Portland Trail Blazers Early Season Preview

The 2023-24 Portland Trail Blazers are in a state of flux and have been ever since early July when point guard Damian Lillard demanded a trade.

After eleven seasons as the focal point of the Blazers, Lillard, a seven-time All-NBA member, asked management for the opportunity to play elsewhere, preferably with the Miami Heat. After signing a contract extension last summer that ties the point guard and the Trail Blazers together until the end of the 2026-27 season, amounting to $225 million, Lillard had hoped that the team would have upgraded the roster to be one that could compete for a championship. Clearly, this hasn’t happened.

As a team that struggles to attract elite free agents, the management team in Portland has made it obvious that they are going in the direction of a rebuild rather than a retooling.

The problem is that the return that they have been offered for the franchise’s greatest player is pennies on the dollar, which leaves the team in a state of flux as training camp starts in two weeks. So, with Lillard still on the roster, the team has the potential to be both young and exciting but far from a title contender.

Potential Starters

Many predict that Lillard will be traded before the start of training camp, or at worst, the start of the season, but don’t be surprised if General Manager Joe Cronin sticks to his guns for the best deal possible. That said, it is best to assume that #0 will be in his familiar spot in the lineup. Limited to just 58 games due to injury, Lillard still had his best NBA season, averaging 32.2 points, 6.7 assists, and 4.8 rebounds.

The biggest issue with Lillard remaining with the team is the logjam in the backcourt as Anfernee Simons was the team’s second-best option, posting the best numbers of his young five-year career. The issue is what to do with second-overall draft pick Scoot Henderson, a player many assume will replace Lillard once he is traded. While it would be fun to see Coach Chauncey Billups trot out a starting trio of Lillard, Henderson, and Simons, a 6’2”, 6’2”, and 6’3” backcourt won’t strike fear defensively.

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Despite being just twenty years old and only starting fifteen games in his rookie season, combo guard/forward Shaedon Sharpe’s production during the last ten games of the 2022-23 season should have earned him the opportunity to trot out with the starting unit to begin the season.

One cannot blame forward Jerami Grant for accepting the 5-year / $160 million deal the Blazers offered him this summer, even though many believe that money could have been spent better elsewhere. Shooting 48/40/81 percentages and averaging 20.5 points in his first season with Portland, Grant had his best statistical NBA season and is a great versatile option at either forward spot.
If only Jusuf Nurkic could remain healthy. Over his past four seasons in Portland, the “Bosnian Beast” has maxed out at 56 games. Capable of averaging a double-double in points and rebounds, Nurkic has the ability to play both in the paint and on the perimeter and provides a quality pick-and-roll partner for any of the Blazers’ guards.

Second Unit

Scoot Henderson, Matisse Thybulle, Kris Murray, Nassir Little, Kevin Knox. A few things that stand out about this list of names are that they all have less than five years of NBA experience and that nobody is taller than 6’8”.

Henderson has future star written all over him and when, not if, Lillard is traded, he will slot right into the starting point guard spot. But for now, he will likely lead the second unit. Thybulle has never been mistaken as a scorer, earning his way into the league on his defensive merit. Murray, twin brother of Sacramento Kings future star Keegan, both of which are soon to be among the best NBA players from Iowa, probably won’t have the same success as his brother but should get regular minutes off the bench at either forward spot. For more information: https://clutchbuzz.clutchbet.com/nba/best-nba-players-from-iowa/.

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Knox and Little have done little with their opportunity, be it in Portland or in Knox’s case New York, Atlanta, and Detroit. Both have shown glimpses of potential and just 24 and 23 years old, they need to show something with the young Blazers this season.

The absence of a quality backup big man will hurt the Blazers as their selection is limited to Duop Reath, who last played in the Chinese Basketball Association, Mose Brown who struggled in his time split between the LA Clippers and Brooklyn, Puerto Rican National Team center George Conditt and 7’1” Ibou Badji who signed a two-way contract with the team last season.

Outlook

Regardless of the package the Blazers get in return for Lillard (and potentially Nurkic), it wouldn’t be as surprising to see the team struggle for yet another season. If such is the case, adding another elite rookie such as Aday Mara, Matas Buzelis, or Justin Edwards will be the only thing that makes this bumpy and potentially painful season worthwhile.

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