Portland Trail Blazers: Steps to Contention

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The Portland Trail Blazers are in an interesting spot. They finished the 2019-20 regular season under .500, with a record of 35-39. That was good enough, however, to land them a place in the NBA playoffs after some stellar play in the league bubble. They lost in the first round in five games, albeit to a championship favorite in the Los Angeles Lakers. With all that being said, Portland needs to take a look at their roster and decide if they believe they are currently constructed to be more than just a playoff-qualifying team.

How the Portland Trail Blazers can Improve

Step One: Trade CJ McCollum

CJ McCollum‘s name is always involved in trade rumors. This is interesting because the Trail Blazers have never shown any real indication of wanting to trade him, and all signs point to him having a great relationship with superstar Damian Lillard. Their recent Twitter roast on the Los Angeles Clippers is just an example.

The question remains, however, of just how important McCollum is to the Trail Blazers. Lillard is obviously the heart of the team, and there to stay. Jusuf Nurkic was incredible in the bubble and reminded the league just how talented he is after his long injury hiatus. Gary Trent Jr shined as well, possibly making McCollum expendable at shooting guard.

Portland needs major help on the wing. The power forward spot can also use an upgrade due to Zach Collins becoming injury-prone. A McCollum trade can fill these voids, as he remains an incredibly valuable asset.

A few players who may be available through trade that would improve Portland include Jrue Holiday, John Collins, Aaron Gordon.

Holiday isn’t as a natural scorer like McCollum, but there’s no doubt that he can get buckets. He’s also a great ball-handler and passer, as he is a combo-guard. The best aspect of his game, however, is his defense. Holiday is one of the league’s elite perimeter defenders, and would always guard the opposition’s top scoring guard if playing for Portland.

Collins is a rising star for the Atlanta Hawks. With that being said, he is a free agent in 2021, and contract talks between him and Atlanta have stalled. If the Hawks decide to move on, getting McCollum in return would be ideal. Collins would form a strong defensive frontcourt alongside Nurkic, one capable of blocking any shot. More than that, he’s a great rim-runner offensively and is becoming a borderline elite three-point shooter.

Gordon is not as talented as a power forward as Collins but still has potential. A deal between him and McCollum would need to involve another quality Orlando Magic player.

Step Two: Improve the Wing Rotation

Portland’s biggest weakness is their wing play. If McCollum isn’t moved for a star in that position, then the Trail Blazers need to take another route. This season, their rotation consisted of Trevor Ariza and Mario HezonjaCarmelo Anthony played small forward when Collins was healthy. The three aren’t great, simply said.

Ariza is aging and doesn’t provide much. Unfortunately, his contract might make him difficult to move. Hezonja is decent, but shouldn’t play extended minutes. His status is still unclear, however, as he has a player option for this offseason. Anthony silenced his doubters and is worth bringing back for the right price, but ideally coming off the bench. Lastly, Portland does have Rodney Hood, who will likely accept his player option, but it remains to be seen how healthy he is.

If Portland makes some moves here and there, there will be plenty of affordable wing options in free agency to take a look at. These players include DeAndre’ BembryMichael Kidd-GilchristTorrey CraigJustin HolidayDerrick JonesMaurice Harkless, and Alec Burks.

Out of those options, Holiday and Burks stand out as the most intriguing. Holiday is coming off a very solid season off the bench for the Indiana Pacers and proved in the bubble that he’s worth taking a look at for a larger role. He averaged 8 points and 3 rebounds per game on nearly 41 percent shooting from three.

Burks is slightly larger and more physical, and also a more talented scorer. Splitting time on the Golden State Warriors and Philadelphia 76ers, he put up averages of 15 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists per game this season. This also came on a solid shooting split of roughly 42-39-89.

Step Three: The Portland Trail Blazers Must Extend the Roles of Two Budding Young Players

Trent Jr and Anfernee Simons have all the makings of very good players. They’re both just 21-years-old and are already valuable role players.

Trent Jr shined in the bubble. In a win versus the Denver Nuggets, he had 27 points on 7-10 three-point shooting. In a close loss versus the Clippers, he had 22 points on 6-10 three-point shooting. All in all, he averaged 9 points and a steal per game this season, on a shooting split of 44-42-82. This came after his minutes per game jumped to 22 after just 7 his rookie season. Trent Jr is the definition of an up-and-coming “three-and-d” star.

Simons is an explosive young point guard. This season he averaged 8 points and 2 rebounds per game in20 minutes on the floor. What makes him special, however, is his elite athleticism and speed. He’s nearly impossible to stop when he’s sprinting towards the basket or in the air. He does, however, need to improve his patience and shooting. His play can get a tad sloppy at times. As mentioned earlier, however, he’s just 21 and this will change. It also helps that he has Lillard as a mentor.

The two young players were both drafted by Portland in 2018. Both of their minutes took a massive jump from their rookie season to this season and needs to happen again next season. If they can hit the 25-27 minutes mark per game, then they are going to improve drastically. This helps Portland in both the present and future.

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