Portland Trailblazers 2021–22 Mega-Preview
I don’t usually post sports stuff here, but just in case any of you don’t follow me on Facebook and care about the Blazers, I thought I would offer this bit of light reading.
After losing all four preseason games by an average of more than 25 points and losing their home opener to the lowly Sacramento Kings going down by 19 at one point before an epic comeback fell just short, the Blazers got their first win of the season against the Western Conference Champion Phoenix Suns. So, lets ride those positive vibes and take a detailed look at this team for the 2021–22 season.
In one word: lots. In all the rest of the words: see below
The biggest change is the coaching staff. After 136 years with Terry Stotts at the helm, the Blazers made a change and hired first time head coach Chauncey “Mr. Big Shot” Billups. Billups put together a good staff of experienced guys with either head coaching experience or a growing reputation for being able to teach and coach defense. Last year, Portland’s defense was rated as the second worst in the league. The entire league!! Only the Kings were worse, and not by much. So, Billups’ marching orders as the new head coach was pretty straightforward: fix the D. However, in a move that I think will ultimately be just as important, Billups has installed both a new offense and defense.
Billups is a former NBA champion point guard who has gotten to know Lillard well over the years. He has been an assistant coach and is widely respected both for his leadership and his basketball knowledge. He was a high basketball IQ player when he played and played his best ball on a team that relied on teamwork and defense. Who knows if he’ll be any good but despite all the losing he’s off to a good start. And Dame likes him so, good enough.
When healthy at the end of the season the Blazers offense was one of the best of all time (statistically). This was the result primarily of two guards who are among the best iso players in the league in Dame and CJ and a team built around shooters with an offense designed to create mismatches for the guards to beat off the dribble and either take their own shot or kick to an open shooter when the defense was forced to help. Dame and to a lesser degree CJ were simply so good that when they got a mismatch it was usually just a matter of whether they got 2 or 3. However, there were at least 3 main problems with this offensive system.
First, the focus on the guards playing a ton of pick and roll and isolation meant that there was often only 2 or 3 players involved in most offensive possessions. That meant that there were many possessions where 2–3 guys didn’t even touch the ball. It is extremely difficult for a basketball player to stay engaged and in rhythm (a crucial factor in shooting consistently) when they don’t even touch the ball for long stretches. You could see this happen in certain situations for the last 5–6 years. The role players would get the ball for the first time in forever and their pent up desire would get the better of them and they would force a bad shot or even miss an open shot. Offensive basketball is about repetition, creativity and muscle memory. You can’t go long periods of time without even touching the basketball and shoot at a high percentage unless your last name is Curry, Lillard, Durant…. i.e, the best of the best. So the offensive system did not get enough people involved. This is also shown in the lack of assists. During the Stotts era, Portland was almost always near the bottom of the league in assists. Nearly all offense was created off the dribble for the dribbler.
Second, Stotts offense meant either Dame or CJ or both had to be dominant every game for the Blazers to be competitive. For all the talk about “getting those guys help” the truth is it wouldn’t have made that much difference. The ball would still be in the hands of the two guards and they were responsible every night. Over a long season that is exhausting mentally and physically. And the last several years Dame’s body has betrayed him in the playoffs. Was that all the fault of too much wear in the regular season? Who knows? But it stands to reason that it could have been a significant factor. So, Stotts’ offense wore out the top two guys and didn’t really allow anyone else to have a major impact except for a game here and there when someone else would get hot.
Third (and this is not meant to be a complete list), the offense Stotts ran was bad for the defense. When your primary action is pick and roll from the top of the key, it creates certain patterns in player location at the end of a play. So, let’s say Dame has the ball and Nurk sets a screen. Dame uses the screen and gets the mismatch and is now being guarded by a big. Dame uses his dribble to beat the big who trails him to the basket. Meanwhile as the roll man, Nurk also goes to the basket. But the guard who was guarding Nurk (on a good defense) won’t chase him down to the hoop, because the “help man” actually is a bigger wing usually leaving the corner man (which is why you have to have a guy who hits the corner 3 to effectively run pick and roll in the NBA). So, that guard sometimes rotates to the open shooter but often doesn’t have time and so can release down court. So, when Portland misses on these plays they are already behind the fast break if the other team gets the rebound. This is part of why Portland was catastrophically bad at transition defense under Stotts. It wasn’t only a matter of hustle, it was a matter of where guys end up at the end of a regular offensive set. If you don’t know better you just think Portland guys don’t hustle back on D. Sometimes that was true. But more often guys were pulled under the basket following the isolation move and unable to get back in time because they were out of position to start playing D. The Nuggets absolutely murdered the Blazers in the playoffs last year because of this dynamic.
This is just one example. The offensive focus for Dame and CJ also took all their energy on one end leaving them trying to rest on D and often getting taken advantage of. The lack of touches for other players led some players to lose their focus on D. And the focus on getting 3 pointers led to more long rebounds and more fast break opportunities for other teams. While that didn’t always lead to “fast break points” it often led to Portland being in bad defensive position to start the other team’s set.
So, what is the new offense and how does it address that?
The new offense is designed to have more ball movement and more player movement off the ball. No one should be standing in this offense. It is what is commonly known as a continuity style offense where the initial action is designed to get certain guys open or create certain shots, but if that doesn’t work, the offense just keeps flowing to the next series of options created by the constant movement. This new offense is also designed to move the ball more from from one side of the court to the other. In theory this will create more work for opposing defenses, make the offense less predictable and keep everyone involved. So, Dame and CJ won’t have to carry the offense every night by dribbling themselves open. Dame will spend more time off the ball like Steph does in GS. They will probably still shoot a lot of 3s but in theory they should be less contested or the ball should keep moving.
The downside is that having to pass and move the ball more will create more turnovers. Hopefully, eventually, Portland will reach a comfort level where they don’t turn it over, but I would expect to see multiple 20+ turnover games in the beginning of the season. This will also create “new” shots for players. Guys who played for years under Stotts came to know where his offense created shots for them. This side to side movement and off ball screening is going to create different shots. That will take some getting used to. If done correctly it should create more open shots through passing, have less dribbling, create more drives to the basket and require fewer contested 3s. As a result, if it works, look for the following:
More dunks as wing players will have more opportunities both to drive and attack the offensive glass as their guy goes to cover.
Dame to have a career year in assists.
More balanced scoring and improved scoring numbers from guys not known as scorers as they will get more and better looks.
More from Nurk. This will be a serious season x factor. The new offense puts the ball in Nurk’s hands more and asks him to create from the high post like Draymond does in GS or the Joker does in Denver. It will also give him more shot opportunities. More low post isos and many more open lanes for short drives. He is a good and willing passer and can be a good scorer. However, his tendency to weakly flip the ball toward the basket or take strange scoop shots which allow smaller players to guard him will kill this offense if that doesn’t change at least a little. Lots of the Blazers’ success this year rides on Nurk. He’s been frustratingly inconsistent in the past with foul trouble, lack of focus, poor shot selection, etc. Can he fix that? We will see. Oh and watch for more 3s. He’s going to be left wide open outside when this offense runs correctly and if he has to pass or drive every time, things will bog down and teams will pack the paint. Just like Green and Jokic, he will likely be given the greenlight to take more 3s. He’s capable and so long as he doesn’t go looking for it, it should be ok…I think.
Early season woes. Stretches where scoring is hard, too many shots are being taken by role players, live ball turnovers (the poison to any team) and the appearance that Dame and/or CJ are struggling. If it all comes together like it did against Phoenix and the shots are falling you will also eventually see more blowouts. In November and December expect some 20 point losses and victories as the guys figure this out.
For what it’s worth, this change has been implemented before with a fair amount of success. When Kerr took over from Marc Jackson as the coach of the Warriors, he implemented a very similar offense as the one Billups is about to put in. You know, the one that allowed Klay to hit 60 on 11 dribbles? The Marc Jackson Warriors were a very good team with great shooters who were low on the assist ranking and average to bad on D. Steph was abused and worn out and scoring relied heavily on the stars. Kerr changed the system. Assists went up, defense improved, Steph was the MVP even as less was demanded of him on a night by night basis and GS won multiple championships. Of course most of that was due to their talent, but the change in offensive system allowed them to go from good to great with mostly the same players.
So, I’m optimistic. It will likely be rough at the beginning, but I think the offensive changes have a chance to allow Dame and CJ to still thrive while taking some pressure off and allowing the team to be better positioned to play better D and better utilize their role players. Don’t be surprised to see career years from Little and Simons. Some of that is development, but some is the new offense and the new roles they will be asked to play in it.
Ok, so what about the defense?
You are likely going to have to wait on that too. During the Stotts era, the approach every off season was to try to get better individual defenders who could also shoot 3s and then hope that everyone would commit themselves individually enough to make the Blazers just enough better on D so that their offense could carry them. There were a number of flaws in that thinking. One, really good individual defenders who can shoot 3s are incredibly hard to come by. Remember Moe and Chief? They could defend, but couldn’t shoot. So we thought if we could just replace them with guys who shoot, all will be good. But we couldn’t really find those guys and so we talked ourselves into Derrick Jones Jr. who (breaking news alert) can’t shoot. The other problem with this approach is that having good individual defenders is just the beginning of having a good NBA defense. What you really need is smart, disciplined players who try really hard and buy into a well coached team concept. You can have terrible one on one defenders and still have a good team D. The Warriors have proved this over and over with Steph.
So, this year the Blazers are trying something different. Here are the steps to the plan.
Step 1. Jettison the individuals who made it impossible to play good team defense because of their own defensive ineptitude. Goodbye Melo and Kanter. There will be nights when their offense is missed, but no nights when their “defense” will be. The Blazers maddeningly often chose to play both those guys at the same time and it was impossible to stop anyone when that happened. I cannot express this strongly enough. The Blazers became a massively better defensive team the second they let both of those guys go.
Step 2. Bring in guys who care about and know how to play defense. Hello Cody Zeller and Larry Nance Jr. (and maybe even Tony Snell). Those guys are not lock down defenders, but they can guard their position adequately and know how to play in a team structure. They rotate well, they have high basketball IQs and they hustle and play hard.
Step 3. Get Nurk healthy. Nurk is not a shot blocker or a quick big that can guard wings on the perimeter. But he is a smart defender and useful defensive anchor. The difference between their defense with him on and off the court last year was staggering. Obviously this is more of an observation than a strategy. Stotts wanted Nurk healthy too. But it is important to the D.
Step 4. Let every role player know that their playing time is going to be tied to defense. People will look to the scoring numbers to explain why Dennis Smith Jr. made the team instead of Marquise Chris. But if you watched the preseason you know it is because of defensive effort. Chris is a gifted athlete and player and was less useful on defense than a folding chair. He was appallingly bad. We’re talking some Meyers Leonard, Zach Randolph kind of stuff here. Smith, again, is not a lock down individual defender, but is active, smart and plays hard. Plus, in preseason and in the first two games, the bench guys come in hustling. They are not always good yet or in the right position, but give it time. Garbage time in the Phoenix game was telling. Elleby and Brown Jr. were all over the place chasing guys with the team up 30. I would bet all of your money that Billups has made it clear that D is the path to minutes. Little is getting PT in part because he’s turned himself into a good shooter but mostly because he’s been working his butt off on defensive rotations. Good to see.
Step 5. This is the big one. New defensive scheme!! It’s more complicated than this, but the biggest change given what I’ve seen so far is that they have gone from a switching/sagging style of D to a help/trap and recover type. Under Stotts, the defensive players would almost always switch when there was a screen and the big involved would typically sag to guard against the drive. This led to a lot of open 3s and a lot of mismatches. I don’t know what they were teaching as far as help defense, because I saw almost no help defense ever. So, there was a constant barrage of open 3s and barely contested layups.
Now guys will be expected to trap the ball handler in the pick and roll and then recover to an unguarded player. Meanwhile, everyone is watching the lane to leave their man and help on drives with other players assigned to cover the then open perimeter player. When it goes right, it takes away the pick and roll (the NBA’s most popular offensive set play), covers some for the fact that our guards are not good individual defenders and makes the other team swing the ball to try to beat the recovering players. This often turns shooters into drivers and bad passers into turnover machines. If you watch a lot of NBA, it is similar to the way the Nuggets play. Most good defensive teams play some variation of this scheme. The part that makes it tough is you have to have 5 smart players working together because if just one guy is out of position or misses or is even slow on a rotation, someone is getting a wide open look. You saw a ton of this in the preseason and against Sacramento.
The other downside is that it is tough to key on one particular player or to take advantage of an offensive team’s weakness. It mostly requires you treat every team and player mostly similar. In the playoffs or over the course of the season the scouting report will matter more and you can leave non-shooters and change the rotations, but in the regular season that will be tough. That’s why Harrison Barnes went 7–9 from 3 and it seemed like the Blazers were unable to adjust. That’s because they were. Keying on one guy breaks the system down. Again, this can be adapted, but that’s probably late season stuff.
Overall though it should keep everyone active and should keep the opposing offense from ever getting comfortable looks. I expect to see opponent shooting percentage go down dramatically starting sometime in December if everyone buys in (looking right at you CJ). If not, it could be rough. But Phoenix was a good example of what it looks like when it comes together. More often we are likely to see stretches where it looks great and some when it looks disastrous, especially when new players sub in.
What else is new?
Players! Or maybe…Players?
Every Portland fan hoped this would be the key section. We all wanted to see major additions to the roster to improve our talent and overall chances to be a contender. Well….that didn’t happen. Again. Some other time I will break down why Portland so often struggles to bring in new talent, but for now, let’s focus on who we did get.
We drafted Greg Brown Jr. in the second round. He was a once highly ranked HS player that didn’t really dazzle in college at Texas. He is a 6’7” forward with incredible hops. Think a taller DJ Jr. He is built to catch crazy lob passes and ferociously attack the rim. He will be looking to dunk on everyone every minute he is in. But hopefully that won’t be very many minutes because he’s not quite ready for prime time. Could be a good prospect. Too early to tell. He’ll provide some good garbage time highlights, but right now he’s all energy and bounce and no muscle, skill or know how. He could be fun later, but not this year.
We picked up Trendon Watford who went undrafted out of LSU after a very good freshman season. He’s super young but I like him. Again, not this year, but down the road. He’s 6’8” with a 7’3” wingspan. Already a good defender and lots of energy. He’s garbage time only, but I think this was a great undrafted pick up. For later.
We traded DJ Jr. (basically) for Larry Nance Jr. I wrote a breakdown when that trade went down so I won’t repeat the full analysis. Nance is a plus defender and passer with a high IQ that operates well out of the elbow and midpost. He’s the perfect type of player to add because he can finish and even hit 3s but will never “need” to shoot and will play hard, smart D. His box scores will be unimpressive but eventually, when the systems click in, I expect his +/- to start looking good. He can also play some small ball 5 when Nurk is in foul trouble or when we want to push pace and I think that should help too.
The Blazers also signed free agent back up center Cody Zeller. Zeller is another guy who won’t put up big stats, but will do everything you need to make this team better. Think of him as the anti-whiteside. He hustles, he’s physical (sometimes to a fault…I expect multiple games where both he and Nurk foul out). He finishes well, hits free throws, dives ok and generally is where he needs to be on D. If he never hit double figures in points or rebounds he would still make this team immensely better than with Kanter on the floor. He can’t really shoot or score in the post other than on putbacks and layups, but Portland fans are going to love him because he’s a blue collar bruiser type that Portland fans love. Think Buck, Pryzbilla, Ed Davis, etc.
We also signed Ben McLemore. He was supposed to be the next Ray Allen but instead he is the next guy to bust after being hit with high expectations. He’s just not that good. Bad defender, bad ball handler, bad passer. Built his rep on his shot and it is decent, but I just don’t see him making much difference. Maybe some game he fills in for an injured player and hits 5 3s or something, but he’s nothing more than a solid practice vet and someone who might catch fire once or twice.
We also signed Tony Snell. Snell has not played for the team yet in preseason or the regular season due to injury. I would expect him back over the next 2 weeks as he’ll need some time to practice. He is a moderately valuable 3 and D guy who has developed a pretty nice outside touch. I think he’ll help. Injury replacement, shooting, defense, flexibility. I think he adds some nice depth and will be appreciated filling in for Roco when he gets healthy. Not a huge difference maker but an underrated signing.
Finally, we signed Dennis Smith Jr. Smith who was a fantastic rookie that played so well everyone who didn’t draft him higher was feeling stupid and he got himself traded to the Knicks for the Unicorn. Still mind-boggling. But then he couldn’t quite find his way. He’s an Eric Bledsoe type player. Pretty good at some stuff but no truly elite skill. That said, I am surprised he was just floating around out there unsigned. He is very good/strong taking the ball to the hoop and can handle enough to play some back up 1 or at least bring the ball up some. He’s an adequate shooter and plays hard on D. I actually think flaming out from high expectations raised after one year might help him. He can get back to being a role player and work on his game and play tough D. I think he’s a great fit here and I think he’ll get some minutes off the bench. I definitely expect him to play more than McLemore. With Powell out with a knee issue already, expect Smith to fill in well. I really like this sneaky good pick up. Exactly the kind of player a guy like Billups will like and mold.
Ok, that’s the new. Now let’s look at the rest of the guys going in order from worst to best.
Keljin Blevins. Blevins is Dame’s first cousin. That’s all we need to say about that.
CJ Elleby. Gibson (my son) has already dubbed him the worst player in the NBA. That’s probably not true but he’s closer to that end than he is to the best by a mile. He’s kinda fun. Is he a guard? Is he a forward? Can he shoot? Can he do anything well? Is his hair his best or worst asset? Lots of questions, not many answers. He basically played point forward in college and can definitely handle the ball and pass pretty well for a guy his size. But right now he’s wild and wildly inconsistent. I don’t want to call him a human victory cigar, but I also don’t expect or want to see him in non-garbage time minutes. He’s very young and has an unusual skill set so it’s too early to give up, but also too early to expect much.
Nassir Little. Full disclosure, I’ve been a Little fan for a while. He was number 1 in his class coming out of HS and many people pegged him to be the number 1 overall pick in his draft. But his freshman year at UNC didn’t go well. He came off the bench, showed inconsistent energy and failed to impress. So he slid in the draft and I really liked him as a value pick in the mid-first round. But Stotts’ approach to player development was to jerk around minutes and dole them out in a way seemingly designed to ruin everyone’s confidence. Little is a very good athlete and clearly works hard on his game. But, like at UNC, he failed to do enough to earn a rotation spot under Stotts and hasn’t really shown much as a pro. But toward the end of last year he became a legit 3 point shooter. He’s tall enough and shoots a jumper so he can get his shot off even when contested and has developed his handles just enough to get to the rim off a faked shot. He still needs to improve his finishing and passing, but the defensive effort is there and if the shooting keeps getting better, he is going to be a candidate for MIP. Ok, maybe that’s ambitious, but I think he could be our 6th or 7th man all year and start living up to his expectations. I expect big things from him.
Anfernee Simons. He just looks different, right? Is he taller? Just more filled out? Is it the haircut? Whatever it is, he finally actually looks like he belongs in the NBA. If he puts it together like I think he can, then 6th man of the year and/MIP are not out of the question. He is going to back up the 1 and 2, but mostly the 1. Billups wants him to run the offense and for the first time ever I actually believe he can. He’s already a knockdown 3 point shooter despite one of the ugliest shooting forms on the team. Now that he seems stronger and more confident, look out. If he can combine his skills and athleticism with a better understanding of how to lead the offense, this kid is going to flourish. Look for a career year from him.
Robert Covington. Billups wants to take fewer contested 3s. Everyone seems to have gotten this memo except Roco. He’s a good 3 point shooter and I want him to take open shots. But in the first 6 games, he still takes a lot with a guy’s hand in his face. He’ll figure that out I assume. Roco might actually need to be higher on this list if the criteria is “most important.” He is the best defender on the team by a very wide margin. He’s not like Kawhi or playoff Lebron or even Paul George. He’s not a great one on one defender. But he plays the passing lanes so well, gets tips and deflections that lead to turnovers and break up offensive sets. He gets steals and blocks and rotates so quickly and well without fouling, he is the key to this being a good defensive team. Him and Nurk. But unlike Nurk, Roco can really defend. One of the best 3 and D players in the league. His shot selection and focus on offense could still use some work, but I’m glad we have him. Plus he can play either forward spot and can guard 4 different positions.
Norman Powell. He’s a stud. He just is. He plays on both ends and you are about to witness a player that makes you wonder why you ever doubted giving up Trent Jr. to get him. That is….if he stays healthy. This knee injury has me worried. Supposedly not “serious” but could still cost him significant time and set his development back even more. But putting that aside he is the player most likely to benefit from Billups’ new system. Last year, with Dame and CJ doing most of the damage in isolation and pick and roll up top, Paranorman was left watching in the corner for long stretches waiting for a kick out. He was fine in that role because he’s a good shooter, but he can be so much more. He is one of the best, strongest drivers in the league. Seriously. He finishes with either hand and hits his free throws. He combines burst with strength and can get around almost anyone. In Billups’ system, he is going to get a bunch of driving lanes when the ball swings weak side or when all of the defensive attention is on Dame and CJ. He is mostly a 2/3 but can play a little 1. He’s a bit undersized to play 3 but seems to make it work. He’s a smaller player, but in many ways Powell is to these Blazers what Jerome Kersey was to the great teams of the early 90s. He’s a legit 3rd scorer who will go hard to the rim and finish in both the half court and on the break. Plus he’s a great shooter and plus defender. I love his game and fit with this team. Now just get healthy!
Jusuf Nurkic. The big man is in for a big year. I’ve already discussed his increased role in the new offense and his position as the lone big guy in many lineups means he has to be locked in. His rebounding and defense and finishing on the pick and roll are just crucial. I honestly don’t know if he has it in him. I’ve seen it in stretches, but either injury or loss of concentration has kept him from being consistently good. When he’s locked, he makes Portland a tough, tough team. When he’s not, he puts too much pressure on everyone else to make up for it. He could be Jokic light. Or he could be the most maddening player on the team. We will just have to wait and see.
CJ McCollum. I love CJ. Love his game. Love his attitude. Love his off court stuff. I even love some of his Li Ning sneakers. But trading him is also probably what this team needs to become a contender. If you can get Simmons without giving up every draft pick, you probably have to do it. I know, I know, Simmons is proving himself to be a bit of a headcase. You’d have to do some due diligence there. But in terms of skill set and potential….oy. He’s a legit DOY candidate who is also one of the best finishers and passing forwards in the game. His shot is all the way broken, but if you put him at the 4…where he belongs…or even the 5 like the lineup of death the GSW used to run out with Green, it won’t matter as much and this team could take a big leap. You let Powell play the 2 with Simons off the bench and you play Simmons and Roco together with Dame and Nurk and you have a team that is instantly a contender if Simmons’ head is right and he buys in and isn’t a terrible locker room cancer. Simmons has the potential to be a slightly lesser Giannis. He’s that good, or could be. As long as Dame OKs it, you do that deal. If you don’t and can’t get something that nets that type of difference maker, then I’m fine riding with CJ. Some of the best handles in the league, a lethal shooter from anywhere. He’s not a great passer, can’t draw fouls and is an AWFUL defender who has somehow managed to get a pass from ever improving that part of his game, but his offense is so good it makes up for it. There just aren’t many that can fill it up like he does. So, if we have to keep him, we at least have a very very good one.
Dame. I don’t have anything else to say about the great Dame. On and off the court he’s my favorite Blazer of all time. He’s even close to nudging Bird out of first place on my love list because he plays for and remains loyal to my favorite city. He has improved every aspect of his game every year and is the most dangerous player in the clutch in the NBA today. If I thought the Blazers were going to win more games, he’d be a good pick for MVP. I think his assist numbers will be closer to 8 per game and while his scoring may take a dip from last year, his efficiency will be better. I wish I truly believed Portland had given him a team that would allow him a real chance at his ultimate championship aspirations….but this is not that team. Maybe closer, but not there.
So what then is the forecast?
Sunny with clouds and occasional rain in the morning with sun in the afternoon and chances for a beautiful sunset. The Blazers are going to be very up and down the first two months I think. There will be games like the one against Phoenix, but there will be more than we want of games where they get absolutely thrashed. The new systems offer promise, but they will take more time than just training camp. I’m optimistic that if they don’t lose so many games that they lose confidence in Billups or lose too much ground in the West standings, they could make some noise at the end of the season. You just might be better off looking for signs of improvement more than victories for a few weeks.
If the team stays healthy they should be a 6 seed or higher. If the D has come around by then, they could be a threat to make the conference finals. If they figure out a way to add a new piece with more talent all the better. Who knows, maybe this will be the second coming of Kerr to the Warriors and they will shock the world. More likely they will be in the 44 wins neighborhood and we will be holding our breath again at the end of the year to see what Dame does.
In the meantime, it should be a fun team to watch with more passing, some really good talent and a bunch of really good dudes that the City can be proud of. That’s not nothing.