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.
Earlier today we shared five big issues facing the team as the season issues. Here are five more keys on which the fate of the season ultimately hinges.
Jusuf Nurkic’s Stamina
As we said in our last post, Portland’s defense didn’t look great in preseason action. One of the by-products of that was them hitting the emergency button possession after possession. The guy on the other end of that alarm is center Jusuf Nurkic. Need somebody to switch onto a guard? Call Nurk. Lost your dribbler somewhere in the lane? Call Nurk. Need a rotation so a forward can go out and cover the arc? Dial 1-800-Hey-Nurk!
To his credit, Nurkic is game to try all of it. But he’s not equipped to do all those things even on his best days. If he’s fatigued or injured, you can cross most of them off the list. And it only takes 8-10 minutes of running around the floor like a madman, THEN having to get the rebound because nobody else well, before Nurkic is tired.
Nurk has to stay in pristine physical shape to survive the season. Otherwise we’re likely to see him get as many combined fouls and turnovers as rebounds. With the lack of depth behind him, that’s going to be a big deal for the Blazers.
Rookie guard Shaedon Sharpe made a splash in preseason, at least when he got adequate minutes and touches. Lack of experience is going to keep him away from big minutes at the start of the season, but the Blazers will bank heavily on his development. Not only is he a potential one-on-everybody scoring machine, he has superhuman athleticism and a nose for defense. That’s convenient, as Portland lacks both.
Sharpe is more of a future hope than a present panacea, but if the Blazers can get 12-15 minutes out of him during the second half of the season, they’d be plenty happy.
Chauncey Billlups owns a 27-55 record so far as a head coach. Pinning all those losses on him would be unfair. Last year’s roster barely qualified as NBA-caliber. But that also means that Billups has only coached a true NBA roster for about 20 games. In essence, this is his rookie season.
The Blazers will face a steep learning curve this year, if nothing else because all their players outside of Nurkic and Damian Lillard are playing new roles. Billups will need to mix, fix, match, and massage like an expert. That’s a tough ask when literally nothing he’s tried so far has worked.
How effective Billups becomes at rallying his team, getting them pointed in the right direction, and earning their buy-in to his system will be a critical story this season. He doesn’t have to have all the answers, but he can’t figure them all out on the fly either. The season will be down the disposal before he has time to implement a second or third guess. If this turns into another lost year, the Blazers won’t have great data on next summer’s decisions, including whether to retain their starting forwards. Billups and his players need to get it right, and quickly.
The Blazers look shiny, new, and at least semi-exciting at nearly every position. New blood is their great hope this year. But with the changeover in personnel, they face a potentially big issue at the arc.
Gone are the days when Portland sported three-point shooters at nearly every position but center, running that skill deep into the bench.
The league average for three-point shooting in 2020-21 was 36.9%. It dipped to 34.2% in 2021-22, a low aberration. It’d be fair to call 36% around average, 38% or higher significantly above.
The Blazers have two—count them, two—players who qualify for average or higher three-point shooting based on last year’s numbers. Josh Hart shot 37.3%. Anfernee Simons registered an absolutely fabulous 40.5% rate from the arc. Everybody else fell short.
It’d be reasonable to assume that Damian Lillard’s career-low 32.4% three-point percentage will rise again towards his usual 37-38%, but even if that’s true, you have Lillard and Hart just north of NBA average, Simons well above it, and... not much else.
Hart and Jerami Grant will certainly get open looks from the arc. They’ll need to hit early and often. Jusuf Nurkic has been shooting long too, but that experiment appears to be a dismal failure.
Not stretching the defense with good three-point shooting will have a ripple effect on Portland’s offense. Opponents will crowd the lane, making it impossible to pass, post, or penetrate cleanly. At that point the attack will devolve into passes around the perimeter with guards taking deep shots off of isolation-dribbles. If that happens, you can replace the clarion trumpets of the classic Blazers TV theme with sad trombones.
The Blazers need several players to up their shooting game quickly and consistently, lest Lillard and Simons find themselves forcing attempts with defenders draped all over them while teammates watch, helpless.
Each question presented today takes on extra urgency when you consider the Blazers will enter the season amid a hailstorm of potent opponents. They’ll draw the Phoenix Suns three times in their first nine games, with the Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, Brooklyn Nets, Memphis Grizzlies, Milwaukee Bucks, and Los Angeles Clippers also populating their first 20 outings. It’s like taking a calculus test that you’re not sure you’re ready for while a brigade of circus clowns pelts you with exploding, cream-filled porcupines. This is going to be hard.
There’s a non-zero chance that the Blazers can’t make enough adjustments to bring them a winning record in the first month or two of the year. Their winning streaks might start late, or not at all. That would sap the confidence from players and coaching staff in their new structure and in each other.
Momentum is an amazing thing when it’s going with you. Against you, it’s a real pain. We’ll need to see which way it goes for the Blazers out of the gates, and how much that’ll affect their esprit de corps going forward.
Stay with us throughout the day as we continue marching towards the first game of the new season!