30 Teams in 30 Days: Blazers' potent backcourt gets new supporting cast
NBA.com Global on Sep 27, 2019 06:37 AM
FILE - OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - APRIL 21: Damian Lillard #0 and CJ McCollum #3 of the Portland Trail Blazers look on during Game Four of Round One of the 2019 NBA Playoffs on April 21, 2019 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)
Like most summers in the NBA, the 2019 edition was chock full of trades, free agent news and player movement. From the defending-champion Toronto Raptors to just about every other team in the league, change was the most applicable word when it came to describing team rosters for the 2019-20 season.
With the opening of training camps just around the corner, NBA.com's Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise as it sits today -- in order of regular-season finish from 2018-19 -- as we look at 30 teams in 30 days.
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Today's team: Portland Trail Blazers
2018-19 Record: 53-29, lost to Warriors in Western Conference finals
Key additions: Kent Bazemore (trade), Mario Hezonja (free agency), Anthony Tolliver (free agency), Pau Gasol (free agency), Hassan Whiteside (trade), Nassir Little (Draft)
Key departures: Seth Curry, Evan Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless, Jake Lyman, Meyers Leonard, Enes Kanter
The lowdown: The long-awaited breakthrough for Damian Lillard didn’t happen in terms of reaching The Finals, but he and CJ McCollum experienced the next best thing: a taste of the Western Conference finals. In that sense, it was a successful season for the Blazers, who made their first run to the West finals since 2000.
Speaking of the All-Star Lillard, he had a terrific run throughout the playoffs, especially against his nemesis Russell Westbrook in the first round. However, an untimely rib injury in the conference finals against the Golden State Warriors slowed his roll. McCollum was also up to the task, with 37 points in Game 7 of the semifinals against the Denver Nuggets. In the process, Lillard and McCollum secured their place among the best backcourts in the league and, for once, dispelled the notion that a backcourt alone wasn’t enough to make it through two rounds of the playoffs.
Alas, that was their ceiling, because Jusuf Nurkic suffered season-ending injuries to his left leg shortly before the playoffs. He was having a solid season (15.6 points, 10.4 rebounds) and gave the Blazers much-needed frontline balance. The Blazers did receive encouraging play from Kanter and Rodney Hood after Nurkic was lost, and that was enough to keep their season alive through late spring. In the end, Portland was swept by a Warriors team without Kevin Durant, proving once again that while the Blazers and Lillard were certainly good enough to win 50 games, they remained a player shy of running with the true heavyweights.
Summer summary: The Blazers didn’t make wholesale changes this summer as much as they simply moved money around. They dumped salary mistakes and traded for salary mistakes. Most important, they richly rewarded the two players most responsible for carrying the club the last several years: Lillard and McCollum.
Lillard has become an icon in the Pacific Northwest much like Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, Clyde Drexler and others. Those players who preceded him not only made an impact on the court, but also resonated in the community. Lillard is cut from that same cloth.
The Blazers essentially gave him a lifetime deal this summer with a supermax, $196 million contract extension designed to keep Lillard in Portland through 2024-25. He’ll become the first $50-million-a-season player in league history in the third year of that extension and combined with the years remaining on his current deal will receive $258 million total (old and new money).
The contract all but makes Lillard, 27, untradeable -- but that’s fine with him. He long ago pledged his basketball life to the franchise and says he has no desire to join a "superteam". That mentality endeared him to the community and obviously to the franchise, judging by the jackpot payout.
Next, they gave McCollum, 27, a three-year, $100 million extension because, well, McCollum is the perfect compliment to Lillard. It makes sense to keep the pair together as long as possible and extends McCollum's deal to five years and $158 million.
The next task was to make a determination about the supporting cast. In the summer of 2016, the Blazers went on a spending spree and gave big deals to Turner, Harkless and Leonard. All were underwhelming and Turner, in particular, regressed. The Blazers finally decided to cut their losses three years later and will take their chances on two others who were considered underwhelming at their previous stops.
A four-team deal allowed Portland to subtract Leonard and Harkless and add Whiteside, the perplexing big man who wore out his welcome in Miami. Whiteside also cashed in during the summer of 2016 and the $25 million-per-season center quickly became an awkward fit with the Heat. Almost as soon as the ink dried on that deal, the game changed, drifting away from lumbering seven-footers in favor of floor-spacers. Whiteside, whose game didn't adapt to the modern era, often found himself on the bench in fourth quarters and fumed over it.
He’s a solid rebounder (11.4 for his career) and brings a decent touch around the rim; the challenge for the Blazers is how to pair him with Nurkic. Both centers, who’ll make $40 million combined this season, do their best work in the paint.
Bazemore signed for $19 million a season with the Hawks and, much like Whiteside, lost his way in the pecking order. By last season, Bazemore was a fourth option, mainly because his shooting (40 percent) was spotty for a swingman who saw plenty of open looks. He was essentially an even swap for Turner; the Blazers believe Bazemore’s athletic ability will be an asset in the open floor.
They also re-signed Hood for two years and $16 million, good value for a player who brings shooting range and performed well in the playoffs; and got Hezonja, a former lottery pick, for the minimum. Both will be rotation replacements for Aminu and Harkless.
While some of the faces changed in the supporting cast, the Blazers remain the same, in the sense that their backcourt will be the engine once more. It just comes at a much higher price now.
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