Welcome, Timberwolves fans. August is a dry, dry month for basketball news. This has never been made more apparent than the discussions about fried chicken sandwiches and double teams in pick-up games that have dominated internet conversations. To try to get through the slog, we’ll be previewing the teams in the Timberwolves’ division to get a better idea about what we can expect from the teams Minnesota will face four times this season.
Team: Portland Trail Blazers
2018-19 Record: 53-29 (WCF loss)
Offseason Departures: Mo Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Seth Curry, Meyers Leonard, Enes Kanter, Evan Turner, Jake Layman
Offseason Additions: Hassan Whiteside, Pau Gasol, Mario Hezonja, Anthony Tolliver, Kent Bazemore, Nassir Little
Coming off a trip to the Western Conference Finals, Neil Olshey and Portland did not stand pat during the offseason. They let seven of their rotation players leave over the summer, replacing them with a few interesting names. Let’s break down the roster as it stands today.
This is where Portland gains an edge on most any team. Damian Lillard is a bad, bad man. He displayed that against Oklahoma City, who, for some unknown reason, chose not to blitz Dame in the pick-and-roll. That changed against Denver, and Lillard was limited.
The problem for Denver, however, was that Portland also has their new $100 million man C.J. McCollum, who rose to the occasion to absolutely roast the Nuggets.
The unsung guy in that backcourt, though, was Seth Curry. The hole left by his departure is not a particularly easy one to replace, although Portland believes Anfernee Simons can fill that void and then some. Simons spent last year as a 19 year old in the G-League, and figures to play a key role in the rotation this year. He looked stellar throughout summer league, and the buzz around him has certainly grown.
Portland’s faith in him is apparent, if not only evidenced by the fact that they didn’t make any move to replace Seth Curry. They are counting on him to be that third guard that usually plays such an important role on a good team. They hype may be getting a bit out of control, but if Simons is as good as Portland thinks he is, their backcourt will be even better than it already was. If he struggles, however, the Blazers will be looking mighty thin beyond Dame and C.J.
It’s intriguing that Portland chose to let the majority of their wing rotation leave, while replacing those players with Kent Bazemore (in exchange for Evan Turner) and Nassir Little. Bazemore is probably a better fit for Portland given how much of the ball-handling responsibilities fall on Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
Little, on the other hand, is a polarizing prospect. The physical traits for him are obvious, but the lack of basketball IQ was alarming during his tenure at North Carolina. He’s a physical specimen who is still learning how to play basketball. It’s unlikely that he’s ready to contribute for a team with playoff aspirations, which Portland does.
This leaves Portland with only two true wings who have proven to be productive NBA players, in Bazemore and Rodney Hood. Maybe Terry Stotts will be the coach to get the most out of Mario Hezonja, but that isn’t a bet that a smart man takes.
Dame and C.J. can make up for a lot of deficiencies, but an injury to either Hood or Bazemore will have Portland scrambling for wing help from someone like Little, or possibly Gary Trent, Jr.
This right here is the most intriguing portion of Portland’s roster, simply because of how many unknowns there are. Jusuf Nurkic was an absolute stud last year before going down with a gruesome leg injury. It’s unclear when, if at all, he will be able to play this year. It’s certainly no guarantee that he’ll be nearly as good as he was.
That leaves a Bosnian Beast sized hole in the starting lineup, which figures to be filled by the recently acquired Hassan Whiteside. Whiteside is a tough player to unpack. There are things he does well (rebound, block shots), but he has never truly provided much value over his replacements.
The addition of Anthony Tolliver is a nice pick up as he can space the floor and be a solid team defender, but I’m not sure how much he ultimately moves the needle.
In all reality, Portland is probably going to be in rough shape if Whiteside is their main frontcourt contributor this year. The guy who the Blazers will look to for an increase in production will be Zach Collins.
Collins is entering his third year, and has shown flashes of being really damn good when he can limit his bad habit of fouling (4.6 fouls per 36 minutes). If he is able to put it all together, he is the mobile, versatile big that could, theoretically, boost Portland’s ceiling. Collins’ development and the comeback of Jusuf Nurkic will ultimately determine how good this position group is, with Whiteside being a bench piece at the end of the season.
Every year, I look at Portland and wonder how they could possibly win as many games as they did the previous year. Last year, I underestimated just how good Jusuf Nurkic was. This year, I’m not going to make that same mistake. For that reason, there has to be some pessimism around this Blazers squad.
I’m buying into what both Anfernee Simons and Zach Collins can be for Portland, but beyond them, I’m concerned about the roster. We know Dame and C.J. are going to be awesome. Give me Simons as the third guard.
The wing rotation scares me. They have two reliable wing players/defenders, and you need more of those given the defensive shortcomings of the Lillard/McCollum backcourt. The value that Layman, Aminu and Harkless brought them on that front was tremendous. Who is going to step up there?
Up front, it’s ugly. It’s going to be Collins and Whiteside for the majority of the season, with Tolliver spending a lot of time at the 4. Until Nurkic comes back, this could be an issue.
That gives us 7 legitimate rotation players. They’re going to be counting on the corpse of Pau Gasol or someone like Gary Trent or Nassir Little to contribute.
Ultimately, I’m not buying into Portland as being anything more than a first-round exit in the playoffs. Dame is way too good for them to miss the playoffs, and there are some nice complimentary pieces, but I can’t imagine them being better than they were last year without a heatlhy Nurkic.
Predicting them to finish in the 6 or 7 slot feels pretty accurate. It’s hard to see them finishing ahead of the two Los Angeles teams, Houston, Denver, Golden State or Utah. Maybe injuries to one of those teams would allow Portland to finish 6th, but that’s also assuming health for the Blazers.
In the end, this feels like a great year to enjoy Dame and C.J. balling out in the regular season, while keeping postseason expectations at a reasonable level.