The Portland Trail Blazers have been regulars in the NBA playoffs but have not recorded real success in recent years. Although they have made 11 postseason appearances in the last 13 seasons, they only managed to reach the Western Conference finals once and were swept by Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors.
Despite several attempts and remarkable performances from Damian Lillard, advancing to the NBA Finals has been a tall task. While things are looking up as Lillard is loyal to a fault and opted to stay, the Trail Blazers, in my opinion, has not done enough to surround the All-Star with the talent that can guarantee to a large extent a deep playoff run.
Point Guard - Damian Lillard
Damian Lillard was at the center of NBA trade rumors in the offseason following his cryptic caption on Instagram after their first-round exit. However, the 2013 Rookie of the Year debunked all rumors and guaranteed fans of his continued stay with the franchise.
Dame has done more than enough to will the Blazers to a deep run in the playoffs following a myriad of deep three's and clutch game-winning shots. Unfortunately, he hasn't gotten enough help from his supporting cast. He set a new record after knocking down 12 three's including two clutch game-tying to send game 5 to double overtime. Despite his 55-point and 10-assist game, the Blazers lost the game and ultimately lost the series.
Shooting Guard - CJ McCollum
The Portland Trail Blazers backcourt has featured Dame and CJ McCollum exclusively for the last six years. While they have built chemistry, it has not translated to much success, especially in the playoffs.
McCollum recorded career-high averages in points (23.1) and assists (4.7) but struggled to find his shooting range during the playoffs, converting on only 14 three-pointers in 42 attempts. His spot on the team is fully guaranteed as he has been the second-best scorer behind Dame DOLLA. Nonetheless, shooting at a more efficient clip, especially when there is plenty at stake, will be a welcome improvement heading into the 2021-22 season.
Small Forward - Norman Powell
The Portland Trail Blazers re-signed Norman Powell in the 2021 offseason to a five-year $90 million deal. He joined the team through a trade deal that sent Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood to the Toronto Raptors. While Trent did a decent job filling in when McCollum was out, he is not as versatile as Powell.
Another reason for the Powell retention is his playoff experience. Despite not being a starter, he played significant minutes as a member of the Toronto Raptors that won the championship in 2019. Although undersized for his position, he does a decent job pulling up from range and attacking the rim. Sadly, he might struggle against taller wings on defense but his athleticism put him at an advantage offensively.
Power Forward - Robert Covington
Robert Covington has spent only one season with the Trail Blazers. Throughout his career, his stand-out attribute is his defensive intensity, which was on full display in his 70-game season in Portland. Although he might not come up in Defensive Player of the Year conversations, he is one of the most disruptive defenders in the league.
In the 2020-21 NBA season, he led the league in total deflections after intercepting 255 passes. Even though he recorded the worst scoring average since his rookie season, he remains an integral piece in this Trail Blazers team.
Center - Jusuf Nurkic
Jusuf Nurkic is playing the best basketball of his career with the Trail Blazers, averaging double-doubles in two of his last three seasons. The Bosnian will be a lot more productive if he manages to stay healthy and feature in a lot more games in the 2021-22 season.
Given how the Blazers set up in their preseason opener against the Golden State Warriors, we might be seeing Nurkic get more involved in plays. In their first 15 possessions, he was actively involved in about 11. His versatility is the IT factor and might see him achieve his long-time goal of making his first All-Star appearance and being in contention for DPOY.
Anfernee Simmons, Dennis Smith Jr., Ben McLemore, CJ Elleby, Tony Snell, Greg Brown, Trendon Watford, Larry Nance Jr., Nassir Little, Patrick Patterson, Marquese Chriss, Cody Zeller
The Portland Trail Blazers have made a lot of changes to their team's outlook, up to the level of management. Former NBA superstar Chauncey Billups will serve as the head coach during the 2021-22 NBA season. For his first run with the franchise, he has brought in talents who can impact the game on a minimum deal.
Perhaps the most high-profile signing for the Blazers in the 2021 offseason is the acquisition of Nance Jr. through a three-team trade. He could have the best season of his career in Portland because of how much of a good fit he could be. While he is a solid defender, he executes the pick-and-roll to perfection on the offensive end.
The goal for the Blazers 2021-22 season is clear. But even though advancing to the NBA Finals is near impossible, another first-round exit is unlikely.
First-Round Exit WIll Be Damian Lillard Exit
It is no secret that Lillard was disappointed with how their 2021 NBA playoffs campaign ended. Even as the 31-year-old has previously stated that he will not be leaving the Blazers in pursuit of a championship, another first-round exit might just be the straw that breaks the Camel's back.
It is doubly frustrating to play your heart out on the court every game but your intensity is not being matched by your teammates. Perhaps a bit more sturdy defensive showing would have been enough to see them through.
The Trail Blazers do not lack the talent needed to win games on the offensive end of the court, but their defense has been woeful. They finished the 2020-21 season ranked 29th in defensive rating and will need to turn things around on that front if they hope to make any headway in their championship quest. As the popular saying goes, "good offense wins games, but great defense wins championships."
Bringing in Billups might be the change the Blazers need to make a deeper run in the playoffs. Their offseason acquisitions have also been impressive, as it is an indication that they are making attempts to shore up their defense.
However, if the Blazers lose another first-round series, especially if Lillard is firing on all cylinders, his future with the franchise will be uncertain. Then, they will have to worry about a lot more than just defense.