The Portland Trail Blazers are going into the 2018-2019 NBA Season with the most talented back court they have had in the last decade.
Now, with both guards playing the best they ever have, there is more talk of splitting them up than ever.
A lack of cap space locks Portland into a similar roster as the previous season. Portland parted ways with rotation players Pat Connaughton, Ed Davis and Shabazz Napier, and added rotation shooters Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas, along with rookies Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr.
Due to their third first round playoff elimination in four years, there has been much speculation about the future of duo Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Whether the team itself has put much thought into the idea is unknown, however the idea is intriguing to those looking to see the Blazers move away from their recent pattern of falling just shy in the playoffs.
While the desire for change is reasonable, splitting up a top three backcourt seems irresponsible at a time when NBA play continues to rely more and more heavily on the three and the talent of elite guards.
The pent up frustration of Brandon Roy’s career ending injury, LaMarcus Aldridge’s departure to San Antonio, and a half decade of making the playoffs only to not once qualify for the Conference Finals, has made being a Portland fan a rollercoaster ride in recent times. That being said, a change in roster may not be necessary for a change in results, as Portland has the talent to bring the team to the next level.
Here are three possible outcomes for the Trail Blazers in the 2018-2019 season.
In a best case scenario, the Blazers have a chance to earn back to back third seed positions going into the playoffs. For this to happen, virtually every thing that can, must go well.
Most importantly, Lillard and McCollum will have to consistently put up a combined 50 points and 10 assists per game. Hopefully the addition of sharp shooters Stauskas and Curry will create another threat strong enough to give either star guard space when on the court together. Ideally, McCollum and Lillard should combine for closer to 15 assists, as Portland often struggles when the duo is forced to put up too many chances themselves.
Still, the talent of McCollum and Lillard offensively cannot be understated. Some believe McCollum could shine more if he were to be the lead scoring guard of a team. However, the chemistry he and Lillard share, along with both their agility, range, and pace, makes them a quite the rare pair. Harden and Paul combined for an average 49 points per game last season in comparison to Lillard and McCollum’s 48.3. The Houston duo averaged seven more assists a game as well, showing Portland has space for both guards to increase their numbers while staying in matching uniforms.
Another key factor will be the growth of Zach Collins. GM Neil Oshley has said the team is relying on his talent advancing to a star level in the coming years. Portland will need this to be a rapid transformation if they are to earn a home court advantage in next year’s playoffs. Collins showed great potential in his rookie year, but like most young players had off nights throughout the season. Still, his quickness and ability to shoot could provide Nurkic with a counter balance to his close range, under the rim style of play, should Stotts choose to put the two seven footers on court at the same time.
Without a game having been played in the coming season, on paper Portland seems most likely to end up in the bottom half of the playoff picture come April. The West will arguably be more difficult than Lillard or McCollum have ever played against. All five teams from the Northwest Division will likely be in playoff contention, with the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City both in great positions to earn the third seed. The Denver Nuggets look to have the best offensive team they have had in years, and the Minnesota Timberwolves has a roster that could be dangerous for years, should they be able to keep the big three together of Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
Golden State and Houston will most likely earn the one and two seed respectively, leaving the entire Northwest Division, along with the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs vying for the remaining six spots.
Unless Portland’s young players and bench can exceed all expectations, the team will be light in reliable support off the bench. A recurring problem in the Blazers’ roster, Portland will have trouble with fatigue and lack enough weapons to keep their opponents guessing week in and out.
Still, Portland will not be a bad team by any means. McCollum and Lillard should at least look on par with their performances from last year, and will more likely than not both have shown improvement. Center Josef Nurkic will turn 24 in a couple of weeks, and despite a fair amount of underwhelming performances last year, has the opportunity to improve greatly.
Their inner division play will most likely be the deciding factor in making playoffs. The Spurs are too well trained to not make playoffs behind the coaching of Popovich and recent signing DeMar DeRozan. LeBron James has not missed the playoffs since 2005 and seems unlikely to do so with the Lakers, and Davis’ level of play is strong enough to at least carry New Orleans to the seventh or eighth seed. This leaves three spots between five teams, and with a fifth of Portland’s games being against the other four Northwestern squads, they will want to go at least .500 in these four regular season series.
Portland has not missed the playoffs since 2012. As the team prepares to enter the season after a disappointing first round playoff sweep, they risk missing the postseason all together should they be unable to form a strong system with their young, shooter filled roster.
Unsurprisingly, Lillard and McCollum will be the biggest factor in qualifying for playoffs. Should they be unable to accent each other’s efforts throughout the season and decline in efficiency, Portland does not look to have the talent to make up for a backcourt struggle. Lillard and McCollum both finished top 25 in fourth quarter scoring last year, and without consistent crunch time points, Portland will likely be falling short at the end of many games throughout the season.
Unfortunately, Portland’s ability to make playoffs will be in the hands of their backcourt. While the rest of the team must improve for Portland to be a true contender come April 2019, nothing can make up for the magic that is the backcourt of Lillard and McCollum. While there are many question marks as to the success of the upcoming season, the Blazers best bet is to keep two of the league’s best guards together in their prime, and hope the young players who surround them step up and give the team a brighter future than Rip City has seen in some time.