The Portland Trail Blazers’ All-pro point guard Damian Lillard is on the shortlist of MVP candidates going into the 2021-22 NBA season. Will the six-time All-Star be able to push Portland to a title run?
Are the Trail Blazers 2021-22 Championship Contenders?
Lillard finished the 2020-21 campaign seventh in the NBA MVP race. Portland fans are hoping that the perennial NBA first-teamer can repeat his offensive outburst from the first half of last season. Lillard averaged 31.5 points per game last January and kept that average above 30 through the All-Star Break. Although his numbers dropped a bit down the stretch, Lillard was spectacular again in the month of May, putting up 31.8 points and eight assists per game as the Trail Blazers fought for playoff positioning in the Western Conference.
Many were skeptical that Lillard might request a trade from Portland and his name has been mentioned in trade talks throughout the offseason. Contrary to these rumors, the Blazers’ main man seems to be poised to bring a title to Portland. After seeing Giannis Antetokounmpo win a championship with the Milwaukee Bucks last season, Lillard knows that his dreams of winning one for the team that drafted him sixth overall are still possible.
At 31 years old, Lillard is still in the midst of his prime. His window for an MVP may close in the next few years, but it is currently wide open. For those in states with legal online gambling, Lillard is currently ranked sixth in the MVP race, just above reigning MVP Nikola Jokic. With odds of +1400 and a probability of 4.46%, Lillard finds himself ahead of former MVPs LeBron James and James Harden as well. The Trail Blazers’ odds aren’t as good to start the season. At +8,000, the Blazers are 15th in the league currently. However, there are those around the league that believe Portland is primed for a Finals run this year.
The Right Supporting Cast?
The Trail Blazers lost two key contributors this offseason with the departures of Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter. While they will certainly miss Anthony’s shot creation and three-point range along with Kanter’s dominance on the offensive glass, both players are defensive liabilities. Portland looked to solve their defensive woes this summer. They started by re-signing Norman Powell, who should also flourish offensively with a full year alongside Lillard. The defensive specialist had career highs in points (18.6), assists (1.9), and steals (1.2) per game last season.
The Blazers added defensive depth and lineup flexibility when they traded Derrick Jones and a first-round pick for Larry Nance Jr. Nance is a great defender and can play the wing or the post. In addition to being a small-ball center for Portland, Nance will help spread the floor with his three-point range. The former Cleveland Cavalier shot a career-high 36% from beyond the arc last year. Portland replaced Kanter in the rotation by adding Cody Zeller in free agency. Zeller is a decent defender and a solid pick and roll partner for Lillard and CJ McCollum. Tony Snell will bring tough defense and smart offense in his limited role.
Starters Jusuf Nurkic and Robert Covington propelled the Trail Blazers into the top-five in defensive efficiency while on the floor together. With these two, Powell, and Nance, the Trail Blazers have the defensive-minded core players to build their new philosophy around.
The Wild (and Weakened) Western Conference
This year, some of the toughest teams in the western conference are dealing with major injuries to key starters. The Los Angeles Clippers will likely be without Kawhi Leonard for most of the regular season. The Denver Nuggets’ Jamal Murray is in a similar situation and there is still no firm timetable for Klay Thompson’s return to the Golden State Warriors.
Last year, the Bucks and Phoenix Suns showed the basketball world that talented teams with young cores could still make the NBA Finals in the age of super teams. Portland hopes to remind us all of that again in 2022. If Nurkic and McCollum Stay healthy and Lillard elevates his game to the MVP level, they could be the next team to shock the basketball world.
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