The Portland Trail Blazers finally seemed to make a breakthrough during the 2019 NBA Playoffs.
The Trail Blazers defeated a tough Oklahoma City Thunder team and the second-seeded Denver Nuggets to reach the Western Conference Finals. Though they were once again dispatched by the Golden State Warriors, the deep run could not be ignored.
Indeed, Portland signed star point guard Damian Lillard to a four-year, $196 million deal this summer only to follow that with an extension for Lillard’s backcourt mate, C.J. McCollum.
With their marquee tandem locked up, the Trail Blazers also re-signed Rodney Hood before orchestrating a three-team trade to land Hassan Whiteside as a replacement for the injured Jusuf Nurkic.
The rest of the Western Conference saw a tremendous shakeup as well, but Portland repositioned nicely in the hopes of building on their 2018-19 campaign.
However, it has been a struggle for the Trail Blazers so far. Portland enters Thursday night’s contest against the Los Angeles Clippers with a 3-4 record, and they just recently lost Zach Collins for four months following shoulder surgery.
Can the Trail Blazers get back on track? Here are three burning questions:
3. Where is the frontcourt depth?
Injuries have decimated Portland’s front court. Collins joins Nurkic on the bench, and veteran big man Pau Gasol has yet to play for the Trail Blazers.
Gasol has no timetable for return, and the Trail Blazers can no longer deploy Maurice Harkless as an undersized power forward after trading him to the Clippers. Where will their frontcourt minutes go?
The most obvious candidates seem to be some combination of Anthony Tolliver, Skal Labissiere and Mario Hezonja, though only Labissiere possesses the same size as Collins.
Fortunately for Portland, Hezonja can shoot space the floor and shoot the three at a high clip, and Labissiere eats on the offensive glass. Can they handle significant minutes, especially on the defensive end?
2. Can McCollum get it going?
There is no doubt that McCollum has been the most disappointing player for Portland thus far. Through seven games, he has an offensive rating of 97, according to Basketball-Reference.
McCollum is shooting barely over 40 percent on all of his two-point attempts, too often settling for midrange jumpers and failing to attack the rim despite being a 90 percent free-throw shooter.
The Trail Blazers need McCollum to get going in a hurry. He opens up the floor for Lillard when he is going well, but can be a liability when he is struggling, especially because of his deficiencies
1. Dame Time?
As is often the case, the onus once again falls on Lillard. Nurkic has no timetable for return and McCollum is in a funk, which means Lillard has to do superstar things.
He is off to an exceptional start–31.1 points to go along with 5.0 rebounds and 7.3 assists–but also might have to take his offensive game to another level given the state of the roster.
Is “Logo Dame” ready to ascend to the top of the NBA?