First half summary: After plodding through the season’s first several weeks, the Blazers caught their stride, won six straight in February and repositioned themselves among the best in the Western Conference. Much of this had to do with the game-savior role assumed once again by Damian Lillard, who rescued the club with a handful of game-changing late jumpers. The Blazers endured CJ McCollum’s small foot fracture which sidelined him for a month, along with injuries to Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins (out indefinitely). Lillard (29.8 ppg, 8.0 apg) is challenging for the NBA scoring title in what looks like another All-NBA season.
Enes Kanter is another bright spot — and a mildly surprising one at that. He was an economical offseason addition and is serving his second tour of duty in Portland, providing a soft touch around the basket and strong rebounding (11.5 rpg in 26.2 mpg) to make him a valued contributor.
Biggest question going into the second half: Assuming McCollum recovers nicely, the Blazers should have the necessary rotational players to make noise and perhaps push for a top-four seed in the West. Lots will depend on the efforts of a few newcomers, namely Derrick Jones Jr. and Robert Covington. These athletic swingmen are valued for their defense, a major issue with Portland last season which hasn’t completely vanished (the Blazers are 28th in Defensive Rating).
Gary Trent Jr. was a revelation last season for the Blazers, especially in the playoffs. He replaced McCollum in the lineup after his injury and, while he had his moments — especially with deep shooting (41%) — Trent is perhaps better suited as a sixth man.
Nurkic must also bounce back from a fractured wrist and give the Blazers the level of quality post-play that they expect from him, and will need in order to make a bigger statement in the West. It would also be nice if Rodney Hood or maybe Carmelo Anthony could relieve some of the load from Portland’s volume shooters.
Playoffs or lottery?: The Blazers are clearly a top-six team in the West and should reach the playoffs securely if not comfortably. But will they be completely healthy? That’s always been an issue with Portland, especially in the recent past. As solid as Lillard and McCollum are, they still haven’t reached the promised land and only once appeared in the West finals. Therefore, it’ll require the maximum possible from all the important pieces in the rotation to exceed expectations for Portland — meaning, a Finals trip.
Another major factor will be defense, which has held the Blazers back in the past. Can Portland stop the opposing team’s best player(s) in crucial moments? Although he’s certainly capable of supplying the goods, it’s probably too much to ask Lillard to bail you out every time. At some point, Portland will need an additional hero, either defensively, on the glass or simply by making big plays.
Every neutral basketball fan would love to see Lillard enjoy a deep run into the postseason. He’s a true professional, loyal to the organization, big in the community and as we saw last fall, capable of delivering in the postseason. Yet Portland will need to play high-level basketball and get a few breaks to make it out of the West.
— Shaun Powell