Everyone Loved the Blazers Offseason, but Are They Legit Title Contenders?

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistNovember 24, 2020

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) brings the ball up court in the first half during an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

Over the summer in Orlando, the Portland Trail Blazers made the NBA playoffs by the skin of their teeth.

Some of that can be attributed to injuries, of which the Blazers had many, but it was hard to view the 2019-20 season as anything less than a letdown coming off their unexpected run to the Western Conference Finals in 2018-19.

Heading into Damian Lillard's age-30 season, the Blazers are firmly going all-in to contend in the prime years of one of the greatest players in franchise history.

On Monday, in his first formal media availability in over a year, Blazers general manager Neil Olshey was confident he's done exactly that.

"We're happy with the offseason," Olshey said. "We accomplished one of our goals. We wanted to be more athletic, we wanted to be better defensively this year, we wanted more versatility on the perimeter, we wanted to be able to switch more, and we wanted to be more disruptive on defense."

The Blazers have had one of the most active, and acclaimed, offseasons of the hyperspeed trade/draft/free-agency period that began a week ago.

They flipped veteran forward Trevor Ariza and two draft picks to the Houston Rockets for a younger‚ÄĒand better‚ÄĒversion in Robert Covington. They re-signed forwards Rodney Hood and Carmelo Anthony and brought back reserve center Enes Kanter in a trade with the Boston Celtics. They signed a versatile defensive wing in the Miami Heat's Derrick Jones Jr. and took a flier on Sacramento Kings center Harry Giles III.

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Those were all sensible, logical moves that clearly made the team better around the core of Lillard, CJ McCollum and the newly healthy Jusuf Nurkic. If the Larry O'Brien Trophy were awarded in the offseason for trades and signings that generate the most positive press, the Blazers would be title favorites. 

But in a crowded Western Conference in which most of the other playoff contenders have also made improvements in free agency, it remains to be seen whether Portland will be able to separate itself from the pack of teams looking to dethrone the Los Angeles Lakers squad that beat Rip City in five games during the first round on its way to a title in the bubble.

Health alone should make the new-look Blazers vastly improved over last year's model.

Nurkic was outstanding in the bubble after missing the entire pre-shutdown portion of the season rehabbing a leg injury he suffered in March 2019. Hood, who missed most of the season after suffering a torn Achilles in early December, is expected to be ready to play opening night. Olshey also expects fourth-year forward Zach Collins, who returned in the bubble from a season-long shoulder rehab only to suffer an ankle injury that required season-ending surgery, to be ready to play toward the end of January.

For the Blazers to contend, they'll need to be a lot better defensively. Last season, they were the fourth-worst team at that end of the floor, giving up 114.3 points per 100 possessions, which was, by some distance, the worst mark of the 16 playoff teams.

The additions of Jones and Covington should help, as will a full season of Nurkic and the continued development of third-year guard Gary Trent Jr., who impressed at both ends in the bubble. Even improving just to a league-average defense could be the difference between Portland scraping to get into the playoffs and positioning itself solidly in the top half of the bracket.

The bet Olshey made, which may turn out to be successful, involves blending that 2019 Western Conference Finals team with the group that excelled in the bubble and hoping elements of the two rosters can evolve into a team worthy of Lillard's heroics.

"I think we're a better team than we were last year," Olshey said. "I think we're deeper. We're always going to be bullish on our team. We were high on last year's team, too. It's sort of a combination of both. We have the guys we thought were going to contribute in a playoff run last year, and we've complemented them with what we did in free agency and trades."

Steve Dykes/Associated Press

Plenty of questions still exist even following these clear improvements. The return of Anthony, who resurrected his Hall of Fame career in Portland last year, is a feel-good story, but Olshey hinted he's likely to come off the bench, which he's bristled at in the past. 

It's unknown how effective Hood will be coming off the torn Achilles or how Collins' ankle will hold up after surgery and a rushed offseason. Kanter played the best basketball of his life during the Blazers' 2019 playoff run, but he was largely unplayable for the Celtics in the postseason last year.

For two summers, Olshey has been talking up Anfernee Simons, and he's so confident the third-year guard will make the leap this year that he didn't sign a veteran backup point guard. (Simons, it should be noted, finished No. 518 out of 520 players in ESPN's real plus-minus last season.)

Most NBA rosters are flawed, and the Blazers' is no exception. But the bet that any Lillard-led team will overachieve is usually a good one. The point guard is coming off a run in Florida that saw him take home the Bubble d'Or with four games over 40 points, including 51- and 61-point performances.

Give Olshey credit for making win-now moves when Lillard is at a win-now age. The Western Conference is uncompromising, but the five-time All-Star has carried the Blazers deeper than they had any right to go year after year.

This time, he may finally have the supporting cast to make a real run that doesn't come with descriptors like "Cinderella."

                        

Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.