After a summer of Damian Lillard trade rumors based around the idea that the Portland Trail Blazers are simply not a championship team, it has become easy to go too far with the takes. No, the Blazers would not appear to be an upper-class contender. But they have a chance to be a top-four seed in the Western Conference as constructed, and that is a really good team.
Once again, GM Neil Olshey stuck to the edges of roster improvement. When Portland brought in Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. last season, the idea was to put more defensive punch and versatility around Lillard and CJ McCollum, but Jones just didn’t have the same kind of defensive impact that he had in Miami, where he was a part of a greater defensive sum. The offense also tanked with Jones on the court.
Larry Nance Jr. represents the same idea as Jones — an athletic defender who can cover the inherent holes in Lillard-McCollum defense — but he’s a far superior player. He’s a ball hawk defensively, 99th percentile in steal percentage, per Cleaning the Glass. He’s a terrific passer and a legit shooter.
Nance’s offensive rebounding fell off in Cleveland, where he had a bigger role with the ball, but he was a monster on the glass early in his career with the Los Angeles Lakers and I would expect that to return with a more roaming role for the Blazers. He’ll create a lot of extra possessions.
Nance also gives new Blazers coach Chauncey Billups more lineup options. They can go small with Nance and Covington in the front court, and the depth will be better. That last part is vital. After the addition of Norman Powell — whose $90 million deal to stay in Portland was Olshey’s biggest move this summer — the Blazers’ starting lineup pounded teams by 14.2 points per 100 possessions, per CTG, which ranked second league wide behind only Philadelphia’s starting five among lineups with at least 700 minutes of court time.
Billups could bring Nance off the bench, or he could move Powell to sixth man and use Nance to elevate the defense of the starting unit, which still has more than enough offense with Lillard, McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. I like the latter option. Have two of Lillard, McCollum and Powell on the court at pretty much all times is a huge leg up against opposing bench units that won’t have to be entirely offense dependent as they were with Enes Kanter and Carmelo Anthony.
All this said, Nance is likely not going to be the difference between the Blazers being a good regular-season team, which they’ve already been for basically the last decade, and a true contender. I would still be looking at a McCollum trade. If Ben Simmons is in play for a package the Blazers can offer, I’d be going after him hard if I were Olshey.
Barring a shake-up like that, or a bracket that breaks just right, or a bunch of injuries to other teams, the Blazers’ best shot at a non-circumstantial, deep postseason run remains Lillard going nuclear. It’s always been that way. As a Lillard defender to the death, I like that challenge. It remains refreshing in a league where shortcuts are the new way. Personally, if I were Lillard, I’d rather stay with the Blazers and come up short than join, say, the Golden State Warriors or Lakers and win a ring.
But I’m not Lillard, who will likely be wrestling with this dilemma through the first few months of the season. It’s going to get pretty tense if the Blazers come out cold. They have to stay healthy and establish some good early vibes. If they do that, the Blazers are, once again, dangerous. Be careful about letting the perception created this summer cloud that reality.