Here is an A-Z of the Blazers heading into the 2018-19 season
Assists: The Blazers ranked last (30th) in assists last year in the NBA. They averaged 19.5 assists per game. A big reason for being dead last is a lack of consistent shooters on the bench and around the Blazers back court of Lillard and McCollum who averaged 43% of the Blazer field goal attempts and makes per game for the 2017-18 season. This season the Blazers have more reliable shooters. During the preseason they have clearly worked on moving the ball better, and have averaged 25.4 assists per game, with an assist on 64% of their field goals. If the Blazers keep an added focus on moving the ball going into the season, it will benefit them greatly.
Bigs: The Blazers lost Ed Davis this summer and will feel the loss around the basket. They are hoping added minutes will accelerate the development of Zach Collins. Don’t expect him to become a force on the offensive glass like Phys Ed, but the young big man out of Gonzaga is a scrapper. Though his game on both ends is still a work in progress, he will make an impact this season. I just hope he works on his hands, if there is such a thing.
Meyers Leonard is in his 7th year now, and has yet to really prove himself. His unflattering to say the least contract is probably the only reason he is around. That and his three point shot, which we will see quite a bit more of this season off the bench. That said, Meyers played well in preseason, working hard on both ends of the floor. Lillard’s praise of him during media day interviews may be more than hype. It finally looks like Meyers is finding himself. Let’s hope so.
Caleb Swanigan is the Blazers other remaining big. He is adept at passing, but he is tortoise and the hare slow. His hands and body movement need a good deal of work. A lot of it is youth and confidence. He will won’t be in the rotation, sans injuries, though he may see some minutes based on match-ups this season.
Al Farouq Aminu needs to work on his consistency from the arc. When he is on, he makes teams pay for doubling Dame an CJ. When he is off, he is a defense’s wet dream. He will be important in trying to make up for the lost rebounds from Ed’s absence.
Calendar: The Blazers will play 12 back to back games, fewer than years past after league changes aimed at limiting player exhaustion. A good thing because the Blazers travel further mileage than any team due to their isolated location in the northwest. Portland will enjoy nine of their first 13 games at the Moda Center, but will end the season playing 16 of their last 25 games on the road, including an aching 7 game road trip down the last stretch. The Blazers will play on Christmas Day for the first time in 8 years, taking on the Utah Jazz.
Defense: Blazers finished last season 8th in defense. They finished 5th in opponents points per game. They held opponents to 44% field goal shooting, 4th in the league. In short the Blazers have it together on defense. The Moda Center is one of the hardest courts to win on in the NBA. Blazers are going to need to keep it up on the defensive end this season. Going to be harder without Davis around.
Draft: The Blazers drafted guard Anfernee Simons. This young kid out of prep school may very well be the steal of the draft. He has already shown raw skill in preseason. He exhibits an uncanny agility to get to the basket with ease. His shot is gold, and though he lacks size, it is easy enough to pack on a few pounds of muscle. Simons has the makings of a star.
The Blazers bought into the second round to take Gary Trent Jr. The sharp shooting wing can contribute immediately, the question is at what level? His youth has shown through in the preseason. He has the makings of a decent role player. Like his father before him, he can cut out a role with the team, if he puts in the work. This season most of that work will probably be in the G league.
End of Quarter: Blazers last season had woes in the second quarter, digging holes they couldn’t come back from. When the Blazers lost the 2nd quarter, and went into the half trailing the opponent, they lost more of those games than not. That said, the Blazers were the come back kings, going on legendary runs to come back and win games. Still, the Blazers need to win as many 2nd quarters as possible and to stay out of holes, if they want to build on their win column this season.
Fans: The Portland Trail Blazers have the best fans in the NBA and with them one of the loudest arenas in the league. The fans are always ready to scream the Blazes to a win, to let them known when they need to pick it up, and to remind the visting opponents that the Moda Center is a force to be reckoned with. It is not merely a place on game nights, but an organism, composed of 19,980 beating hearts and voices synced as one.
Gazelle: Precisely what the Blazers can’t afford to be. There is going to be a lot of hungry teams this season, especially with a packed west, and a eastern conference in open season without Lebron at the top. Teams at the bottom, in rebuild mode, who don’t have the personnel to contend, are the gazelle, ready, knowing they are going to be prey for upper tier teams. The Blazers need to stay hungry, be ready to fight for 82 games. Be chasers, not roadkill. Not gazelle.
High Post: Look for the Blazers to have more of a presence in the high post this season. Zach Collins looks to be getting comfortable there. Good.
Injuries: The Blazers need to stay healthy this season. Mo Harkless’s knee has lingered, and if he can’t stay on top of it, it will hurt the Blazers. Portland is razor thin in the front court, so thin, a wind could blow them down. Let’s hope the big bad wolf doesn’t show up. The Blazer’s bigs need to stay away from the injury bug. If the Blazers can stay healthy and rested as much as possible it will go a long way.
Jump shots: When it comes to pull up jumpers, the Blazers were one of the better teams last year. When it comes to catch and shoot that is another story. With more consistent shooters this year (Curry, Stauskus not to mention Dame and CJ will only improve there) look for the Blazers to hit more jumpers. That said they need to find a balance, and attack the basket in more than healthy doses.
Kicking the Ball Out: This was a problem for the Blazers last season, especially for CJ who more often than not forced the ball into the lane and took low field goal percentage shots, many that were deflected, ending in Portland turnovers. This preseason though, CJ was kicking it out to the corner and top of the key to open shooters, who made the defense pay. McCollum had 6 assists in the last preseason game versus the Kings. If he can keep that up, the Blazers will be better off.
Leadership: There is a special kind of leadership in Portland. Damian Lillard leads the way on and off the court. He is a shining example of the power of hard work and humility. He praises his teammates when they earn it, he calls them out when they need it, and gives them a voice of hope when they are down. He fosters trust, and builds a tribe.
Minutes: With Napier, Connaughton, and Davis gone and a sparse front court to contend with, Stotts is going to have to figure out how to disperse minutes. We will likely see a tight nine to ten man rotation, with Harkless and Layman seeing time at the power forward. Expect starters to spend more time on the court, and less on the bench.
National TV: The Blazers will play six games on national tv, including two against the Lakers. That is five less than last season. Not, a big surprise. The small market Blazers don’t often get the spotlight.
0ffense: The Blazers offense sans Lillard and McCollum was terrible last year. Portland had no other consistent shooters, who could be relied on to take the pressure off of it main two scorers. The Blazers mostly relied on Aminu, Harkless, Napier, and Connaughton, who were hit and miss. Opponent defenses were glad to let them take shots. This season with Curry and Stauskus, not to mention Portland’s bigs who can also shoot the long ball, that will hopefully change .
Personnel: Bazz was ok. He hit threes here and there, but he never attacked the rim. Connaghton was what he was. Layman didn’t get much of a chance. Turner was and is a terrible fit for Portland. Yeah Turner is still here, but the Blazers have better personnel to hide him, and help Lillard and McCollum. Curry is going to be just what the doctor ordered. Stauskus, finally used correctly, will help keep defenses honest. Layman has made a jump, and will contribute this year. Portland is deeper than it looks. Does it have the personnel to be a contender? No. But, it has the personnel to take the next step towards that ambition.
Quickness: The Blazers are not the best fast break team. In fact last season they were one of the worst. Besides the three, the fast break can be a weapon for the Blazers to wield on offense. They definitely have the speed to beat opponents to the other end, they just have to keep the metal to the petal, and finish once they get there.
Rebounds: The Blazers out rebounded their opponents last year by about 2.6 rebounds per game. That was with Ed Davis. How much will missing him hurt the Blazers? Well if the preseason is any indicator, not too much. The Blazers averaged 45.5 rebounds per game, five rebounds better than their opponents. Last season the Blazers averaged 10.2 offensive boards, 35.3 defensive rebounds, and 45.5 total rebounds. This preseason the numbers aren’t much different so far: 9.4 Offensive rebounds, 35.8 Defensive rebounds, and 45.2 total rebounds.
System: Terry Stotts gets a lot of flack. But, he is a hell of an offensive coach. The problem has been he hasn’t had a lot to work with. His offensive systems have been catered around Lillard and McCollum, and have been easy for opponents to break down. Terry’s system has to evolve to better include Nurkic. He has to figure out how to get the bench in position to contribute. More so than high screens and shoot as many threes as humanly possible. Stotts needs to get the offense to remain fluid until they can get the open shot. It instead often stagnates and the Blazers become turnover prone or take terrible shots.
Three Pointers: The Blazers shot 36% from the three point line last season, hitting 845 out of 2308. Expect all three of those numbers to go up. Blazers are going to shoot lights out from the three this season, and they are going to do it often.
Under Estimated: The Blazers are used to being under estimated. They have and will probably always be the under dog. The Blazers need to continue to use this as a positive, as they have been. The chip on their shoulder hasn’t gone anywhere, and I don’t expect it to.
Victory: The Blazers won 49 games last season. Can the Blazers match or better that this season? If they get to 50 wins in an overcrowded west, I will consider that a victory.
West: The west is packed. Lebron just moved in. The Warriors and Rockets aren’t going anywhere. The Blazers are going to have to fight through a crowd to get back to the playoffs. They have made it the last five years, and will fight to make it again. Many are saying they are on the outside looking in. I say don’t count those chickens till they hatch.
XFactor: The Blazers will need an Xfactor, a player who brings extra energy when needed. That guy has been Harkless. If Harkless can stay healthy expect him to use his swiss army knife and bring the 6th man power. He can play the extra energry on D, he can still, drive the fast break, he can rebound and block shots. He can shoot. He can do a little bit of it all. Another guy to keep an eye on for energy surplus is Seth Curry.
Yelling at the refs: Guys like Nurkic need to stop yelling at or paying much attention to the refs. Focus on the next possesion. Get back to the other end and put that energy to good use. Keep your mind in the game. Don’t give teams 5 on 4 advantages because the ref missed a call, don’t get t’d up and give the other team an extra point. It is not worth it.
Zero: As in the letter zero. Damian Lillard. Dame Time.