Prepping for Year 10 in the NBA, Damian Lillard made it clear in the offseason it’s time to win in Portland on the heels of back-to-back first-round exits. Lillard delivered the words straight with no chaser after the Trail Blazers’ loss to a depleted Denver Nuggets squad.
“I don’t know what a shakeup looks like or what changes will be made or could be made, but obviously, as-is wasn’t good enough,” Lillard said.
The statement put the franchise on notice, while kickstarting widespread speculation regarding the six-time All-Star’s future with the team. Portland held off on executing sweeping roster changes in the offseason, but it did part ways with longtime coach Terry Stotts, replacing him with first-time head coach Chauncey Billups. Roster wise, the Blazers acquired Larry Nance Jr. in addition to re-signing Norman Powell and adding Cody Zeller, Tony Snell and Ben McLemore. So, change at the top through the hiring of Billups and internal improvement seems to be the route Portland ultimately settled on, as it looks to extend the NBA’s longest active postseason streak (eight seasons) with franchise superstar Lillard craving more.
Can Billups fix Portland’s defense? As colleague John Schuhmann points out in his Offseason West Power Rankings, the Blazers have the NBA’s worst defense over the last two seasons, surrendering 114.8 points per 100 possessions. Powell represents an upgrade defensively over Gary Trent Jr., and the team’s reserves should be better in that area through the additions of Nance and Zeller. A healthy Jusuf Nurkic helps too. Injuries have limited the center to just 45 games over the last two seasons. Robert Covington is one of the league’s better help defenders, but he didn’t showcase that quality as consistently as he probably preferred in his first season in Portland. So, he’ll be motivated this season to galvanize the starting group on that end. But with virtually the same personnel from last season, Billups needs to be the difference-maker on defense.
The potential Billups effect looms large, since the Blazers for the most part opted against making splashy moves to fill out the roster this offseason. Lillard openly pondering his future in Portland over the summer sends a sense of urgency that should elicit a positive response throughout the organization. Also, don’t count out Billups’ ability to relate to the players, as that will be key in pushing the Blazers back to where Lillard thinks they should be. Predicted finish: 45-37.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
Damian Lillard: Prolific scorer put pressure on the franchise over the summer, but it likely pales in comparison to the heat he’s putting on himself to take Portland deeper.
CJ McCollum.: Foot injury last season prevented what should’ve been his first All-Star appearance, as he raised 3-point volume to nearly 9 per game, hitting 40.2%.
Norman Powell: Started all 27 games he played in Portland last season but might be even more effective off the bench.
Robert Covington: Versatile off-ball defender is key to the team’s needed improvement on defense.
Jusuf Nurkic: Could turn out to be the biggest beneficiary of Billups taking over as coach.
Larry Nance Jr.: Shooting, rebounding, playmaking, and defense — Nance brings all those attributes – with the ability to slide into a starting role.
Anfernee Simons: Career 38.2% shooter from deep keeps showing flashes, but it’s time for him to take a major step in Year 4.
Tony Snell: Length and athleticism makes him valuable defensively, and he’s a lights-out shooter from long range that will likely crank up volume this season.
LAST 5 SEASONS
How the Trail Blazers have fared stats-wise over the last 5 seasons …
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
STAT TO KNOW
1.00 — The Blazers were the first team in 17 years of Synergy play-type tracking to score more than a point per possession on pick-and-roll ballhandler possessions. Damian Lillard (1.07) and CJ McCollum (1.02) ranked third and ninth in ball-handler points per possession among 43 players with at least 300 total possessions.
— John Schuhmann
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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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