Dane Delgado

What are the realistic expectations for the Blazers in the new wild, wild West?

What are the realistic expectations for the Blazers in the new wild, wild West?

There needs to be some caution issued here. Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu were not very good 3-point shooters, at least not on a consistent basis. Each of those players had a habit of fumbling away opportunities created by Lillard and McCollum, decreasing the overall efficacy of when those players attacked opposing defenses. But it's not as though the players Portland added are knockdown shooters. Although they've had good overall percentages in the past, both Rodney Hood and Kent Bazemore have struggled in shooting above-the-break threes — Hood shot 33.5 percent last year and Bazemore 32.1 percent. That’s real area of need, and where both Harkless and Aminu shot a vast majority of their 3-point attempts off looks created by Portland’s star guards in 2018-19.

Then there's the handing over of two critical roles to unproven players. Zach Collins takes over the power forward spot from Aminu, playing out of position. Collins could eventually be a better 3-point shooter than Aminu, and his size inside could lead to more offensive rebounding and new passing lanes as defenses collapse down on him vs. smaller forwards. But he's also a legitimate 7-footer, and his foot speed is not up to snuff. He's going to foul more than Aminu did at that position last year — probably by a lot — and Terry Stotts is going to have to do some fancy rotation math to make sure his team doesn't get burned defensively by stretch fours.

Anfernee Simons fails in this category as well. The backup point guard position has been important to the Blazers for some time, and although he showed flashes of brilliance and innate talent, it's not clear whether the 20-year-old Simons is ready for this load. He doesn't have a choice, and he knows he has to play smart at this year. It can't just be all about Anfernee. As he tries to find a balance between when to score and when to pass, there will be moments of indecision that hurt Portland.

This is before we get to Hassan Whiteside, who doesn't have the passing acumen of Jusuf Nurkic. That was a big part of how Portland's offense operated last year, and how the Blazers finally found some relief for Lillard and McCollum. Whiteside has talked up his ability to pass the ball in practice thus far, but until we see it consistently over the course of the season, we don't know how he will fare. It's unlikely he will contribute they're the way that Nurkic did. There's also concerns about Whiteside’s attitude and commitment, although I'm leaning toward his needing a new contract at age 30 trumping all other bad habits of his.

Contextually, the Western Conference is more open. There are good teams. The Los Angeles Clippers are now the squad to beat, with both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Warriors won't be going anywhere, but they are not the best team as we start 2019-20. The fact that the West doesn't have a singularly dominant team is about as much as you can hope for. I also have my concerns about whether some teams with high offseason praise can live up to expectations — stop me if you’ve heard this about LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers before.

Even with the amount of turnover on the banks of the Willamette, there's so much consistent team culture and chemistry in Portland that it's hard to refute they have an advantage over their rivals. It was that consistency and leadership that led them to a hot start last year, at one point taking over the top spot in the Western Conference. Lillard, McCollum, and Stotts remain, and so too does Portland's optimism.

Expectations are a funny thing to wrangle. In a column like this, it's often read as needing to predict the most likely outcome. The reality is that Portland is a team of high variability. The biggest concern is defense, not just from a rotation standpoint but from a personnel one. The Blazers were in the middle of the pack last year in defense, and they lost two of their best defenders. In their stead stand several players who have not worked together on an NBA floor yet. That's really hard to put full confidence into.

But the Blazers are a team of talent, and when they say that talent isn't everything, they mean that leadership must follow. Portland is nothing if but a team of leaders. Their challengers for the middle of the pack in the West —  Utah, San Antonio, Denver, Sacramento, and the Lakers — all have massive concerns of their own. The expectation for Portland this year is that they end up battling once more for a home court advantage playoff spot. The reality is that they will need to jell together faster than the rivals listed above if they want to find their way to playoff success for a seventh straight season. 

Anthony Tolliver slots right in to what the Blazers have been doing on offense for years

Anthony Tolliver slots right in to what the Blazers have been doing on offense for years

Anthony Tolliver has been a Portland Trail Blazer before, albeit very briefly. He's now one of the oldest players on the team at age 34, and he brings shooting at the power forward position. Up until last season, Tolliver has been a pretty reasonable contributor at a low rate. So what will he offer Portland this year, and should we be afraid of his age?

That's the real question both Blazers fans and the coaching staff will try to answer early in the season. With Al-Farouq Aminu gone, the theory behind the front court rotation has changed along with all the new faces. It will help that Tolliver has been an almost exclusively 3-point shooting big man in recent memory. In fact, in the past eight seasons, Tolliver has shot 50% or more of his field goal attempts as 3-pointers. That's sort of ahead of the curve, and it's made him valuable well into his 30s.

One thing I did notice while watching tape of Tolliver — mostly from two years ago when he was better utilized in Detroit — was just how much the Pistons put him into Horns sets that are similar to what he’ll experience with the Blazers. 

Check out the full video above to see some of the sets the Pistons ran that are similar to what Portland does, and to see what else the Blazers can use from the sharpshooting forward.

With new faces and better shooting, can the Trail Blazers rely less on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum?

With new faces and better shooting, can the Trail Blazers rely less on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum?

The Portland Trail Blazers have been a good 3-point shooting team in years past. Well, their stars have been. Terry Stotts has relied largely on both Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to carry the load for them on that end of the floor. But now there is a glut of new wing and front court players in Portland, many of whom might be able to take some of the pressure off of Portland's stars to start the year.

Things will start from the inside out, where Zach Collins will need to shore things up. Collins will play a bigger role this year, starting at power forward, and he didn't shoot a very good percentage at the rim relative to other centers in 2018-19. 

Oddly enough, this could be compounded to start 2019-20 by both CJ and Damian. According to Cleaning the Glass, they both ranked in the lower percentiles for for guards when it came to shooting at the rim last season. But their attacking is a function of how the Trail Blazers offense works, and how the team garners free throws, which are each important in their own right. You can't really change how Lillard and McCollum plays at this point, and so it's up to other teammates to make up for them at the rim.

Alongside Collins' individual improvement could be another solution at the rim: the fastbreak. Portland was 29th in frequency in transition last season, but they were a whopping 6th in points per play. That's some untapped potential, particularly off defensive rebounds.

Then there's what Portland can do with 3-pointers, how Kent Bazemore can act as a one-man wrecking crew... the list goes on. I'm excited about how this team can look different on offense this year, and more dynamic. The real question is whether Stotts recognizes the need to break out of his shell a little bit.

Watch the full breakdown above to see all the ways the Blazers can contribute on offense outside of Lillard and McCollum.

In preseason action, the Blazers are showing us who they're going to be this year

In preseason action, the Blazers are showing us who they're going to be this year

After a few Portland Trail Blazers preseason games, their offense looks much the same. The bones of what Terry Stotts puts onto the court in his Flow system still underpin their success; High post screeners set picks for guards arcing around the 3-point line; Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum penetrate deep off the pick-and-roll; shooters float to the edges. It's all there, but so too have changes come now that several former high-volume players have been painted out of the picture.

Most notable has been the change at the wing position. Rodney Hood looks a bit more comfortable now that he's signed a new contract and he knows he's going to stay with the Blazers. In the preseason action we've seen already, Hood has done quite a bit of dribbling, an interesting addition given how many minutes we expect him to play with both Lillard and McCollum.

Before every season there's always talk about this being the year Portland's star guards start moving off-ball in the manner of the Golden State Warriors. But inevitably, as the season wears on and as games become more important, the ball ends up in the hands of either of the Blazers’ $100 million dollar men. The idea that Hood could change that dynamic is intriguing at this juncture, and a level of dynamism that perhaps we hadn't considered.

Having a third ball handler was all the Blazers could talk about when discussing Evan Turner a few years back. But Turner couldn't shoot, and it took several seasons just to find where he was most effective, in a bench role as that unit’s point guard. Meanwhile, a lot of analysis up to this point — including my own — has been about the direct shooting impact of Hood and Kent Bazemore. But if Portland can finally have a third ball handler on the floor, it will make it more difficult for opposing defenses to key in on Lillard and McCollum. That frees them up to, finally, act more as off-ball shooters. Even if it's not in set plays, Hood ability to run a pick-and-roll in unstructured half court sets naturally turns Portland's stars into off-ball gunners.

That's been a welcome combination with Bazemore's aggressiveness. As soon as the former Atlanta Hawks wing checked in with five minutes to go in the first game of the preseason, we saw what kind of impact his athleticism can have. Film analysis of Bazemore's game shows he's been one of the best steal men in the NBA, but what might be a great advantage to the Blazers this year is his propensity to dribble up the floor off turnovers and defensive rebounds alike.

Much in the same vein of how Draymond Green beat these Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals last year, Bazemore has the dexterity and size to grab boards himself and change the floor all at pace. This caused serious issues for the Denver Nuggets last week. Portland has played quick in practice this fall, and Bazemore could be an important factor in transition plays not led by McCollum or Lillard.

There's been a lot of positives to point to already, and the negatives haven't been that stark. The largest, glaring hole has been Hassan Whiteside, who's looked a bit lacking in energy to start the preseason. The team will chalk that up to the ankle injury he sustained in early October. Indeed, there were times when Whiteside’s looked like he wasn't willing to battle for position, and didn't hustle for possession on either side of the ball. But until we see a sustained version of Whiteside that looks like this, there's no sense rushing to predict a falling sky.

On the positive side, Whiteside does appear to have adapted to Portland's offense already. His passing hasn't been as crisp as you'd hope, but he knows how to set screens and is active in his second and third action as plays progress. Hitting the right windows in the passing game is all about timing, and Whiteside just hasn't had enough time working with his teammates or playing in Stotts’ offense to make a judgment on his efficacy just yet. If anything, his flubs have been expected, and the reason why the preseason exists is to iron out those wrinkles.

That same perspective can be applied to Portland on the defensive end of the floor, where there have already been some signs of hope. Both Zach Collins and Whiteside are so damn big that it’s made it difficult for teams to grab defensive rebounds even when they’ve positioned themselves well. This could not only lead to additional offensive chances for Portland, but slow opponents down in transition. The longer teams have to battle the two giants for rebounds, the less likely it is they get down on the floor and catch the rest of the Blazers off guard.

Preseason usually isn't one of my favorite times of the year. Fans gets all excited for basketball, but those of us working in media who have done this before are really waiting for Game 1 of 82 (Or perhaps the All-Star break). But this year in Portland is different, largely because much of this roster is different. The Blazers are a team of intrigue, and already in this short preseason have shown us a little bit of who they are going to be. The constituent parts are there, now we just need to see them hone themselves into a playoff contender. 

At age 39, can Pau Gasol contribute to the Trail Blazers' front court?

At age 39, can Pau Gasol contribute to the Trail Blazers' front court?

Pau Gasol has been on the Portland Trail Blazers’ radar for some time, and now they finally have him. The only problem is that the Spanish veteran is 39 years old, and it's not clear what he's going to bring to Portland on the court.

Gasol had an injury-plagued season last year, but his advanced statistic show that he could still be useful in short bursts off the bench. His assist to usage percentage is still quite good, and he remains a high value over replacement player. With Hassan Whiteside filling in for Jusuf Nurkic, Gasol could allow Portland to run more of its high post passing plays from last season due to his ability to create assists from the 5 spot.

Gasol is a reasonable enough mid-range shooter, and remains a high-percentage guy at the rim. He's also got the ability to step out and hit some 3-pointers, which may not be exactly what Terry Stotts wants from him, but it could allow more passing lanes for his bench teammates.

On defense, Gasol is a reasonable block percentage player. He still shows the ability to get into lanes and slyly bat away attempts, which should be good enough as he goes against opposing backup players this year. I wouldn't expect him to be the kind of block machine that Hassan Whiteside will be, but Gasol plays smart and that's why he might also be able to stop the bleeding if Zach Collins or Whiteside get into foul trouble.

There's a lot of good to Gasol. There's also real injury concerns, and with them, questions about his role for Portland. Watch the full video breakdown above to see what Gasol brings to the table.

Impact or not, what do the Trail Blazers see in Mario Hezonja?

Impact or not, what do the Trail Blazers see in Mario Hezonja?

The Portland Trail Blazers don't know what they have with Mario Hezonja just yet. The former No. 5 overall pick is a reclamation project, a low risk, medium reward type of player who might just be another of Neil Olshey’s diamonds in the rough.

Last season for the New York Knicks, Hezonja saw some improvement in his game. Whether that can continue with Portland, particularly considering the bevy of wing players the team now has, is a serious question. If Hezonja can’t get ample playing time, will the team culture and coaching staff be enough to coax him along his way?

In contrast to some of his teammates, Hezonja is surprisingly not a very good 3-point shooter. What he does bring to the table is a willingness to push the pace and drive the ball. He's also a very useful passer on the wing, something Portland's bench unit might end up needing over the course of this year.

All that being said, there is no doubt that Hezonja is still a prospect. Every roster needs minimum salary players, and Olshey was smart to pick up a guy with lots of potential and who at his very worst will simply warm the bench if he doesn’t work out.

Check out the full video breakdown above to see what Hezonja brings to the table, and why Portland has sneakily been excited about bringing him to Rip City for the past couple of seasons. 

How do we curb our expectations for Anfernee Simons?

How do we curb our expectations for Anfernee Simons?

Seth Curry had a good enough season last year for the Portland Trail Blazers that he garnered a huge, 4-year contract with the Dallas Mavericks worth $32 million. With Curry now in Texas, second year Blazers guard Anfernee Simons is set to step up in a big way as the backup for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Sights are set high for Simons, who has drawn attention from around the league. General Manager Neil Olshey has said of Simons that, “He's as talented as anyone we've ever drafted since I've been here.”

But set aside all the hype around Simons for a minute: the truth is that Portland needs him to perform.

Last season for the Blazers, Simons was a lengthy and interesting athletic scorer who was at the heart of one of the most memorable regular season feats in recent memory. In the last game of the year against the Sacramento Kings, Simons exploded for 37 points in a win that propelled the Blazers into a playoff bracket that did not include the Golden State Warriors. Although Terry Stotts and his staff appeared to be trying to lose the game, Simons’ outburst was arguably what aligned Portland’s run to the Western Conference Finals in 2019.

All that aside, Simons did show some offensive bursts during his 12 games of play last year. He shot 43% of his field goal attempts from beyond the 3-point line, with an effective field goal percentage of 59%. Simons didn't attack the rim with much tenacity — he went to the bucket just 22% of the time — but when he did, he was absolutely lights out at 86%.

For us in the external viewing world, much of this can be taken with a humongous, Big Pink-sized lump of salt. The sample size, as they say, is extremely small for Simons in the NBA. There's not much to suggest that he is ready to take on roll occupied by Curry based off of his NBA performances.

There's also something to be said about what Simons lacks. As a 20-year-old, he’s still getting a feel for the game. It will take him some time to get up to speed on defense, although as a backup player that will be less relied upon in 2019-20. Simons has not yet filled out, and his defensive box plus-minus from last year left something to be desired — specifically given that he played against third-string players. But there are some positives when it comes to Simons’ defense, too. His foul rate isn't particularly egregious, and his ridiculous wingspan should allow for him to grow into a defensive presence in the future.

As a team, Portland is going to be much different defensively this year. Gone are both Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu, two of the Blazers’ most important defenders. In their place will be Rodney Hood, Kent Bazemore, and Zach Collins. That's before we even get to the Jusuf Nurkic-for-Hassan Whiteside swap, which has all kinds of connotations both statistically and from an on-off perspective.

If you were planning on the Blazers being a worse defensive team this season, that's probably the right call. Forget the fact that Portland lost some of its most important defenders — they just have too many new faces to be a top-notch defensive team right away. And while defense could mean a serious change in where the Blazers land in the playoff race this season, it's unlikely that Simons would have made an impact there one way or another.

Simon said this summer that the game has started to slow down for him, and that he's trying to work on both pace and making sure he's acting as a point guard and not just as a scoring ball-handler. Stotts has to also make sure that Simons is looking at his return on the defensive end. These are all good signs for 2019-20.

Portland fans are riding high after that Western Conference Finals run last season, and the team has publicly stated that their goal is to return back to that level or higher. Fans around town seem hopeful that they can reproduce the same kind of magic, particularly once Nurkic returns from injury. The height to clear that bar might be untenable, and for Simons that could spell trouble.

The Blazers have typically stocked a useful veteran ball handler behind Lillard and McCollum, but this season will be all on Simons. Fans should expect to see a lot of him... and a lot of mistakes. As a young guard in the NBA, his biggest deficiency will be in passing choice when it comes to turnovers and defensive lapses as it relates to guarding increasingly better players.

But Simons is a thoughtful kid, and the team culture here in Portland should produce some positives, too. In particular, I think we'll see less of the singularly-minded, attacking Simons that we seen in the past. Instead, I expect him to be a director of men out on the floor, and an ample 3-point shooting threat as a release valve.

For now, this is the best roster that Olshey could put together. Aminu and Harkless are gone, and in many ways this is the team that many have been clamoring for. It’s time to fish or cut bait, and Olshey decided to cut bait. Now a vocal chorus will get their wish, to see the young Simons in a featured role. It could be a bumpy ride, not just for Simons but for the team. The odds have been stacked against Blazers guards before, and the only way to see what you’ve got is to play the minutes.

Simons will get plenty of those this year.

What are Hassan Whiteside's weaknesses, and how will they affect the Blazers?

What are Hassan Whiteside's weaknesses, and how will they affect the Blazers?

Hassan Whiteside is set to take over for Jusuf Nurkic at the center position to start this year for the Portland Trail Blazers. We've already talked about Whiteside’s strengths, and they include excellent shooting close-in and the ability to create additional possessions for Portland thanks to his rim defense.

But Whiteside arrives in the Willamette Valley with significant baggage. There are questions about his coachability, viability as a passer, and whether his impressive defensive statistics actually mean a better performance for his teams.

With that in mind, this week we are taking a look at some of Whiteside’s weaknesses, and how much Blazers fans might need to be concerned about those issues.

No doubt Portlanders are hoping that the team chemistry and organizational support —  mixed with Whiteside being in a contract year —  will push him to new heights in 2019-20.

For now, take a look at some of what Whiteside needs to improve upon as he tries to help Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum back to the Western Conference Finals next spring.

Watch the video above to get the full breakdown. 

Not just a shooter: Kent Bazemore will bring so much more to the Blazers

Not just a shooter: Kent Bazemore will bring so much more to the Blazers

Kent Bazemore was brought in this summer to freshen up a Portland Trail Blazers wing lineup that had stood languid over the past few seasons. The hope, mostly, is that the lanky former Atlanta Hawks player will be able to provide some shooting where both Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu did not.

I have my questions about whether Bazemore will be the kind of knock down shooter that Blazers fans are hoping for. But despite that, Bazemore remains a useful NBA player.

There are several skills that Bazemore brings to the table, including defense, passing, and the ability to draw additional fouls. Those are all things that Portland really could have used last year, and I’m very much interested in seeing how that versatility effects what the Blazers offer on both sides of the ball.

For now, take a look at the kinds of skills Bazemore should add to Portland this season by watching the full video breakdown above. 

Unless Rodney Hood becomes a knockdown shooter, it could be the same old story for the Blazers

Unless Rodney Hood becomes a knockdown shooter, it could be the same old story for the Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers have a much different wing lineup than they had last year. Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Seth Curry, and Jake Layman are all on different teams. Instead, Portland will need to rely on Rodney Hood, Kent Bazemore, and an increased minute load for Anfernee Simons. Folks in Rip City are excited — and they should be — about the prospect of Simons getting a more featured role in the absence of Curry. But less exciting and more critical to Portland's starting rotation success is Hood, and how he shoots the ball.

The 26-year-old veteran will take on a majority starting role for the first time since his third season with the Utah Jazz. When Portland swapped Hood for Wade Baldwin and Nik Stauskas last February, they deployed him as a backup wing who could add some ball handling to a lineup led by Evan Turner.

Hood stands to start this season for the Trail Blazers as its opening day small forward. With Zach Collins the likely starting power forward (not to mention Hassan Whiteside at Center) reliance on Hood’s contributions will be outsized.

To that end, there are some questions.

First, Hood was not the most effective on/off player for the Blazers last year. That could be chalked up to that short stretch of time spent with the team, but it also could be that he’s topped out in terms of his potential.

Numbers from Cleaning the Glass suggest that lineups with Hood at the small forward did not thrive last year. As a team, the Blazers were good enough in the mid-range, but the effective field-goal and at-rim percentages for Portland dipped with Hood at the 3.  This lineup performance differential has been the case for much of Hood’s career, and so there’s concern that the Blazers may suffer if he starts at forward instead of at guard.

Defensively, the Blazers don’t have much of a choice of where to plunk Hood. McCollum can’t guard forwards, and so the 6-foot-8 Hood will carry that load. But the good news is that the delineation between guard and small forward in Portland's offense has not been as stark as it’s been on other teams. That's partly because of how Stotts likes to operate, and partly because Portland hasn't had a traditional, high-caliber small forward in that starting role. On offense, we should expect Stotts to deploy Hood more as a typical guard, and much like his backup Kent Bazemore, that will mean that Hood needs to become a more effective shooter in a 2019-20.

[MORE: Best Bytes: The ultimate Trail Blazers Media Day Compilation]

Hood was reasonable enough from deep for the Blazers last season, knocking down 35% of his shots during his time in Rip City. That improved to 38% on corner threes, which wasn't great for his position but was still useful for Portland. The issue was that, while playing for the Blazers, Hood took almost three times more above-the-break threes than shots in the corner. He knocked down a dismal 32.3 percent from the curved part of the arc, which just wasn’t good enough.

Portland needed to move on from some of its old core players. Aminu was going to be too expensive and Harkless never rounded into shape. Fans finally got what they’d been clamoring for, and thus a new group of wing players was brought in by Neil Olshey. But the Blazers have needed 3-point shooting from their wings in a way that is not easy to just add out of the blue. Looking at how Hood has performed statistically, it's not clear that he's ready to take the next step up and fill the role of knockdown shooter just yet.

Adding Whiteside to Portland’s offense — no matter how much he talks about being able to pass the ball — truncates the geometry of opposing defenses. With his thumb hopefully healed, Collins should be able to stretch the floor a little bit to make up for that. But Hood, and to a lesser extent Bazemore, must knock down shots at an above-average clip for things to work out this year for the Blazers.

Defensively, Hood is ready to take on NBA wings best he can. Collins and Whiteside will back him up, there. But on offense is where the true test lies, and if he’s playing small forward his dribbling skills will be de-emphasized. If Rodney Hood can’t find a way to cure his shooting stroke from above the arc, it could mean the same old story for Portland despite all the fresh faces.