The coronavirus pandemic halted the NBA season four months ago, the equivalent of an entire offseason. It is easy to forget where everyone left off, let alone what has changed since we last saw them play basketball. In order to get you up to speed before the July 30 season re-opening slate at Walt Disney World in Orlando, we will be reviewing and previewing each of the 22 teams scheduled to participate.
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Where were the Portland Trail Blazers?
Place: Ninth in the West
The Portland Trail Blazers were in serious danger of missing the playoffs. Staring center Jusuf Nurkic had yet to make his season debut after breaking his leg during the 2018-19 campaign, and starting power forward Zach Collins had not played since injuring his shoulder three games into the season. Both were considered vital to Portland’s chances of returning to the Western Conference finals. Their absence was compounded by a season-ending Achilles injury to Rodney Hood in December. These were dire straits.
But another All-NBA effort from Damian Lillard kept the Blazers afloat, along with some help from fellow dynamo C.J. McCollum. Oft-criticized stat-chasers Hassan Whiteside and Carmelo Anthony bought into the culture that Portland’s backcourt helped create, and they had clawed their way back into the playoff hunt. The hope that Nurkic and Collins might join them for the stretch run has turned to reality, and the NBA’s play-in format gives the Blazers an even better shot at a seventh straight playoff appearance.
Who’s in and who’s out?
Out: Trevor Ariza (opt-out)
The Blazers traded for playoff veteran Trevor Ariza at the deadline, hoping to shore up the wing spot left vacant by Hood. Reinvigorated in Portland, Ariza became a 3-and-D weapon again, but concerns over a child custody case led him to opt out of the restart, further thrusting Anthony into the tertiary role he failed to fill during stops in Oklahoma City and Houston. The Blazers signed G League point guard Jaylen Adams to a substitute contract, but he does little to solve wing issues Portland has long struggled to fix.
NBA Finals odds: +8000
Championship odds: +15000
Nurkic was enjoying a career year before breaking his leg with nine games to play last season. He was skilled in the post, adding 3.2 assists per game to a nightly double-double, and disruptive on defense. Thursday’s scrimmage marked his first real test in 17 months, and he aced it, totaling 14 points and eight rebounds in 20 minutes. Lineups with Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic outscored opponents by 10.1 points per 100 possessions last season, regardless of who was on the floor with them, a mark of a contender.
This season was supposed to mark Collins’ ascent. Projected as a rim protector and floor spacer, he had yet to master both on an NBA level, but during last year’s playoffs there were signs he was becoming a weapon versatile enough to play alongside Nurkic at the four or anchor small-ball lineups. The work he put in last summer to enter this season prepared for consistent production fell by the wayside when he failed to make it out of October, and the question now is whether he and Nurkic can pick up where they left off at season’s start, or if the rust of their absence will create a hole Lillard cannot even keep afloat.
(All times Eastern)
July 31: Memphis Grizzlies, 4 p.m. (NBATV)
Aug. 2: Boston Celtics, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
Aug. 4: Houston Rockets, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Aug. 6: Denver Nuggets, 8 p.m.
Aug. 8: L.A. Clippers, 1 p.m. (TNT)
Aug. 9: Philadelphia 76ers, 6:30 p.m. (NBATV)
Aug. 11: Dallas Mavericks, 5 p.m.
Aug. 13: Brooklyn Nets, TBD
Lillard said he would not go to Orlando if the Blazers did not have a realistic chance of making the playoffs. As it turned out, Portland has the best chance of any West challenger to unseat the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth seed, if only because the two extra games the Blazers have played give them a bizarre winning percentage tiebreaker over the New Orleans Pelicans or Sacramento Kings. Portland is currently in ninth place and within the four games necessary to force a play-in series with the Grizzlies, needing only to avoid being leapfrogged by two teams with less playoff experienced combined.
The Grizzlies and Blazers would be a fascinating matchup, what with Lillard and Rookie of the Year favorite Ja Morant squaring off at the point guard position, but Memphis’ recent loss of Justise Winslow is of considerable concern after trading wings Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill for him. It would be hard to count out Portland from winning two straight against a team with Jonas Valanciunas and Anthony Tolliver as its most experienced presences.
Doing so would mean a first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers, who we last saw lose to the Blazers on Lillard’s 48-9-10 masterpiece. You at least have to give them a puncher’s chance in a series against a team light on backcourt defenders, even if it means LeBron James owns the same advantage.
Yahoo Sports NBA prediction
Place: Ninth in the West
Finish: First-round loss
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