The 2020-21 NBA season is set to tip-off on Dec. 22. To get you ready for the year to come, we're dedicating one day between now and the start of the season to each team in the league.
Today, the Portland Trail Blazers take the spotlight.
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2019-20 season record
35-39, 8th in the Western Conference
CJ Elleby, No. 46 pick in 2020 Draft
Robert Covington, Trade (Houston Rockets)
Enes Kanter, Trade (Boston Celtics)
Derrick Jones Jr., Free agency (Miami Heat)
Harry Giles III, Free agency (Sacramento Kings)
Trevor Ariza, Trade (Oklahoma City Thunder via Houston Rockets and Detroit Pistons)
Mario Hezonja, Trade (Memphis Grizzlies)
Wenyen Gabriel, Free agency (New Orleans Pelicans)
Hassan Whiteside, Free agency (Sacramento Kings)
|PG||Damian Lillard||Anfernee Simons|
|SG||CJ McCollum||Gary Trent Jr.||CJ Elleby|
|SF||Derrick Jones Jr.||Rodney Hood|
|PF||Robert Covington||Carmelo Anthony||Zach Collins*||Nassir Little|
|C||Jusuf Nurkic||Enes Kanter||Harry Giles III|
* Zach Collins is reportedly hoping to return mid-January after undergoing ankle surgery in the offseason
3 key storylines
A new identity
Even without Jusuf Nurkic, the Blazers had the third-best offensive rating in the league last season.
It was the other end of the court that was the problem.
According to NBA.com, the Blazers gave up an average of 114.3 points per 100 possessions last season, giving them the fourth-worst defensive rating in the league. The only teams worse than them? The Atlanta Hawks (114.4), Washington Wizards (114.7) and Cleveland Cavaliers (114.8).
Portland's core is still the same this season, but Nurkic returning to full strength should make a difference, as should the additions of Derrick Jones Jr. and Robert Covington. Jones has proven to be a versatile wing defender while Covington has earned the reputation of being one of the best help defenders in the league.
The three of them should go a long way in the Blazers being a competent defensive team again.
Dame Time, all the time
It's no secret that Damian Lillard is one of the best players in the league, but he took his game to another level in the season restart.
In Portland's eight seeding games, Lillard averaged 37.6 points, 9.6 assists and 4.3 rebounds on .457/.394/.888 shooting splits. He led the Blazers to a 6-2 record in those seeding games, which was enough for them to lock in the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference and a spot in the first-ever Play-in Tournament, where they defeated the Memphis Grizzlies to advance to the playoffs.
The Blazers lost in five games to the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, but they were clearly outmatched. Having retooled in the offseason, they're much better suited to make some noise this season.
For Lillard, it'll be interesting to see if he can build on his bubble performance. If he can and the Blazers finish in the top half of the Western Conference playoff picture, expect to hear his name in a lot of MVP conversations this season.
One thing in particular that will be fun to watch: Lillard pushing the boundaries as a 3-point shooter.
According to Stathead, Lillard made 43 3-pointers last season from between 30 and 34 feet. That was the most in the league, Trae Young (21) and Davis Bertans (18) being the only other players to make double-digit shots from that distance.
It sounds like there is a lot more of that to come from Lillard.
"It's very possible," Lillard said with a smile when asked if he will be shooting from halfcourt this season.
Logo Lillard shows off his RANGE early! 😳@SacramentoKings x @trailblazers #NBAPreseason on ESPN pic.twitter.com/ElQQzvBWCx- NBA (@NBA) December 12, 2020
The (real) return of Jusuf Nurkic
The Blazers were one of the teams that benefited from the 2019-20 season being suspended as long as it was, because it gave Jusuf Nurkic even more time to rehab from the gruesome leg injury that cut his 2018-19 season short.
Nurkic struggled in Portland's first-round series with Los Angeles, but he looked like his old self in the team's seeding games. He hit the ground running, averaging 17.6 points, 10.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.0 blocks on 49.5 percent shooting from the field over the eight games.
🙌 Nurkic returns 🙌@bosnianbeast27 records 14 PTS, 8 REB in his first @trailblazers action since 3/25/2019! #WholeNewGame pic.twitter.com/0MH8VQagBV- NBA (@NBA) July 23, 2020
The Blazers are a different team with Nurkic in the lineup. Not only does he give them a defensive presence, he's one of the better passers and offensive rebounders at the centre position, in addition to being a capable post scorer. It's easy to forget how integral he was to Portland's success in 2018-19, with him being the team's second-best player for most of the season.
If Nurkic can get back to that level this season, it'll take the Blazers to another level on both ends of the court.
5 games to watch
Dec. 28 at Los Angeles Lakers
A rematch of last season's first-round series.
The Blazers aren't expected to be at the same level as the Lakers this season, but this will be a good test for them.
Dec. 30 at LA Clippers
After what happened in last season's bubble, you might see a motivated Lillard the first time the Blazers play the Clippers this season.
"Failure is going to happen. I'm not above failing or coming up short."@Dame_Lillard sits down w/ @ChrisBHaynes to talk his missed free-throws against the Clippers and his comments on Pat Bev and PG. pic.twitter.com/msS31s8tQa- NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) August 11, 2020
Jan. 1 at Golden State Warriors
Damian Lillard vs. Stephen Curry. Need I say more?
Feb. 22 at Phoenix Suns
Another point guard battle, this time between Lillard and Chris Paul. It should be a tightly contested game with both the Blazers and Suns looking to make the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference this season.
Feb. 23 at Denver Nuggets
A rematch of the 2018 Western Conference Semifinals that went to seven games.
Both the Nuggets and Blazers have made some changes since that series, but they're still two teams built to compete in the Western Conference this season. This should be a fun one.
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