The long NBA offseason is nearing it’s close. The Portland Trail Blazers will host their NBA Media Day within 24 hours. And after making several new additions to the team, including some solid veterans and promising rookies, the Blazers face many questions heading into the 2022-23 season.
But which question is the biggest?
In a recent piece, that is what The Athletic’s staff attempted to answer for all 30 NBA teams. According to writer Jason Quick (happy to see your name back in bylines, Mr. Quick), the biggest question the Blazers face isn’t about acclimating new veterans or rookies, It’s the status of franchise star Damian Lillard. Speculation surrounds whether Lillard can return to his superhero form after healing up from last season’s core-muscle surgery.
Will last season’s surgery return Damian Lillard to All-Star form? As Lillard goes, so does the Trail Blazers, so the biggest question mark will be which Lillard returns from January’s core-muscle surgery: The player who shot 40 percent from the field and 32 percent from 3-point range in 29 games last season, or the perennial All-Star who almost annually helped the Blazers exceed expectations? Another pressing question is who the Blazers start at small forward — Nassir Little or Josh Hart — but nothing will have a greater impact on the season than the 32-year-old Lillard and his return. For what it’s worth, Lillard says he feels healthy for the first time in years, and that he is motivated to remind the league of his offensive dominance. But until he shows it, Lillard remains the most important question in Portland.
I agree with Quick’s assessment. The Blazers face many questions, but all of those are nearly moot if Lillard isn’t back to his All-Star ways. Their ceiling will crash and this retooling will be a failed experiment because Lillard is the central piece of it all. Like Quick says, “As Lillard goes, so does the Trail Blazers.”
I would like to offer one more question, though, as the Blazers head into training camp and the season beyond: How will head coach Chauncey Billups perform in his second season at the helm? With only one season of experience as an NBA assistant coach, Billups is an unproven head coach, even though he had an exceptional 17-year playing career. Last season, judgement toward Billups’ performance was largely put on pause after the team imploded at the midway point due to injuries and trades, choosing to embrace the tank the rest of the way. Now the Blazers have a supposedly healthy Lillard and new roster additions Billups helped select so he could install his system. They’ll be gunning for the playoffs, not ping pong balls.
The jury will be out on Billups this year. How he and the team perform will go a long way in determining whether Portland has a coaching star on the rise or bad money on the books.