As the Western Conference plays a game of musical dynamic duos, Portland stands ahead of the curve by forming one of the NBA’s most potent one-two punches. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have returned Portland to perennial playoff status since 2014, reaching the playoffs in six consecutive seasons. Last season the Blazers reached the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2000. They posted the franchise’s second-highest win total this century. Yet Portland enters 2019-20 as something of an oddity in the Western Conference. Their stability at the top is met by sweeping change to fill out the roster. The alterations may keep the Blazers in the upper echelon of the West. It could also leave them on the outside looking in come playoff time.
We’d be remiss not to highlight just how outstanding Lillard has been in the past four seasons. He’s averaged over 25 points per game each year since 2015-16, burying over 200 threes in each season. Perhaps we’d look at Lillard differently if his rise didn’t coincide with the Steph Curry era. Only James Harden and Russell Westbrook have more points since 2015. Only Harden and Curry has generated more offensive win shares. Lillard is an elite clutch scorer and a proven playoff performer. He’s a true superstar in every sense of the word, one in line for a third straight top-seven MVP finish.
Lillard’s running mate is every bit as steady if a touch less spectacular. CJ McCollum has worked into a near-ideal partner for Lillard in recent years despite some size limitations, thriving in the areas other players of his skillset may neglect. McCollum shields Lillard from larger guards then works as an off-ball extraordinaire on the other end. His constant movement is reminiscent of Richard Hamilton. The precision off screens would make Ray Allen proud. Perhaps McCollum isn’t a player who could lead a playoff team—Portland averaged just 105.7 points per 100 possessions with McCollum and without Lillard last year—but he’s perfectly situated as a backcourt mate for Lillard. He’s a technician with proven crunch time chops. McCollum should have his jersey hung alongside Lillard’s one day in the Moda Center.
Portland experiences quite the drop off after its top two, with no potential third star on its roster. The Blazers’ center rotation provides some room for optimism, though a confounding decision awaits head coach Terry Stotts. Portland effectively swapped Meyers Leonard for Hassan Whiteside in the offseason, a gift for Miami as it sought cap relief and additional minutes for Bam Adebayo. The good news for Portland? Whiteside is a low-risk flier with an expiring deal at the end of 2019-20. The bad news? Whiteside has less engaged and far from effective in each of the last two seasons. His demand for interior touches is tiresome. The lazy rotations masked by half-hearted block attempts are maddening. Perhaps Whiteside can replicate 80% of Jusuf Nurkic’s production as the Bosnian recovers from a fractured leg, but at this point he should be viewed largely a complimentary big. Perhaps third-year center Zach Collins can maintain a sizable share of the center minutes.
While the Whiteside for Nurkic swap will bring marked change to Portland, the Blazers’ makeover on the wing is the starkest change on their roster. Maurice Harkless was traded to the Clippers this offseason, while Kent Bazemore replaces Evan Turner. Al-Farouq Aminu signed with Orlando and backcourt gunner Seth Curry has returned to Dallas. Rodney Hood is one of the few remaining returners, though by and large, it appears the Blazers made a slate of lateral moves. Have any true upgrades been made? Portland’s answer at the wing could come via homegrown talent. Expectations continue to rise for 2018 first-rounder Anfernee Simons, and UNC product Nassir Little could provide legitimate production as a rookie. Portland appears conscious of the roster limitations outside of its backcourt. Simons and Little should help form the new era, but expecting quality results in 2019-20 could be a stretch barring a massive leap from Simons.
It’s hard to argue Portland missed its window when no championship opportunity truly arose. Perhaps 2018-19 was as close as the Blazers will get to the Larry O’Brien trophy with its current core. The first half of the Lillard era ran into the buzzsaw that is the Warriors, and the next decade could see a stretch of dominance 15 hours down I-5 in Los Angeles. Barring a major trade—and potentially some critical injuries—Lillard and McCollum’s tenure will end without a ring.
There’s no shame in falling short of the Finals, especially against elite historical talent. More immediately, though, will the Blazers survive the West to reach the playoffs for the seventh year in a row? Both Los Angeles teams feel fair to pencil into playoff spots, as do the Warriors, Rockets, Nuggets and Jazz. Portland likely falls into the next tier, a nightmarish battle for two additional playoff spots. Only the Suns and Timberwolves look to be true playoff longshots. Dallas and Sacramento are on the rise while New Orleans is reborn. San Antonio is the NBA’s walking dead. What was previously a playoff lock is now a dicey bet. With help around the roster lacking, Portland will need an MVP-caliber campaign from Lillard to keep its playoff tradition alive.