is. If Dame isn’t Dame, their predictions of futility will come true before the ball ever gets tipped.
Has the Defense Improved?
The Blazers has the worst defense in the NBA last season and it probably wasn’t close. They set records for blowouts, watched teams waltz past them through the lane, and suffered a ruinous rain of three-pointers on a nightly basis.
Returning regular starters to the floor should bump up the “D” a little bit. Adding Jerami Grant and Gary Payton II to the roster is supposed to help more. But Portland didn’t look good on defense in preseason action. Actually, that’s charitable. They were awful.
Portland’s guards showed no improvement while trying to stop penetration, either off of screens or straight up. When pulled into the lane, Blazers defenders failed to recover to the sidelines on opponent three-point attempts. In short, they got destroyed in all the areas that hurt most, essentially stopping nothing.
It’ll take time for the new group to gel, but trying to win by outscoring opponents didn’t work when the Blazers had a much more bankable offensive lineup. It’s certainly not going to work this year. If the defense doesn’t get better, and quickly, it’s going to be a long season.
Will the New Starting Forwards Be Effective?
Jerami Grant was a significant acquisition for the Blazers over the summer. Josh Hart has played about a quarter of a season for Portland, but he looked good doing it. On paper, the Hart-Grant duo look to be the best forward combo the Blazers have features since LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum.
Both players are incredibly versatile. They can defend, move laterally, score going to the hoop, and pull up for the jumper. Both can pass too.
But versatile does not mean bankable. Neither is a bona fide star. They’re not going to carry the team on their backs. They won’t even get a chance, because they’re, at best, third and fourth on the option charts, maybe lower. Will they settle for those roles, especially since each is in a contract year (Grant outright, Hart with an option)? Can they do enough to make up for the times their starting comrades defend like a bag of stale circus peanuts?
The potential of the starting forwards is tantalizing, but so many question marks surround them. Gas in the tank only matters if the car is moving in the right direction.
The Trail Blazers have been reasonable good in rebounding for most of the last five years. For a while, they were great offensive rebounders. They’ve always been adequate on the defensive glass.
That may change this year. Jerami Grant may help the defense, but a rebounder, he’s not. Josh Hart is short for a small forward. Anfernee Simons and Damian Lillard aren’t expected to clean up the glass. That leaves one man—Jusuf Nurkic—responsible for ALL the boards. The next candidates after Nurkic are Drew Eubanks, Trendon Watford, and Justise Winslow. All of them can do the job, but the team will be buying those rebounds at the cost of the talent disparity inherent in that trio.
This is shaping up to be a major weakness for the club. Rebounds put the punctuation mark on defense and are critical to establishing tempo and fast breaking. Getting blown away on the glass every game would seriously inhibit Portland’s easy opportunities on the run and in the halfcourt both.
Wonder Twins Unite!
Blazers fans used to a Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum backcourt will get their first glimpse of the new incarnation this year: Lillard and Simons.
Simons proved himself worthy of starting consideration with a yeoman-like performance in the absence of every other scorer on the team last season. He looked smooth and confident with the ball in his hands. He shot over 40% from the three-point arc. He provided everything you could wish from a young scorer.
But do the Blazers really need a young scorer at shooting guard?
Even the most optimistic predictions don’t have Simons matching McCollum’s prodigious scoring level when he was in Portland. Theoretically Simons can play better defense and score with fewer dribbles, both of which should create more opportunities.
But Simons looked out of place during preseason, neither getting nor passing the ball in comfortable spots. He and Lillard appeared to be eyeing each other instead of meshing. And the backcourt defense was no better than it’s been in years past...worse, maybe.
The Blazers need Lillard and Simons to come together in ALL the ways, not just some of them. Right now, though, they’d settle for one or two. Let’s see what happens on opening night.
Stay tuned throughout the day as we prepare for tonight’s game together. Up Next: Five More Questions the Blazers Need to Answer