);
Portland Trail Blazers

NBA Season Preview 2019-20: Can the Portland Trail Blazers return to the Western Conference Finals?

lillard-mccollum-ftr.jpg
Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum [NBA Getty Images]

With the 2019-20 NBA season quickly approaching, we're rolling out 30 Teams in 30 Days. Between now and opening night, we'll dedicate one day to each team in the league.

Today, we're looking at the Portland Trail Blazers.

2018-19 season record

53-29 (3rd in the Western Conference)

Projected 2019-20 season record

46-36 (8th in the Western Conference)

Notable additions

Kent Bazemore (free agency)

Pau Gasol (free agency)

Mario Hezonja (free agency)

Nassir Little (draft)

Anthony Tolliver (free agency)

Hassan Whiteside (trade)

Notable departures

Al-Farouq Aminu (free agency)

Seth Curry (free agency)

Maurice Harkless (trade)

Enes Kanter (free agency)

Jake Layman (trade)

Meyers Leonard (trade)

Evan Turner (trade)

Depth chart

Starters 2nd 3rd 4th
PG Damian Lillard Anfernee Simons London Perrantes
SG CJ McCollum Kent Bazemore Gary Trent Jr.
SF Rodney Hood Mario Hezonja Nassir Little
PF Zach Collins Anthony Tolliver Skal Labissiere
C Hassan Whiteside Pau Gasol Jusuf Nurkic*

* Nurkic is expected to miss most of the season with a leg injury

3 key storylines

Can Lillard and McCollum get to the Finals?

Last season, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum proved everyone who believed they couldn't lead a team deep into the playoffs wrong.

The stellar backcourt duo took the Trail Blazers to the Western Conference Finals and though they were swept in four games by the Golden State Warriors, they were in every contest. Lillard was incredible again last season, solidifying himself as one of the NBA's top players with averages of 25.8 points, 6.9 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game with another All-NBA honour. He was terrific at the start of the playoffs but a rib injury impacted his play toward the end of the postseason with Portland ultimately coming up short.

McCollum was just as good, posting 21.0 points per game, including a massive Game 7 performance of 37 points and nine rebounds against the Denver Nuggets in the Conference Semifinals to keep the Blazers' season alive.

The tandem was rewarded accordingly this offseason with Lillard receiving a four-year supermax deal worth $196 million and McCollum inking a three-year, $100 million deal. Portland has made their intentions loud and clear that they believe these two can lead them to their second championship in franchise history, and why wouldn't they believe that?

The Blazers have made the playoffs in six consecutive seasons. This team was four wins away from reaching the NBA Finals without their third-best player in Jusuf Nurkic. The balance among teams in the West is as even as it's been in over a decade.

The Blazers made their long-term commitment. Now, Lillard and McCollum have to look to take that next step in reaching the Finals.

Hassan Whiteside's importance

Jusuf Nurkic went down with a leg fracture toward the end of last season and isn't expected to return to action until roughly February of this season.

The Trail Blazers let big man Enes Kanter walk in free agency and were in desperate need to find a Nurkic replacement. To fill the void, they traded skilled centre Meyers Leonard to the Miami Heat in exchange for Hassan Whiteside - a centre with a very similar skillset to their injured big man.

Whiteside was solid for the Heat last season, averaging a double-double of 12.3 points and 11.3 rebounds per game. He continued to prove his worth as a rim protector as well, averaging 1.9 blocks per game.

The seven-year veteran is a former rebounding champion and blocks champion, and at 30-years-old he's more than capable of continuing to make an impact in those areas. The Blazers don't need him to lead the league in boards or blocks, but they do need him to fill Nurkic's role as the team's rim protector and rebounder while scoring when necessary.

Nurkic was in the midst of a career-year before his injury. He was averaging 15.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game, doing a little bit of everything to contribute to Portland's success.

If Whiteside can put up numbers similar to what he did in Miami last season, the Blazers will be just fine. Once Nurkic returns and Whiteside can slide to the bench, their frontcourt depth will no longer be an issue.

All new role players

It's going to be a shock to the casual NBA fan when the 2019-20 Blazers take the floor for their first game.

The team's headlines this offseason were centered around the contract extensions of Lillard and McCollum, so it was easy to miss all the roster turnover that Portland has gone through.

The "notable departures" list above is a scary sight, as all seven of those players - Aminu, Curry, Harkless, Kanter, Layman, Leonard and Turner - played valuable minutes in the team's run to the Western Conference Finals. Three of the Blazers' five starters in the playoffs are on that list, with the others playing key roles off the bench.

Those minutes will now be taken up by in-house talent like Zach Collins and Rodney Hood, as well as newcomers like Whiteside, Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja and Anthony Tolliver.

To say those five players have big shoes to fill would be an understatement. The Trail Blazers' depth last season was something that separated themselves from the rest of the league. If Collins, Hood, Whiteside, Bazemore, Hezonja and Tolliver can't match that level of play, Portland's season would have a completely different outcome than 2018-19.

Lillard and McCollum can only do so much - the new faces on the team will have to get accustomed quickly in order for the Blazers to maintain their success.

5 games to watch

Oct. 24 vs. Denver Nuggets

It's only right that these two teams that battled their hearts out in a seven-game series in the Conference Finals last year open their seasons against each other this year. The Nuggets will get a shot at revenge while the Blazers will try to prove yet again that they're among the most talented teams in the West.

Nov. 5 at Golden State Warriors

Even though this is a different looking Warriors team and Klay Thompson will be sidelined, this is still the same franchise that swept the Blazers out of the Conference Finals. This time around, it'll be a matchup against Stephen Curry and D'Angelo Russell that you won't want to miss.

Nov. 19 at Houston Rockets

Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook went at it in the first round of the playoffs last season and you can imagine Lillard's buzzer-beater is still sitting heavily on Westbrook's mind. This is the first meeting between the two guards since and this time around, Westbrook has James Harden by his side. Lillard and McCollum vs. Harden and Westbrook is all you need to know.

Dec. 7 vs. Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers are expected to be one of the best teams in the West and any matchup against LeBron James is a big one. This is the first meeting between the Blazers and the new-look Lakers, and Hassan Whiteside is going to need to bring his A-game versus Anthony Davis.

April 16 vs. LA Clippers

The Clippers are expected to be one of the other top teams in the West and I'm sure Paul George's comments about Lillard's "bad shot" to knock the Thunder out of the playoffs last season is still fresh in Dame's memory. This is the last game of the Trail Blazers' season and could have major playoff implications attached to it.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

More from NBA.com

kuzma-ftr.jpg
Kuzma's breakout performance leads Lakers past Suns
Kyle Irving
barrett-white-ftr.jpg
Rookies battle: White makes history, outduels Barrett
Kyle Irving
#Embiid
Embiid comes up clutch as 76ers edge Cavs
Benyam Kidane
oubre-booker-ftr.jpg
Don't sleep on the Phoenix Suns
Kyle Irving
kawhi-rhj-ftr.jpg
Clippers edge Raptors in first game vs. Kawhi
Kyle Irving
#Wiggins #Harden #Gobert
Tuesday's scores: Wiggins, Gobert & Harden fill it up
NBA.com Staff
More News