As the seemingly endless NBA offseason trudges onward, the Portland Trail Blazers find themselves in the middle of the pack in an increasingly strong Western Conference.
Teams like Golden State, San Antonio, and Houston are continuing to load up on talent and prepare for a shot at the title. On the other end of the conference, there are teams like Sacramento and Phoenix who are stockpiling young talent in hopes to compete in the future. In the past two years Portland has gone all in on the backcourt tandem of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, ultimately landing them perpetually in the middle of the pack.
Portland GM Neil Olshey has repeatedly confirmed his commitment to his two dynamic guards, but whether the Blazers can win as currently constructed remains to be seen. Both Lillard and McCollum are top-shelf offensive talents, but often need to be hid on defense. During their 2016-17 campaign, the Blazers ranked 24th overall in defensive rating and often seemed worse on the defensive end than that. While the defensive rating system is flawed, it helps paint a picture in this case. Despite having an above average offensive rating as a team, Portland has little hope to seriously compete without upgrading their defense.
Blazer fans may not want to hear it, but the best route to go may to part with one of their prized guards. Though not impossible, it’s incredibly difficult to win NBA championships while your two best players are below league average defenders, especially at the guard positions.
As valuable as star guards like Dame and C.J. are, I would argue that in today’s NBA a star wing player would be even more valuable. One thing every team could use more of (except maybe Boston) is a versatile wing player who can defend.
Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless qualify as versatile wings capable of defending multiple positions, but are both flawed players at this point. No doubt Aminu and Harkless are a reliable forward tandem, but they are slightly below average shooters and neither player by any means is a star.
This is the reason players like Jimmy Butler, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard are so incredibly valuable; they are capable as a first option on offense, while being a valuable part of a team’s defensive structure. When your star players are also defensively adept, it allows for more flexibility while constructing a supporting cast.
A full year of Jusuf Nurkić is intriguing no doubt. The Blazers became a different team with the Bosnian Beast on the floor last year. Nurkić is the post presence the Blazers have been missing. He is enough to pull defenders into the paint giving shooters more room on the perimeter. However Nurkić alone won’t be enough to make up for the flawed structure of the team as a whole. In his first full season as a Blazer, Nurkić should improve the Blazers overall, but just how much is still a mystery.
Perhaps Nurkić is enough to make up for the defensive woes of the Portland Trail Blazers. Perhaps they overachieve this season and thoughts of trading Lillard or McCollum seem ridiculous a year from now. More likely is the Blazers finish in the 7th-10th range in a crowded Western Conference, and are faced with the cold reality of their ceiling.
I don’t expect the Blazers to move either guard anytime soon, however if what we see this season is more of the same, then maybe Olshey will reevaluate going all in on a star guard duo as the core of his team.