2018-19 Season Preview: Portland Trail Blazers

NBA.com Global on Oct 16, 2018 12:43 PM
2018-19 Season Preview: Portland Trail Blazers
PHOENIX, AZ - OCTOBER 5: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers shoots the ball against the Phoenix Suns during a pre-season game on October 5, 2018 at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Jeff Case, NBA.com

The Portland Trail Blazers surprised many by not only making the playoffs, but also in besting the favored Oklahoma City Thunder for the Northwest Division title. However, being swept out of the playoffs by the New Orleans Pelicans ruined most (if not all) of those good vibes about 2017-18. After much roster movement around them in the West, will Portland’s roster tweaks help it take a step forward?

ICYMI

Ed Davis and Shabazz Napier, both of whom were key rotation players last season, left via free agency for the Brooklyn Nets … Additionally, athletic forward Pat Connaughton bolted for the Milwaukee Bucks in free agency, too … Rookie Anfernee Simons averaged 11 points and 3.2 rebounds as Portland won the Summer League title.

THREE POINTS

1. Portland must replace nearly 20 percent of its 3-point shooting. Napier and Connaughton combined to make 156 3-pointers last season (Portland made 845 3-pointers overall). Free-agent additions Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas -- and holdover Wade Baldwin IV -- all have the chops to do what Napier and Connaughton did last season.

2. The search begins for a backup big man. Center Jusuf Nurkic is solid as Portland’s starter, and the Blazers have intriguing big men behind him. Will veteran Meyers Leonard or second-year players Caleb Swanigan or Zach Collins grab that role?

3. More motivation for Lillard. In the past, All-Star snubs or talk of his place among the perceived NBA hierarchy kept “Dame Time” wound up and ticking. After being named All-NBA first team, he would seem to be content. But offseason chatter (is he unhappy in Portland?) mixed with last season’s playoff flameout should keep the Blazers’ star running full bore once again.

MAN ON THE SPOT

After a standout showing two seasons ago, forward Mo Harkless took a step back last season stats-wise as he struggled with injuries. Lillard, Nurkic and McCollum do the lion’s share of the scoring work, but Portland needs a clear go-to guy off the bench. Provided he doesn’t crack the starting lineup this season, Harkless has some scoring chops that could help the Blazers’ bench. He showed that back in 2016-17, when he notched several career highs (10 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.1 spg, 68 3-pointers).

STARTING FIVE

Damian Lillard | 26.9 ppg | 4.5 rpg | 6.6 apg
Scored 1,052 points in second half last season, second only to LeBron James (1,073).

CJ McCollum | 21.4 ppg | 4 rpg | 3.4 apg
Ranked No. 5 in NBA in total contested 2-point shots among guards.

Al-Farouq Aminu | 9.3 ppg | 7.6 rpg | 1.2 apg
Veteran shot career-high 36.9 percent on 3-pointers last season.

Evan Turner | 8.2 ppg | 3.1 rpg | 2.2 apg
Blazers went 6-2 last season when Turner had five or more assists in a game.

Jusuf Nurkic | 14.3 ppg | 9 rpg | 1.8 apg
Physical big man a great screen setter, but must cut down on fouls (3.1 per game).

KEY RESERVES

Seth Curry | 6.3 ppg | 2 rpg | 1 apg
Stress fracture in left leg kept sharpshooter (43.2 3-point pct) from suiting up in 2017-18.

Maurice Harkless | 6.5 ppg | 2.7 rpg | 41.5 3-point pct
Versatile big man was a solid player after the 2017-18 All-Star break (10.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 1.5 apg).

Zach Collins | 4.4 ppg | 3.3 rpg | 0.8 apg
Showed ability as scorer, rebounder in January last season (5.3 ppg, 4 rpg, 41.4 3-point pct).

BOTTOM LINE

Portland was 31-26 before Lillard led the Blazers on a frantic late-February-to-mid-March win streak (13 games) that helped it to the Northwest title. With the rest of the division (and most of the conference) either improving or maturing, it’s hard to see another 49-win season in the Rose City. Lillard and Co. should be a playoff squad in 2018-19, but a slight fall (to 45 wins) seems more likely.

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