As the preseason rolls on and the Minnesota Timberwolves continue to get more accustomed to the new system head coach Chris Finch is implementing, let’s take a deeper dive into the second team on our list for our Northwest Division Preview series: the Portland Trail Blazers.
Portland enters the 2021-2022 season after a disappointing first round exit to a Denver Nuggets team, who were without their star point guard, Jamal Murray. If that brutal defeat wasn’t enough for the Blazers to endure, it wasn’t necessarily a quiet offseason for them either. The Blazers spent most of their summer fighting off Damian Lillard trade rumors, and just recently did the former Weber State star confirm that he is indeed committed to the franchise who drafted him for another season.
With Dame on board, Portland also remained active in their attempts to improve their coaching staff, parting ways with long-time coach Terry Stotts (who was with the team for nine seasons) and bringing in first-time head coach (and former Timberwolves great) Chauncey Billups.
After watching and analyzing different lineups the Wolves have put out during the preseason, let’s see how they match up against Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and the rest of the Portland Trail Blazers.
Portland Trail Blazers 2021 Offseason
The Blazers lost a couple key pieces to their rotation during the offseason, which included future Hall of Famer Carmelo Anthony, who reunited with LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Free agent F Carmelo Anthony has agreed to a one-year deal with the Los Angeles Lakers, his manager Bay Frazier tells ESPN.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) August 3, 2021
In a couple seasons with the Blazers, Anthony averaged 14.3 points per game and provided a great third option for Dame and CJ. The Blazers also lost Enes Kanter, Zach Collins, and Derrick Jones Jr, who also provided depth to their bench. Portland’s most notable offseason move involved the re-signing of RFA Normal Powell, who was acquired from the Toronto Raptors in the Gary Trent, Jr. trade. The Blazers then also made a flurry of low-risk, possibly high-reward signings, including Ben McLemore (who adds a shooting boost at 36.3% from three for his career), Cody Zeller (who brings veteran leadership), as well as Dennis Smith Jr. and Marquese Chriss — both of whom are on training camp deals,
Free agent G Norman Powell has agreed to a five-year, $90M deal to return to the Portland Trail Blazers, his agent Thaddeus Foucher of @Wasserman tells ESPN.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) August 3, 2021
Free agent C Cody Zeller has agreed to a one-year deal with the Portland Trail Blazers, his agent Sam Goldfeder of @excelbasketball tells ESPN.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) August 3, 2021
In addition to a handful of free agent transactions, the other major move made by the Blazers this summer was the acquisition of Larry Nance, Jr., who Minnesota was rumored to have had their eyes on for a long time. Nance, Jr. has always been a solid forward in the league, averaging 8.3 points and 6.7 rebounds for his career, as well as developing a stroke from three in his last couple seasons, shooting a career high 36% with the Cleveland Cavaliers this past season. If Larry Nance, Jr. can find his way with the Blazers (and stay healthy), look for him to be a fairly ideal fit for this team on both the offensive and defensive end.
ESPN Sources: Cleveland’s acquiring Chicago’s Lauri Markkanen in three-way sign and trade with Portland. Bulls get Derrick Jones Jr., POR’s lottery protected future 1st and Cavs’ future second-rounder. POR gets Larry Nance Jr. https://t.co/CgN3mhaLHY— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) August 27, 2021
Matching Up With The Blazers
To say that the Timberwolves haven’t had much success against the Blazers in the past would be a lake-sized understatement. Entering this season, Minnesota is just 36-87 in 123 meetings all-time against Portland, and their inability to overthrow this division foe is just one of the reasons the Wolves have failed to find success in the Northwest.
Looking at this past season specifically, the Blazers won the season series 2-1 by a combined total of 22 points. Fast forward to this season, and the Timberwolves have attempted to bring in multiple defensive minded players who should assist in the team’s goal of slowing down Portland star guard Damian Lillard, who averages 24.5 points a game all-time against Minnesota.
With a starting lineup most likely featuring Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic, Norman Powell, and an old friend, Robert Covington, the Wolves will have to first dig in on the defensive end. In my opinion, the Wolves should definitely go with the Steph/Klay approach. Going back to the first preseason game against the Pelicans, the Wolves went with a lineup of D’Angelo Russell, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jaden McDaniels, Josh Okogie, and Anthony Edwards. Let’s just say this is indeed the lineup Chris Finch goes with at the start of the season, that would mean the Wolves would likely have Russell on Covington, Okogie on Dame, McDaniels on Powell, Towns on Nurkic, and then Edwards on CJ.
On the offensive end, the Wolves can (and should!) take advantage of Jusuf Nurkic. He isn’t necessarily known for his defense and a PNR between KAT and Russell would see Nurkic in drop coverage more times than not. This opens up the mid-range area for D’Angelo to work off the PNR and KAT to stay at the top, for a wide open kick out three. If Russell were to operate into the painted area, the defense would help in and there would be a lot of options for a kick out or a backdoor cut.
The Minnesota Timberwolves play the Portland Trail Blazers three times this season, featuring two in Portland at the Moda Center. All games against their Northwest Division Rivals are important, especially the Blazers, since they are always a threat to make the playoffs or even the play-in tournament.
Looking at the games last season, the Wolves didn’t play a single game against them fully healthy, but Anthony Edwards had one of his best games of the season against them. The key to winning the season series though will be to make sure they are locked in on defense. As we’ve seen already this preseason (especially against the Denver Nuggets), after being down early, it was the team’s defense — not their offense — that gave them the energy and momentum needed to come back and secure a win.
What are your predictions on what we could expect out of this Northwest Division foe this upcoming season?