Key Storylines for the Blazers as Training Camp Approaches

Photo by Bruce Ely

Training camp signals the end of the dead period of the basketball calendar and the start of a new season brimming with new possibilities. After an off-season spent healing from physical, mental, and emotional ails, the players will have a few weeks to learn their new teammates and coaches and mesh together as a unit before the first regular-season game starts. 

Training camp begins on Tuesday September 28th, 2021. The Trail Blazers have yet to make any major changes to the core of their roster, but that’s not to say there haven’t been big changes elsewhere. Here are a few storylines that you may want to keep your eye on as training camp progresses:


Lillard’s commitment to the Blazers

This is not a storyline for now, but most likely would’ve been one had the star in question been anyone other than Damian Lillard.

Things could’ve gotten very ugly had the loyal Lillard gone the nuclear route and demanded a trade this off-season. If he was still on the roster, training camp would likely be overshadowed by his request, especially if he didn’t show up initially to camp like James Harden did last year with the Houston Rockets. 

Thankfully, Lillard is not like Harden. On Instagram a couple of weeks ago, he posted a picture of himself heading into the locker room, surrounded by the Rip City faithful with the caption, “Back for more… #RipCity is my city”. This post shows that he is ready to come back this season and give all he has on the court. Whether or not the Blazers will be good enough to convince him to stay beyond this season is yet to be seen. This will allow for the team to work on solving the issues on the court without needing to worry about a media circus off the court.


Who will be the final player(s) signed to the roster?

Training camp is a key tool which the front office will use to search for the last couple of additions to the main roster. The Blazers will be going into training camp with thirteen players officially signed to their roster. League rules require teams to have at least fourteen players signed at the start of the season and allow up to fifteen. This means that the Blazers must sign at least one more player but can still sign two more players if they choose to do so.

They have already signed a few intriguing players to non-guaranteed contracts. Those players will be competing for one of or both of those final roster spots. These names include Patrick Patterson, Marquese Chriss, Dennis Smith Jr., and Quinn Cook. 

Each player is interesting in a different way. Patterson is a veteran big who is a solid option to space the floor. Chriss is an energy big that thrives when his athleticism is used correctly. Smith Jr. is an uber-athletic guard who showed a lot of potential in high school but hasn’t quite been able to find that same level of success at the NBA level. Cook is a veteran guard who has championship-winning experience on two separate teams.

If signed, none of these guys will likely be a significant part of the rotation by any means, but any one of them would be a solid third string option to have in case of emergency. In past seasons the Blazers have struggled with depth issues after numerous injuries. It will be encouraging to see some solid role players propping up the end of the bench.


Will the Blazers pull off a trade for a star before the start of the season?

There have been rumors that certain star players are unsatisfied with the situation surrounding their teams. For example, Karl Anthony-Towns and Zion Williamson have been known to be unhappy with their situation, but those two are much less realistic of a potential target than Ben Simmons.

It’s no secret that the Philadelphia 76ers and Simmons are not on speaking terms. Simmons has made it clear that he does not want to play another game for the team. As training camp approaches, his trade value will continue to dwindle, and Philadelphia will get more desperate to move him and recoup as much value as possible. 

The Blazers have been linked to Simmons in trade conversations, but talks have stalled due to Philadelphia’s President of Basketball Operations, Daryl Morey, and his high asking price for Simmons. However, if Portland is going to make a big splash to bring in an upgrade of star talent, then their target will almost definitely be Simmons.

Of course, if Morey doesn’t want to come down on his asking price, then trading for Simmons could end up backfiring (trading for him is already risky enough) or not end up happening at all. Then there’s also the chance that Philadelphia gets a package they can’t refuse from another team. There are many ways this situation could end, and it’s not even out of the question to see Simmons playing for Philadelphia by the start of the season. If something happens, then it may not occur during training camp, but these conversations will be fluid, and it will be something to monitor as training camp progresses.


How long will it take for Billups to implement his new schemes?

Head Coach Chauncey Billups will have his work cut out for him heading into training camp. He will need to completely rework the defensive schemes and principles which have been ingrained into the team by former coach Terry Stotts. He will also need to work on implementing an offense more likely to be successful towards postseason winning. 

It’s not hyperbole to say this may be the most crucial training camp in the Lillard era. There is so much to learn and only a couple of weeks to practice. This camp will lay the foundation for the success or failure of the entire season. However, it’s not imperative that the Blazers come into the preseason firing on all cylinders.

We should be looking to see if the style of play has changed in a meaningful way. If it has, then we will know that the Blazers are on the right path. Even if they drop a few games out of the gate to start the season, as long as they are playing a style more conducive to winning, each loss early will leave them in a better state to win when it counts in late spring. 


How will Nurkic respond to his new role?

It sounds like Billups expects the Bosnian big man, Jusuf Nurkic, to be an essential weapon for the Blazers this season. When asked if he sees unrealized potential in the roster, Billups said this, “I think big Nurk is an asset. I think that he can score more than he has in the past. He’s a really good facilitator, moving him around, putting the ball in his hand, moving Dame and CJ off the ball a little bit.”

This was a quote from Billups back in June when he was hired by the team. It was probably music to Nurkic’s ears when he heard that Billups had an interest in utilizing him in a myriad of ways offensively this season. The offense under Stotts had never been particularly diverse, but it felt especially stagnant at times during the 2020-21 season. He was relying on the play of the star guards to do the bulk of the scoring.

This style of play allowed Nurkic only 9.0 FGA per game for the season, the fewest he had attempted since his time in Denver, which led to him averaging a very disappointing 11.5 ppg. In his time with the Blazers, he had always averaged between 11 to 14 field goal attempts per game. It’s no surprise that with being less involved in the offense that his production would also shrink.

Billups seems to want to encourage Nurkic to try and be a dominant post scorer and become a counterweight to Lillard and CJ McCollum’s outside scoring. The goal is to become a team that relies on its star guards to guide them but has a cast of solid to great role players who can be self-sufficient. Those two guards don’t need to be consistently spectacular to win games. 

It’s also clear that Billups believes that Nurkic’s passing will be a key to success. He wants to give him the ball in different spots on the court and use him to alleviate the pressure on Lillard and McCollum to get open. If the team can rely on Nurkic to make smart reads with the ball in his hand, then Lillard, McCollum, and other scoring options can use off-ball cuts and screens to get open looks and easier buckets. This will be a monumental task for the big man, but Billups believes Nurkic is capable.

Billups wants to build a team that can compete at the highest level, but it’s going to fall on Nurkic to reach his ceiling for that to happen. He won’t only need to be the team’s defensive anchor, but he will need to become an all-around offensive beast. If he can do that, there’s no telling what height Portland will reach this season.