2019-20 Previews: Portland Trail Blazers

Losses: Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, Mo Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Seth Curry, Jake Layman, Enes Kanter.

Additions: Hassan Whiteside, Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja, Pau Gasol, Anthony Tolliver, Nassir Little.

Likely Starters
Guard: Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum
Wing: Kent Bazemore
Big: Zach Collins, Hassan Whiteside

Predicted Record: 49–33 | 9th in NBA | 6th in West

What is the power of institutional consistency? What, tangibly, do we gain through the simple fact of keeping some baseline level of ourselves the same?

When you look at this Trail Blazers roster, you see Dame and C.J., and your first thought is that this is a team that has decided to stick with the status quo. You look closer, and it is clear this isn’t the case. Of the ten players with the most minutes played for this team last season, only four are currently on the roster, and one of those players—Jusuf Nurkić—is currently injured.

So, the question here, really, is to what degree Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum count as institutional consistency at this point. The Blazers have been made it a commonplace in recent years to blow past pre-season expectations. Something here has been underrated. Has it been Dame and C.J. all along? Or, more troublingly, were players like Al-Farouq Aminu and Mo Harkless playing with a kind of hidden usefulness that we’ve been taking for granted all this time?

The obvious shift, roster wise, is that the Blazers went from being a team loaded with combo forwards (Aminu, Harkless, Layman) to a team with, at first blush, none of those guys. Kent Bazemore is game for anything, but he’s not big enough to do the versatile defensive work and rebounding Aminu and Harkless did for these guys. Rodney Hood is wonderful offensively, but he’s not helping you on the other side of the floor. Mario Hezonja has yet to prove he can play meaningful NBA basketball. Nas Little is still so green (though he’s the guy you are looking at here if you are a Blazers optimist).

Maybe it doesn’t matter. The Blazers were third in offensive efficiency and 16th in defensive efficiency last season. It’s not like Aminu and Harkless were turning them into the 2008 Celtics on D. They were decidedly average. Terry Stotts has proven for years that he can get mediocre defenders to play enough defense to leverage their offense. Even Enes Kanter looked pretty good in the playoffs last season.

Maybe it doesn’t matter for an even sneakier reason. Maybe the league is getting bigger again. Is it possible that we’re moving back into an era in which the possibility of letting Hassan Whiteside and Zach Collins share big minutes isn’t a non-starter? Maybe Collins has enough juice, given his youth and athleticism, that he can chase guys around on defense enough to leverage his size in other ways.

The Blazers, significantly, led the league in rebound percentage last season—it is a huge part of their success. If we assume Bazemore and Collins are replacing Aminu and Harkless in the starting lineup, then the Blazers will be smaller on the wing, but they’ll be bigger in the frontcourt. Can Collins replicate Aminu’s rebounding? Can Bazemore play a little bigger than he has in the past? Where does someone like Anthony Tolliver fit into all of this? Do the Blazers even have a way of going small at this point? Is playing Rodney Hood at the 4 for a few minutes tantamount to forfeiting the game?

The West is a bloodbath. It took 48 wins to get in the playoffs last year, and it’s not hard to argue that 10 of the teams in the conference got significantly better this season (11 if you count the Suns, who at the very least won’t be the same pushovers they were last season). What I’m suggesting is that you can think that the Blazers are likely to approach 50 wins again AND not be convinced that they are a lock to make the playoffs.

And if the institution of Dame and C.J. finally isn’t enough this season—if we are surprised to discover that Aminu and Harkless were more essential than we’d previously imagined—the Blazers will finally have to acquiesce to the conventional wisdom that has dogged them over the past seasons of this iteration of the franchise. They’ll have to take a hard look at whether Dame and C.J. is a viable combination, a meaningful allocation of resources, whatever you want to call it. If February rolls around and this team is on the ropes, seismic shifts could be coming. I can’t wait to see how they respond.

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