The Portland Trail Blazers’ pre-season starting with a bang and ended with a whimper. The fallout has resulted in a debate between fans on how indicative this years pre-season will be for the games that count. With only a couple days until the Blazers’ regular season opener, here’s five pre-season takeaways that you can put some stock in.
The defense still has a ways to go…
Neil Olshey improved the roster this off-season, especially when it comes to the defensive side of the ball. Terry Stotts came into training camp with a fresh philosophy, one that I’ve been campaigning for years. These improvements led many fans (including me) to believe that the pre-season would showcase a defense vastly improved compared to last season.
The problem? This defense looks exactly like last season’s, at least when it comes to the shots other teams are getting against it. Open corner threes and dump off passes for dunks were easily attained against the Blazers’ defense. This wasn’t encouraging for many fans hoping the defense could jump from the 27th ranked defense last season to an above average unit this season.
The solution? The Blazers’ backside rotations have to improve. They were terrible in the pre-season, even from noted defensive players such as Derrick Jones Jr. and Jusuf Nurkic. This shouldn’t necessarily come as a shock, as players haven’t had much time to get up to speed and there’s still some rust that needs to be worked off, but I was hoping the Blazers would be further along in terms of rotating in a timely and correct manner. There was also a lot of mental mistakes and executional miscues, where one Blazer ruined an otherwise solid defensive possession from the other four on the court.
The defensive issues the Blazers displayed during the pre-season weren’t caused by Stotts’ new philosophy, as there were some flashes of promise when schemes were executed correctly. As long as that philosophy is abandoned, I have some hope the defense can become an above-average unit by working out their executional mistakes.
Rodney Hood is healthy, but hasn’t fully returned…
This was to be expected, and I’m thrilled that Rodney Hood is back on the court and ready to play minutes to start the season. However, he doesn’t have the same bounce he had before his injury, and he’s clearly not his old self yet. He’ll likely need a minutes restriction early on, and it may take him a month or two to knock off the rust, get back in game shape, as well as get some of his bounciness back.
Hood isn’t a guy who relies heavily on athleticism. He’s comfortable spotting up on the perimeter and he relies more on using his body instead of athleticism in order to drive the lane. Therefore, I believe he’ll return to his old self in time. However, the one area in which he relies on athleticism the most is when he shoots the ball, especially on his mid-range pullups. Before his injury, Hood got a decent amount of lift on his jumper, and there’s a noticeable difference in that regard when watching him play this pre-season.
Once that returns, and once he’s fully comfortable back on the court, I expect him to be one of the best scoring options off the bench in the NBA. This pre-season made it evident that it’ll take some time for that to happen, and that fans need to be patient with Hood in the mean time.
The effort didn’t seem to be there…
There were multiple players that seemed to be simply going through the motions this pre-season, and on one-hand, I can’t blame them. It’s hard to get geared up from meaningless games as much as the ones that count, and it seemed like multiple veterans weren’t giving much effort at times. Jusuf Nurkic letting the not-so-fleet-footed Nikola Jokic blaze by him on a cut was a perfect example, and Terry Stotts rightfully chewed him out in the ensuing timeout. This play was a perfect microcosm of some of the sleep-walking the Blazers did throughout this pre-season.
You could blame it on a lack of conditioning, or the Blazers simply didn’t as much about the pre-season as the Denver Nuggets did. Either way, I expect a heightened level of intensity against the Utah Jazz on Wednesday.
Iso-ball still runs rampant…
I was hoping to see more ball and player-movement this pre-season. That didn’t happen, and the staggering amounts of iso-ball had me thoroughly disappointed. My optimistic side says that the Blazers were heavily focused on defense throughout training camp, therefore didn’t put in much work on the offensive side of the ball, and that Stotts’ didn’t want to give away some things they were going to try offensively before the start of the regular season. My pessimistic side says that this is the same stagnant, iso-heavy offense the Blazers have had for years, and there’s no reason to expect it’ll improve this season.
The reality likely lies somewhere in the middle: This is a team that’ll rank in the bottom 10 in assists, but shouldn’t be worse than the last-place ranked team we saw last season. The Blazers are incorporating new pieces and still need to build chemistry, and the defensive-emphasis probably led to some of the stagnant iso-ball we saw during the pre-season.
This needs to improve. The Blazers have been able to survive on an iso-heavy offense during the regular season, but a stagnant offense is easier to gameplan for and shut down in the playoffs, which has routinely happened to the Blazers over the years.
Harry Giles should be the backup center…
This take isn’t simply based on Giles looking fantastic and Enes Kanter looking awful during the pre-season. This take isn’t me saying Giles is necessarily better than Kanter. This take is predicated on what fits in with the other four players in the second unit.
The Blazers will likely runout a second unit of McCollum-Trent-Hood-Anthony-Kanter. That’s a ton of offensive fire-power and not a lot of defense. For defensive reasons, Giles deserves this spot. There’s also a lot of iso-heavy players in this lineup, and Kanter is one of them. He’s a good low-post threat and a guy you can dump the ball to, but that isn’t needed when you have the iso-heavy C.J. McCollum and Carmelo Anthony on the court. I’m not sure that Kanter makes a very offensively-talented second unit all that much better, and when looking at the defensive deficiencies of this group, the Blazers desperately need a center that provides a bit of rim protection and can do more than simply drop while defending the pick-n-roll.
I also like Giles passing in this unit more than Kanter’s, as Kanter was slow to make proper reads this pre-season. For a stagnant, iso-heavy offense, Giles’ passing is more beneficial than an old-school, back-it-down in the low post type of player. While Kanter will likely get the nod off the bench as the backup center, I think Giles is the better fit in this role and earned it with the skills he displayed this pre-season.