With Damian Lillard trade rumors on the rise after another disappointing first round exit, many expected the Blazers to make significant roster moves to shake up their core and potentially move on from CJ McCollum as Lillard’s backcourt mate. However, the Blazers seem to be running it back with a retooled bench along with changing the entire coaching staff, causing many Blazer fans to worry about the future of the team’s superstar player.
It seems that the Blazers are looking internally for improvement within their starting lineup. They have some good young talent off the bench in Simons and Little, but the cornerstones of the franchise, Lillard and McCollum, seem to better themselves each year. What can the starters do to improve this year and justify sticking with the same starters that couldn’t get it done in the playoffs? What improvements to their game can they make to take this team a step closer to becoming legitimate championship contenders?
Damian Lillard – Off-Ball Movement
Lillard is the face of the franchise and a top-ten player in the league. As great as he is, there are still aspects of his craft that can be improved. The biggest hole in Lillard’s game is his defense or lack thereof. However, his defense likely will not drastically improve over one offseason so I focused on a different area. An aspect of his game that I think can reasonably be improved and have a significant impact on the success of the team is his off-ball movement.
Much like Steph Curry, Lillard demands an entire defense to pay attention to him no matter where he is on the court. Curry is one of the best movers off the ball and will sometimes use multiple screens to get an open look. It may be a product of the system he has been a part of or a lack of a secondary playmaker, but Lillard has never been utilized much off the ball. Being an elite off-ball player isn’t necessarily about finding your own looks. If Lillard manages to come to a higher understanding of the gravity he demands at all times, it could be used more frequently to help get his teammates open.
Looking back at the Denver series, Jokic played a vital part in getting his teammates going. The reason the Nuggets were able to get big performances from Monte Morris, Austin Rivers, and Micheal Porter Jr was because of how the Blazers defended Jokic. Nurkic refused to leave Jokic on screens and it hurt the Blazers guards who were tasked with getting through those screens. During both overtimes of Lillard’s historic Game 5 performance, he didn’t make one cut or set one off-ball screen even though there were possessions where he was denied the ball as soon as he crossed into the frontcourt. Obviously some of the blame can go on then Head Coach Terry Stotts but Lillard also needs to learn how to deal with this pressure to get better looks for both himself and his teammates.
Early this season, keep an eye on how Lillard moves without the ball. Watch to see if he sprints to off-ball screens or explodes in back cuts and curl cuts. This will be the key to him getting our offense to the next level especially with expectations that Jusuf Nurkic will be more of a facilitator.
CJ McCollum – Aggressive Defense
CJ McCollum has rightfully drawn a lot of blame as a reason why the Blazers struggle defensively. Since he won’t grow a couple inches to help him become a great defender by next season, what can he do better to make it tough on the opposing team?
The Blazers have two great help defenders at the power forward and center spots in Robert Covington and Jusuf Nurkic. Having these two special defensive players theoretically should allow the perimeter defenders to play aggressive, run their man off the three-point line, and then scramble when rotating.
McCollum at times can be very passive defensively. Opposing teams often target him specifically in their offensive game plans. To counter this, McCollum should look to play very aggressively on the defensive end. This can disrupt the offensive team and take them out of their action as well as force some turnovers for easy transition baskets.
Last season, McCollum averaged 34 minutes per contest but only picked up 1.9 fouls per game. The Blazers obviously don’t want their star guard getting into foul trouble but these numbers certainly suggest that he could pick up another foul each game if it meant creating turnovers and tougher looks for the opponent.
When talking about the small starting lineup that the Blazers have, new Head Coach Chauncey Billups said, “On the defensive end, we gotta be a little scrappy.” Hopefully, this means that the guards will be more aggressive and try to use their speed to their advantage when jumping passing lanes, rotating on defense, and getting easy transition looks off of that pressure.
Although undersized, McCollum definitely has the competitiveness to disrupt his matchup. His hands aren’t terrible defensively and he has made some very nice defensive plays in his career including blocks on Paul George and Jamal Murray during the 2019 Conference Finals run. Sometimes it isn’t about the size of the dog in the fight, it’s about the size of the fight in the dog.
Norman Powell – Drive and Kicks
Coming off an off-season where he signed a 5 year, $90 million dollar deal, Norman Powell could be a key piece for the Blazers’ championship hopes. Although he is undersized for small forwards, he can use his 6’11 wingspan to lock up opposing small forwards and make a significant defensive impact. Not only is he a valuable defender, he is also a great offensive player averaging 18.6 points per game last season. Although, one aspect of his game that he could improve is his passing off of penetration.
Powell is a great slasher, whether that be on a cut or on a drive. He can get to the paint at will taking 46.6% of his shots within 10 feet. He usually does a very good job finishing at the rim making 64.7% of his looks that come within 3 feet of the hoop. In his 27 games with the Blazers, his efficiency from 3-10 feet was below average for his standards. He shot 32.3% from this range in his stint with the Blazers, much lower than the 41.6% he shot from that range throughout his entire season.
While he should be able to get his efficiency back to a normal level, he should also focus on developing his passing ability. With Billups expected to play a style of basketball reliant on drive and kicks, Powell has yet to record over 2 assists per game in his career. He has a special ability to collapse the defense and with shooters like Lillard, McCollum, and Covington surrounding him, look for him to create for others this season.
A realistic goal for him is to average 3 to 4 assists per game. In a ball movement oriented offense that Coach Billups will run, he may get some hockey assists or get more assists just playing within the offense. Either way, Powell can be a massive threat to defenses if he can find the open man when help comes to make his drives more difficult. Even Powell himself has said that he has the ability to do this but hasn’t had the situation require it in his career so far. Let’s hope he’s accurate in that assessment.
Robert Covington – Getting to the Basket
Robert Covington has always been a piece that many Blazers fans have wanted to put alongside their star backcourt due to his ability to defend and knock down the three. Although, there is more to Covington’s game than that. He is also solid in straight line drives often being a reliable finisher at the basket or he has the ability to make simple reads.
This season, Covington had career lows in efficiency from 0-3 feet, 3-10 feet, and 10-16 feet. He also took just 2.2 two pointers a game which is well below his career average of 3.6 and he attempted a career low in free throws.
Covington needs to be more confident with his decision-making and play aggressively on offense. Throughout his career, he has been good around the rim and hopefully he can find his confidence attacking the rim this year under Billups.
In a drive and kick style offense, expect Covington to be opportunistic on drives to the basket and look for him to finish over defenders. This would help the Blazers become a very versatile offensive team and make Lillard, McCollum, and Powell even harder to guard with the additional threat of Covington.
Jusuf Nurkic – Finishing Footwork
One of the biggest annoyances of Blazers fans is Jusuf Nurkic’s inability to finish around the rim. He is a below average finisher at the rim for his position and was 10% less efficient than Kanter last season from 0-3 feet. Although, he has shown improvement in this area averaging a career high from 3-10 feet this season.
With Nurkic, his touch doesn’t seem to be the issue. He is really coordinated for someone his size shown through his passing ability and he has developed some shooting capabilities from three. I believe his biggest issue is his lack of balance around the rim and his sometimes casual approach to layups. He sometimes attempts post hooks falling away from the basket and can get called for charging fouls when help arrives.
One reason for this is that Nurkic seems to favour his right hand when finishing and it can make him predictable. On the block, he either goes to his baseline spin right hand layup or he takes a couple of dribbles and takes a right handed hook from the middle of the lane. Go to these moves too much and it makes the defender force him into tougher looks easier.
If Nurkic can develop a nice side step layup, another go-to post move or two like a step through, and focuses on getting his momentum toward the hoop on shot attempts, he definitely has the size and touch to finish at the rim at no less than a 65% clip next season. This can take his game to the next level and help push the Blazers into contender status.