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Larry Nance Jr. is exactly what the rebuilt, revitalized Trail Blazers need

Larry Nance Jr., Trail Blazers

Damian Lillard did his best this summer to recruit free agents to the Portland Trail Blazers. He didn’t even have dreams of somehow luring another superstar to Rip City. Lillard instead sought out potential additions that could help his team on the margins, like former Blazer Nicolas Batum and athletic wing Kelly Oubre Jr.

But even the voice of a highly respected player like Lillard only carried so far given the Blazers’ cap constraints and perceived place in the league’s championship hierarchy. By the time free agency was finished in earnest after the first few days of August, Portland had seemingly missed out on all of its top targets for the mini mid-level exception, not to mention Lillard’s handpicked favorites.

It turned out that Neil Olshey, though, had plans to fortify the Blazers’ incumbent core other than the minimum-contract additions of Cody Zeller, Tony Snell and Ben McLemore. Portland’s subsequent trade for Larry Nance Jr. wasn’t made against his will, either. Unlike Batum, Oubre and so many more players across the league who were pitched by Olshey and Lillard this summer, Nance actually wanted to be in Rip City.

“Portland is the type of place that I feel like I fit in more,” Nance, an Akron native who spent the last three seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, said at Media Day. “Ohio is a little bit…behind in the times? Whereas Portland is progressive and very forward-thinking, and I love that. I love that.”

Politics of his new team’s hometown isn’t the only factor that drove Nance to the Blazers, though.

Nance got his first taste of playoff basketball during LeBron James’ swan song with the wine and gold after being traded to Cleveland at the 2018 trade deadline. He didn’t play a major role for the Cavaliers en route to James’ eighth straight trip to the NBA Finals, underwhelming compared to expectations.

But Nance has nevertheless been chasing the unique thrills of basketball at its highest level ever since, another reason he sought out the team with the NBA’s longest active playoff streak when discussing potential trade destinations with Cleveland GM Koby Altman.

“I’m a guy that’s been dying to get to that stage again,” Nance said. “The playoffs is what basketball’s all about, what we dream about as kids. I know for a fact I’m ready for that stage again, and that was a big factor in my decision to come out here, in wanting to come out here.”

Making the playoffs for a whopping ninth straight season wouldn’t be enough for Portland, of course. To a man, the Blazers were careful not to predict true championship contention in 2021-22, perhaps learning from mistakes of prior Media Days while setting more realistic expectations for a team clearly a rung below basketball’s cream of the crop.

Make no mistake, though. Portland has lofty aspirations this season, and Nance is the type of role player perfectly suited to help Chauncey Billups’ team reach them.

“I feel like Larry Nance is a good pickup for our team,” Lillard said on Monday, unprompted. “Athleticism, if it’s a team playing small-ball [he can play] small-ball five, can make a three, get us extra opportunities offensively. Defensively, make us more versatile.”

That proven sense of two-way versatility is what separates Nance not just from the Blazers’ other offseason additions, but each of their returnees, too.

He’s just as disruptive a help defender as Robert Covington, but stouter checking all types of players one-on-one in switches or traditional matchups. Nance is a far more viable small-ball option up front next to Covington than Nassir Little, and boasts natural playmaking chops that will allow him to thrive in Billups’ movement-based offensive attack. Nance is much more comfortable attacking close-outs off the bounce than Covington, too.

None of that means Nance will force his way into Portland’s ironclad starting lineup. Norman Powell made clear that the confidence instilled in him by Billups and Olshey was a major factor in him re-signing with the Blazers, and Covington’s superior volume from three makes him a cleaner fit opening games next to Jusuf Nurkic. Mixing and matching lineups will be easier for Billups with a stylistic and positional chameleon like Nance coming off the bench anyway.

Still, don’t be surprised if Nance quickly establishes himself as Portland’s nominal sixth starter, closing games against certain opponents and changing them with extra-extended stints when Billups feels his team needs a jolt. Players capable of affecting the game on a nightly basis without needing the ball, taking a shot or guarding the other team’s best player will never get the due they deserve from casual fans. But every great team has at least one of those offense-defense connectors, and Nance is ready to be the Blazers’.

“I’m excited to play whatever role, how big or how small, these guys deem necessary for me to do to get back to the playoffs, and hopefully deepen their run,” Nance said. “Whatever they need me to do is what I’m gonna do…I’m here to do whatever it takes.”