In an odd way, the Portland Trail Blazers have become the poster child for NBA stability over the last half-decade or so. They had the same coach, general manager, and two leading scorers for six seasons in a row. No other basketball team could make the same claim, but you could argue that no other team would want to. After all, Portland’s consistency has waned in recent years. In the previous five seasons, the Blazers have only made it out of the first round once.
Not by chance, their six-year streak with the same foursome will be snapped this year.
Terry Stotts has been replaced as head coach by Chauncey Billups, and the man who hired him, Neil Olshey, is in the hot seat heading into the season. If he hasn’t surrounded those two leading scorers with a winner, either of them could be on their way out in the near future. Portland has been consistently mediocre in recent years. That stability will crumble in the near future if it does not take a step toward true contention.
This is most likely their best chance since LaMarcus Aldridge’s departure in 2015. The Blazers’ roster has never been more diverse. Damian Lillard is still in his prime and now has a group of teammates behind him who appear to be capable of playing defense while he scores. The Blazers aren’t a title favorite by any means. They are, however, better than they have been for several years, and how much better they can be will determine how stable they will be moving forward. That stability begins with one of the best lineups in the league.
Norman Powell was not acquired by the Blazers until the trade deadline. In that regard, the rest of the NBA had a three-month head start on the Blazers. Despite this, only four five-man lineups in all of basketball outscored their opponents by 103 or more total points during the season. One of them was Portland’s starting five, which included Powell, Lillard, McCollum, Covington, and Nurkic. That same fivesome blasted the Denver Nuggets by 47 points in 112 minutes, lest you think it was a fluke. The fact that Portland managed to lose that series demonstrates just how bad every other combination of players on that roster was last season.
On both ends, the starters were dominant. The offensive formula is simple to understand. Lineups with three high-end ball-handlers, four shooters, a versatile big man who can roll and pass, and an MVP candidate should be able to score. The defense is a little more difficult to explain. Powell is a small forward by small forward standards. Nurkic has lost some mobility due to injuries, and the shortcomings of the Lillard-McCollum combination are well known.
They were largely dominated by two players: Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter. The Blazers boasted a backup frontcourt that included the NBA’s worst defensive forward and worst defensive center. When they played together, the Blazers allowed more than 114 points per 100 possessions. That’s almost as bad as the Cleveland Cavaliers were when Larry Nance Jr. wasn’t on the court, when they allowed 115.3 points per 100 possessions. Their defensive rating fell to a much more manageable 107.4.
Cleveland was historically bad defensively without Nance, but it was fine with him. If his impact on the Blazers is similar, Portland’s stellar offense should be enough to secure a top-six seed. Nance is, in essence, Portland’s ideal role player. He can defend most wings while also playing small-ball center. Derrick Jones Jr. was expected to fill a similar role for the Blazers last season, but his offensive shortcomings rendered him nearly unplayable. That will not be the case for Nance, a bouncy athlete who, like Jones, excels as a roller but also brings significantly more shooting and passing to the table. If Sixth Man of the Year was awarded properly to the NBA’s best bench player rather than simply its leading scorer, Nance would be a leading candidate.