With a heated NBA season underway, it has been easy to see how difficult qualifying for the playoffs in the western conference will be this year. The Portland Trail Blazers are undoubtedly another one of the teams that will be involved in an almighty tussle for a playoff spot as the year pushes on. While overall team effort will be extremely important, some of their success will depend on the individual contributions added, particularly by the core of the roster; namely, the five players that have been starting this season, and sixth man Evan Turner.
Contributions The Portland Trail Blazer Core Must Make
There is not much that Damian Lillard can do to improve as a player on an individual basis. At 27, he’s hitting the peak of his career, and may have reached his ceiling in the past season, where he averaged a career high 27 points per game. Offensively, he is as big a weapon as anyone in the league, with an uncanny ability to literally take over a game at any stage.
However, although calling his defence porous may be an overstatement, his level of play on that end of the floor is inconsistent at best. As the indisputable alpha dog on a team not known for defence, if Lillard is able to put in harder work defensively, an vital precedent will be set for the rest of the team to follow. Lillard will never be an above average defender. But by working on that aspect of his game, he will encourage the rest of the roster to do the same.
C.J. McCollum is just about a hair off Lillard’s raw talent; a premier shooting guard in the NBA oozing with quality. However, unlike the Blazers’ star point guard, McCollum hasn’t quite been a ‘leader’ for the team. He may well only be in his fifth NBA season, but that level of experience, along with his ability, is enough for him to be considered a stalwart: especially with such a young roster. By taking some of the responsibility off Lillard – and therefore freeing his reins – McCollum could also shoulder the leadership role and step up for the Blazers.
There’s no reason to doubt McCollum’s capacity to step into this role He has been a Blazer for life, is extremely well spoken and is liked by all. The time has finally come for him to fill out bigger shoes in Portland.
Jusuf Nurkic also has his work cut out. During his 20 game run with the Blazers to end the regular season in 16-17, the team went 14-6 as the Bosnian averaged over 15 points and 10 rebounds per contest. This was in sharp contrast to his previous, sluggish showings for the Denver Nuggets, where he appeared disinterested at best. Nurkic’s goal this year should be to prove to the still-skeptical public that the talent he displayed was not a fluke, and was indeed a mark of his true ability. His work in the gym this summer (losing 35 pounds) is the first sign that he is truly up to the task.
Maurice Harkless is a prime example of an underrated player in the NBA. On an extremely fair 4 year, $40 million dollar deal, he has spent the last couple of seasons growing as a player in Portland. To contribute more, Harkless simply needs to keep doing what he’s good at; plugging in gaps and holes, as a jack-of-all-trades. Last season, he averaged career highs in virtually all major categories (points, assists, rebounds, steals, FG%, 3P%.) If he is able to continue that level of production along with being so helpful in any aspect required in-game, look for Rip City to enjoy increased success this season.
While Al-Farouq Aminu effectively carried out his role as the defensive stud of the team last season, acting as their de facto heart and soul on that end of the floor, his offence was, at best, shaky. Aminu tied his career high for turnovers per game in the year with and at times, looked to hold on to the ball more than required, with unnecessary and dangerous dribbling. A goal for him to work on is to focus on the defensive end and locking down the oppositions best wing player, and allow superior ball handlers to take control where he is lacking. Fortunately, with Lillard and McCollum – just for starters – it appears that the Blazers are in no shortage of these types of players.
Evan Turner will most likely be coming off the bench for the majority of the season, and as the player with the most experience on the team, he’ll have the crucial challenge of bolstering and leading the still youthful second unit. More importantly, Turner must do more to at least attempt to deserve the giant 4 year, $70 million contract he sits with. This includes improving his efficiency and stats. So far, he’s upped his 3 point clip from a poor 0.263 to 0.429 (with more attempts a game,) along with dropping 13.3 points per contest (up from 9.0.) If this is anything to go by, Turner is set for a very positive season.
LOS ANGELES, LA – APRIL 3: C.J. McCollum (L) of Portland Trail Blazers in action against Jabari Brown (#15) of Los Angeles Lakers during the NBA game on April 3, 2015 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Mintaha Neslihan Eroglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)