NBA

2019-20 Season Preview: Portland Trail Blazers

By NBA.com Global on Oct 21, 2019 02:38 PM

FILE - PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 8: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers is seen against the Utah Jazz on April 8, 2017 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

The Trail Blazers bring back lofty ambitions built off a roster that has significantly changed. All-Star and All-NBA guard Damian Lillard, Portland’s unquestioned leader, acknowledges the many comings and goings inside his team’s locker room. But he is undeterred in expecting this revamped group to continue the team's momentum. “Our focus is to win a championship,” Lillard said. “I think our mentality has to shift to that.” You have to think it before you can do it, right? Portland’s hopes will hinge on how well its new pieces fit and how much better the competition in the West gets.

ICYMI

Where to start? That’s the question on Portland’s new, potentially improved roster. Among those no longer on board: Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless, Seth Curry, Evan Turner, Enes Kanter, Meyers Leonard and Jake Layman … As for the newbies: Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja, Hassan Whiteside, Anthony Tolliver, Pau Gasol and rookie Nassir Little … Also, Rodney Hood re-signed with the Blazers ... Lillard agreed to a new extension that runs through 2024-25 (by which time his annual salary will be $54.25 million) as did his backcourt mate CJ McCollum (which will run until 2023-24)

THREE POINTS

1. Big changes up front. The departure of Aminu and Harkless is cause for potential concern. In particular, there is concern that the West’s elite wing players such as Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and LeBron James will be too strong and swift for Rodney Hood, Zach Collins or whomever else coach Terry Stotts deploys.

2. Don’t just pick on the frontcourt. The Blazers’ dynamic pair of guards, Lillard and C.J. McCollum, have their limitations defensively as well. Any matchup with Houston will have them staring across at Russell Westbrook and James Harden, a nightmare for any team but a potentially huge impediment to Portland’s plan.

3. Stotts quietly gets it done. Stotts, entering his eighth season with Portland, has the Blazers flirting with 50 victories season after season. His players demonstrate their respect for him on and off the court, and he more than returns that kindness by helping many of them to some of the best seasons of their careers.

MAN ON THE SPOT

Perhaps a change of scenery will be what it takes for Hassan Whiteside to return to his fun-loving, dominant-force-in-the-middle self. That wasn’t his reputation by the end of his stay in Miami, where moodiness and personal stats seemed to crowd out team instincts. The Blazers are hoping that Whiteside’s expiring contract prompts the best version of the big man. They’ll be in a need situation until Jusuf Nurkic (broken leg) returns, and that will still be a while.

STARTING FIVE

Damian Lillard | 25.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 6.9 apg
The first Blazer to reach 2,000 points, 500 assists in a season.

CJ McCollum | 21.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.0 apg
Fourteen games with 30-plus points, two more with 40-plus.

Rodney Hood | 11.2 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 1.8 apg
Familiarity with Lillard, McCollum played a role in re-signing.

Zach Collins | 6.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 0.9 apg
There are minutes to be had for a big man who can defend inside and out.

Hassan Whiteside | 12.3 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 1.9 bpg
The Blazers were as happy to get him as Miami was thrilled to shed him.

KEY RESERVES

Kent Bazemore | 11.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.3 apg
High-energy player who brings a big boost off the bench.

Mario Hezonja | 8.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.5 apg
Showed skills in his final month with the New York Knicks (18.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 6.3 apg).

Anfernee Simons | 3.8 ppg, 0.7 rpg, 0.7 apg
Teammates and Blazers brass are gushing early in camp about Simons’ growth.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Blazers are renowned for overachieving, almost as much as they are for being overlooked. But the temperature in the West has been dialed up this offseason, and the presence of so many additions and holdovers adjusting to new roles probably will keep Portland out of the top tier of contenders. Slot them in somewhere among the lower four playoff seeds.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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