Following a four-month hiatus as a result of COVID-19, the NBA is getting ready for a long-anticipated league restart. Beginning on July 31st, the top 22 teams will compete at Disney World’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla. Given that there will be a secured “bubble”, concerns over the spread of COVID-19, and no fans, it’s safe to say that this will be a season finish unlike any other. Taking the unique NBA landscape into consideration, the Last Word on Pro Basketball staff continues this contenders or pretenders series with the Portland Trail Blazers.
Can the longshot Trail Blazers lock up a playoff spot in the Western Conference and use that to make a shocking NBA championship run?
Contenders or Pretenders? Portland Trail Blazers
Step One: Getting Into the Playoffs
Before the Trail Blazers ask themselves if they are contenders or pretenders, the team must first make the playoff field. Currently, the Blazers sit ninth in the Western Conference in a virtual three-way tie with the New Orleans Pelicans and the Sacramento Kings. The three teams are 3.5 games back of the eighth seed Memphis Grizzlies.
Fortunately for the Trail Blazers, the 2020 NBA Playoffs will look a little different this year. After the final “eight seeding games” of the regular season, the No. 9 seeds in each conference will have a chance to play into the playoffs. If the No. 9 seed finishes within four games of the No. 8 seed, that would trigger a play-in scenario (best two of three, No. 8 seed starts series up, 1-0).
The remainder of the Blazers’ regular-season schedule is favorable, with only three games against teams seeded No. 3 or better (the Los Angeles Clippers, the Denver Nuggets, and the Boston Celtics).
Nurkic and Collins at Full Strength
Portland is receiving a huge influx of size into their rotation with the returns of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins from injury. Nurkic has not played since March of 2019 following a gruesome leg injury. Collins has been inactive since October when he dislocated his shoulder and had surgery.
During the absences of Nurkic and Collins, the Blazers have struggled with interior play, specifically rebounding and interior defense. Portland ranks 27th in defensive rebounding percentage and last in opponent points off second chances.
It’s unclear how head coach Terry Stotts will utilize this influx of size into the overall rotations. There is speculation that Nurkic, a natural center, will see time at power forward with Hassan Whiteside taking the center position.
The Backcourt Will Score… a Lot
For the last five years, the starting backcourt for the Trail Blazers has included two names and two names only. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Arguably, the best backcourt and best scoring backcourt in the league.
Thanks to the duo’s talent, cohesiveness, and ability to get buckets, the Blazers have enjoyed a lot of recent team success. This has included four straight playoff appearances (since Lillard and McCollum began starting together in 2015-16), including a trip to last year’s Western Conference Finals.
This season has been no different. Currently, Lilliard is the league’s fifth-highest scorer with 28.9 points per game. McCollum ranks 18th, scoring 22.5 points per game.
Portland’s backcourt depth also adds valuable scoring. Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr. both drop in at least 7.5 points per game on better than 40 percent shooting from the field. On July 1, the Blazers signed guard Jaylen Adams as a Substitute Player for the remainder of the season. Adams was a force on offense in the G League, averaging 21.5 points per game (48.6% FG, 40.7% 3-PT, 78.8% FT) for the Wisconsin Herd (an affiliate of the Milwaukee Bucks).
Throwback Melo? Other Supporting Cast
Portland’s remaining supporting cast is highlighted by Carmelo Anthony and Whiteside.
Anthony, a decorated 17-year NBA veteran, has enjoyed a career revitalization with the Trail Blazers. After spending nearly the entire 2018-19 season as a free agent, Anthony has started in 50 of Portland’s 66 total games this year. Melo has averaged more than 30 minutes of action per night, scoring 15.3 points per game.
Anthony, age 36, has been busy working on his conditioning during the league’s hiatus. Recent reports show a slimmer and “ripped” Melo reporting to the NBA Disney Bubble. These reports compare his physical transformation as the best we’ve seen since 2013-14 before he turned 30.
Whiteside has been tremendous in filling Portland’s hole at center with the Nurkic injury. In 61 starts, Whiteside leads the NBA with 3.1 blocks per game and ranks second in total rebounds, bringing down 10.2 a game.
Portland will be missing a piece of its veteran leadership, however, as Trevor Ariza has opted out of joining the team in the bubble. With the returns of Nurkic and Collins from injury, however, Coach Stotts will have more depth to experiment with lineup rotations.
Portland Trail Blazers Verdict: Pretender
Some analysts have called the Trail Blazers the most dangerous team entering the NBA Disney Bubble. Although the team possesses an elite backcourt with Lillard and McCollum, and more playoff experience than most teams, the road won’t be easy. First, Portland will have to secure a playoff spot. This will likely require playing one or two play-in games to move onto the first round. If the Trail Blazers get into the first round, they will likely square off against the Los Angeles Lakers and LeBron James in the first round. Not an easy task. Despite Portland’s valuable combination of depth and experience, the Trail Blazers are pretenders.
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