Portland Trail Blazers

Portland Trail Blazers

When the Trail Blazers take the floor on opening night in Moda Center Thursday against the Los Angeles Lakers, it’s going to be a changed team.

And no, I’m not talking about just the change of a few players on the roster.  But that’s a part of it. Certainly the new players are a piece of a bigger plan.

The Trail Blazers are attempting to make a delicate change in a very basic part of the game – the balance between their offense and defense. And at this point it’s very difficult to predict how that change is going to work out.

The team has changed its offensive focus, vowing to shoot more three-point shots and to make more of them – and has backed that up by adding more three-point shooters to the roster.

Of course there’s an inevitability attached to that kind of move --- unless you’re adding high-priced, big-time players, when you add more offense, it very often costs you at the defensive end. And if you add more defense, well… you know the deal. It's a push-pull situation frequently. You add one thing and subtract another.

“Right now, I don’t think we’re as dialed in defensively as we were last season,” said Neil Olshey, the team’s president of basketball operations. “We’re trying to integrate new pieces. We’re trying to increase our three-point rate.

“We brought in more offensive-minded players and we’re transitioning from more defensive minded bigs, like Ed (Davis), to more offensive minded bigs, like Meyers (Leonard).”

Davis’ spot in the rotation will be likely be filled by Zach Collins, who, like Davis, can play both power forward and center.

“Zach’s impact is still 80 percent defense and 20 percent offense,” Olshey said. “The fourth big before was Zach, which was a real good partnership with Ed and that was a real good defensive unit. But now I think it’s going to be a totally different look if Meyers plays 5 with that group. His impact will be opening up the floor, range shooting, spacing.”

Especially when used in concert with newly acquired Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas.

“Seth and Nik give us a totally different element with Meyers, the way he shot the ball in preseason,” Olshey said. “We brought in guys who are going to make more of an impact at the offensive end.

“The new look guys make more of an impact with shooting and spacing, which to be honest, is what we needed. We finished eighth in defense (last season) but were down in the middle of the pack offensively at 13th.

“Our challenge was to add personnel who would give us a better chance at the offensive end, but we’re going to have to hold guys accountable at the defensive end.

“We want to be in the top 10 in both.”

The belief is that with the core players together for another season, the defense will be stable and the new players will provide the needed offensive boost.

“Defense, at times, is individual ability but a lot of times it is scheme and communication,” Olshey said. “The hope is that the consistency of bringing guys back for a third year will help us defensively.

“Offensively, we weren’t going to get better by osmosis. We had to get some more offensive players.”

And with mid-level exceptions or minimum salaries, that wasn’t easy. But the biggest immediate problem for the Blazers will be the possibility of not having Maurice Harkless available for early season games.

The analytics are very clear about the value of Harkless, who has missed the preseason schedule with knee and ankle soreness.

With Harklessas a starter last season, Portland went 24-12. The starters' net rating playing alongside him was plus 7.0. Harkless’ net rating after being put back in the starting lineup on Feb. 5 was plus 9.3. And after the all-star break he shot 55 percent from three-point range and 60 percent overall.

“Obviously the fly in the ointment is Moe,” Olshey said. “We are kind of preparing to play regular-season games without our starting small forward, who when we look at the impact he had when he was a starter as opposed to where we were when he wasn’t – that’s a big difference.

“But we’re pleased about the way Jake Layman has kind of seamlessly stepped into that role. He has shot the ball well. And we will have more support from the bench. Seth Curry finished out the preseason with the highest net rating of anybody on the roster.”

The balancing act starts Thursday night.