The Blazers X Factor For 2021-22 NBA Season, And It’s Not Damian Lillard
The Portland Trailblazers have made the last eight postseasons, and they became a very consistent team in the volatile and strong Western Conference. Unfortunately for Blazers fans, the team has only made it to the Conference Finals once, and past the first two rounds 2 other times.
Coming into this summer, the team was burdened by more rumors about star Damian Lillard leaving, which have mostly been squashed by Lillard himself. However, even with Damian Lillard staying, the team still lost valuable personnel, most notably forward Carmelo Anthony who left for the Lakers and center Enes Kanter who left for the Celtics. Some additions were also made, as forward Larry Nance Jr. joined from the Cavaliers and free agent Ben McLemore was signed to help the bench in scoring.
With these additions and subtractions, it still feels like the Blazers will make Playoffs, with their core of Lillard – CJ McCollum – Jusuf Nurkic. However, the problem then becomes whether just making the postseason to be cannon fodder for Western Conference powerhouses is good for a team with higher aspirations. Lillard is now 31, McCollum is soon to be 30 and they are in the middle of their prime.
The Blazers’ X Factor Next Season
Looking over their roster, it is expected that the backcourt duo will be the main drive behind the Blazers season, whether the final outcome is positive or negative. On the other hand, however, their level of play is something Blazers could always count on, so the true X-Factor would most likely be someone else. It is evident, when their roster is considered, that these deciding players will be Jusuf Nurkic and Norman Powell.
The Bosnian Beast, as he is known, is an interesting player. When Nurkic came over from the Denver Nuggets in 16/17, his passing was the most surprising facet of his game that was completely untapped in Colorado. Now former Blazers coach Terry Stotts put Nurkic in positions to distribute from the elbows, and that eased the job of Lillard and McCollum, who were the shot-creators for the whole team. Nurkic was able to see above defenses with his height, and use his passing instinct to find cutters and open shooters.
Unfortunately for both Blazers fans and Jusuf himself, a severe leg break against the Brooklyn Nets in March of 2019 sidelined the Bosnian from action until the NBA Bubble in Orlando, more than a year after his injury. While he looked great, averaging a career-high 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, this season was pretty underwhelming. Nurkic dropped to a poor 11.5 points and 9.0 rebounds and it was clear that something was off in his game.
If Portland is looking to further improve and truly challenge in the West, they will need to find the spark in the motor of the Bosnian center. His relationship with Damian Lillard is also very important, as the two are great friends and it would be beneficial to try and play more to the strengths of the 6 foot 11 center next season. Thus, they would unlock a true third option who would now be two years removed from his injury and should be completely ready to come back to his true level of play.
In terms of the other X-Factor, the former Toronto Raptors guard is going to be incredibly important for the Blazers next season. It will be Powell’s job to follow-up on his career year. Last season, for both Toronto and Portland, Powell averaged 18.6 points on 47.7/41.1/87.1 shooting splits, which is great for someone not considered one of the first few options on the squad.
However, it has to be said that Powell started all 27 games he played for the Blazers in the regular season last year, while his scoring prowess would be much better suited in a guard role from the bench. From the bench, he can pounce on tired first line-ups and second line-ups with less quality and generally less tools to stop him.
In the Lillard-McCollum era of Portland basketball, scoring when these two superstars are not on the floor was always an issue. The aforementioned Anthony, now a Laker, was brought in to help with that specifically, and he has done so in limited capacity, mostly due to the fact that his age has caught up with him. However, with Powell coming from the bench rather than starting, he could be that spark off the bench that punishes teams who put out lesser line-ups against Portland when the two main stars are resting.
That second line-up, with Powell leading it offensively, does have a lot of potential in theory. The Trailblazers clearly tried to add as much strength as possible, with the signings of Cody Zeller and Ben McLemore specifically, who are both solid options to put around Powell. When youngster Anfernee Simons and new guard Dennis Smith Jr., who must be burning from the desire to show what he can do, are added to the mix, it is an interesting line-up that will be worth to pay attention to.
All in all, it is clear that the Blazers did what they can to strengthen the squad, given the circumstances. Lillard is committed to the franchise, and the core of him and McCollum is signed until 2024, while Nurkic and starting forward Robert Covington are signed for the next two years. Powell also signed an extension this summer, tying him to the city for the next 5 years.
Without any cap space and with limited options on the market, credit must be given to the Portland front office for the work they have done this summer. Regardless of that credit, unfortunately, it is difficult to see Portland advancing more in the Playoffs than they have done in the past. However, should Powell lead from the bench and Nurkic reach his old level of quality, there is a chance that the Blazers will be a possible landmine for contenders in the West.