It's easy to look at last season's sub-.500 record, barely securing a playoff spot through a play-in game and first-round loss at the hands of the Lakers as a disappointment for the Portland Trail Blazers, but that would be a little too simplistic. In fact, given the injury issues they dealt with all season and the rise of the Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies, you could argue that even getting to the postseason was actually a success for Portland. Damian Lillard once again put the team on his back, doing just what his team needed before the hiatus and in the bubble to get the Blazers into the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season, and they even took a game off the eventual champions before an injury to Lillard made an upset impossible.
Lillard and CJ McCollum will have a lot more help in the 2020-21 season, making Portland a favorite to get right back into the thick of Western Conference contention after directly addressing its biggest needs in the offseason. The Blazers were incredibly thin on the wing last season, particularly after the loss of Rodney Hood to an Achilles injury, so over the past month, they've added 3-and-D specialist Robert Covington and uber-athlete Derrick Jones Jr., while re-signing both Hood and Carmelo Anthony. Suddenly they're chocked full of veteran wings, with young prospects Gary Trent Jr., Nassir Little and rookie CJ Elleby behind them.
In addition to the wing depth, Portland also gets big man Jusuf Nurkic back at full strength. While Zach Collins continues to recover from ankle surgery, it brought back Enes Kanter and signed Harry Giles to fill in the center minutes. A return to health, plus the offseason transactions, means the Blazers making a run back to the Western Conference finals is a real possibility.
Taking the temperature
Blazers believer: We all know that Damian Lillard is capable of basically singlehandedly winning games -- both regular season and postseason -- and now he's surrounded with one of the most capable supporting casts he's had over the course of his career. The positional versatility at Terry Stotts' disposal is tremendous, with the ability to go big with Nurkic and Collins (once he's healthy) or go smaller and more switchable with players like Covington, Anthony and even Jones capable of playing the four. Lillard is in his absolute prime coming off a career season (30 points per game and 40 percent 3-point shooting on over 10 attempts per game), and if the team can stay healthy and catch a few breaks, Lillard is looking at an MVP year with the Blazers having a realistic shot at becoming NBA champions for the first time since 1977.
Blazers skeptic: All that sounds great, but let's not forget about one critical component to any championship contender -- defense. Portland was 0.5 points per 100 possessions away from being the worst defense in the NBA last season, and had a negative net rating despite boasting the league's third-best offense. Nurkic will help, you say? Well, even with Nurkic and Collins, the Blazers had a horrific 120.4 defensive rating in eight seeding games in the bubble, and it wasn't much better in the playoffs. Even with Covington and Jones on the wing, it's incredibly ambitious to expect a defense to go from league-worst to top 10 in consecutive seasons.
Blazers believer: Yes, the defense was bad last season, but Nurkic was running on absolute fumes in the bubble. He'll be ready to go this time around, and Covington and Jones are bona fide defensive stoppers who block more shots than most wings. One of their biggest weaknesses defensively last season was allowing open jumpers (27th in the league with 1.151 points allowed per possession in catch-and-shoot situations, according to Synergy Sports Technology), and the length and depth on the wing will help fix that problem. Not to mention that Lillard and McCollum won't be tasked with as much heavy lifting on offense, allowing them to expend more energy on the defensive end. Combine all this with the fact that Portland no longer has to worry about Hassan Whiteside's defensive limitations and that Anthony's move to the bench means he won't be playing 33 minutes per game (hello, Sixth Man of the Year!), and the defense should be just fine alongside a top-five offense. That spells championship.
Blazers skeptic: Thanks for bringing up the bench. Last season the Blazers had a plus-1.4 net rating with Lillard on the court, and a minus-6.6 net rating when he sat. Even with McCollum running the offense the bench wasn't good, sporting a minus-107 in 818 minutes with Lillard on the bench and McCollum on the floor, according to NBA.com. Their best lineup without Lillard only played 138 minutes last season and featured Whiteside and Trevor Ariza, neither of which is on the team. Even that lineup still had a minus-1.6 net rating. Any hopes of Anfernee Simons running the second unit by himself seem to be premature, so assuming they slightly stagger Lillard and McCollum you're looking at a bench lineup of something like Simons-McCollum-Trent-Anthony-Collins/Kanter? That seems somewhat problematic on both ends of the floor. Neither wing addition -- Covington nor Jones -- is an offensive creator, so Portland still has the same issue when Lillard rests.
Blazers believer: I mean, did you even watch the bubble? Trent took a major leap, and was part of the team's three most successful lineups in the seeding games. He's going to get all sorts of looks and opportunities next to McCollum and Anthony, meaning that offense will not be a problem in the second unit. Defensively, Trent can also be the wing stopper they need and Simons has tremendous potential with his length, not to mention Collins eventually returning to bring stability in the middle. This team is more than capable of holding down the fort with Dame on the bench. And when he's on the floor, they're going to be one of the most explosive offenses in the league.
Blazers skeptic: Speaking of Dame, you never want to go there, but he led the league in minutes last season -- and they were not easy minutes as he faced double-teams and physical play for most of the second half and the bubble. Isn't there just a slight chance that with a short offseason, he's a little more fatigued than usual and has to miss some games either to rest or nurse nagging injuries? And as for the championship aspirations, take a look around the West. Are the Blazers better than the Lakers, Clippers or Nuggets? How about the Jazz, Mavericks or Warriors? The Grizzlies and Suns are both going to be tough, and you can never count out the Spurs. Improvements be damned, the Blazers might end up with the No. 8 seed yet again ... if they're lucky.
Blazers believer: First, don't ever bring up injuries! How dare you? Lillard won't need to play 38 minutes per game this season with a deeper and healthier roster around him. Stotts will manage his minutes to have him ready to go for Dame Time. As for the West, yeah it's going to be tough -- it always is -- but even if the Blazers end up with a lower seed, I like their chances against any of those teams in the first round. The moral of the story is, you never count out Damian Lillard. And with this team around him, he's more powerful than ever.
Eye on: Gary Trent Jr.
Lillard and McCollum have been looking for a third star for what seems like decades, and Trent proved in the bubble that he may be ready to make that leap -- if not this season, then in the near future. He averaged 16.9 points and 1.1 steals in the eight seeding games while making an absurd 34 of 67 (51 percent) from 3-point range. During those games, the Blazers had a plus-10.1 net rating with Trent on the court, and a minus-14.8 net rating with him on the bench. With his positional versatility and defensive energy, Trent could prove to be a vital piece for the Blazers this season, even with the additions on the wing.