PORTLAND, Ore. — This week, the Portland Trail Blazers commenced its 50th anniversary season and embraced a goal that has eluded the franchise for more than 40 years.
On Tuesday, the preseason tipped off with a fun-filled night at Memorial Coliseum. The Blazers wore throwback jerseys, the coaches donned slick 70s attire, and a handful of Blazers legends were in the house. The fans were treated to energetic debuts from Mario Hezonja and Kent Bazemore in an exhibition game against the Denver Nuggets. A good time was had by all.
That same day, Jason Quick of The Athletic published an article about the team's unapologetic, public expression of its goal to win a championship this season. At the Blazers' team dinner before the start of the season, even head coach Terry Stotts, "a measured man" who "speaks carefully," said it was time for the Blazers to embrace a championship mentality. "We have a roster that warrants it," he said.
On this week's episode of the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast, we discuss whether the Blazers are championship contenders this season, dissect Portland's first preseason game, and talk about what we hope to see in the Blazers' four remaining preseason games.
Listen to the most recent episode of KGW's 3-on-3 Blazers podcast!
1. There's been a lot of talk about championship aspirations in the lead-up to this season. Neil Olshey, Terry Stotts, Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Kent Bazemore have all spoken openly about the Blazers' championship goal this season. Do you agree? Does Portland have a championship roster? Are the Blazers title contenders?
Nate: This is a no-brainer. Yes! With that said, I think there are more teams this year that you can consider championship contenders going into the season than you could the last couple seasons. Just in the Western Conference, I think there are seven teams that could be considered championship contenders: Blazers, Clippers, Lakers, Nuggets, Jazz, Warriors and Rockets. Now, where do I rank the Blazers in the group? I would rank the Blazers fifth behind the Clippers, Warriors, Jazz and Lakers. Every team has question marks, and as we discussed last week, if the Blazers stay healthy and everyone plays to their full potential, the Blazers are talented enough to come out the hyper-competitive Western Conference. It’s taken time, but the front office has put together a roster that can compete for an NBA title. That’s all Blazers fans can ask for. Now, it’s up to head coach Terry Stotts and the players to make the most of it.
Jared: I agree. I think the Blazers are championship contenders this season. And that's what makes this upcoming NBA season so exciting! For the first time in years, the NBA title feels like it's up for grabs before the start of the season. The era of super-teams is over (for now), which means a large handful of teams can rightly declare their championship intentions. The Blazers have a Top 10 player in Damian Lillard; a second star in CJ McCollum, who when he's at his best is a Top 20 player; a strong supporting cast; an excellent head coach; and a front office that is willing and able to make moves to boost the team's championship chances during the season. That sounds like a championship contender to me. I don't think they're the title favorites right now. But they're in the mix. Just for fun, here's my list of teams I consider to be title contenders this season (in alphabetical order): Blazers, Bucks, Clippers, Jazz, Lakers, Nuggets, Rockets, 76ers, Warriors.
Orlando: Oh, I agree whole heartedly with this approach from Blazers leadership. The championship window is open for a limited time and the Blazers have reached that point. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are in the prime of their careers, so speaking it into existence makes a lot of sense. Neil Olshey dubbed this roster the deepest and most talented since he’s been here. He added veteran leadership and guys that have played deep in the postseason. Last season, they took a massive step towards the ultimate goal. The next move is getting to the Finals. I’m not saying they have the same talent as the preseason favorites, but they belong in the conversation. They’ll have to catch some breaks along the way and win games they aren’t supposed to, but getting to this position has been years in the making. At practice this week, Lillard talked all about the days of being an underdog are over, they don’t look at themselves that way and they’re making it clear for the first time in a long time that they should be talking about a championship.
2. What stood out to you, either good or bad, about the Blazers' first preseason game?
Jared: I liked what I saw from Kent Bazemore. He brought energy, showed off his aggressive defense (seven steals!), and looked great in transition. If he starts hitting the 3, watch out. Keep in mind, in the five seasons prior to last, he hit 37% from the 3-point line on more than three attempts per game. So he's got it in him. The Blazers' second unit, with Bazemore and Mario Hezonja pushing the ball, looks like it's going to be fun to watch. Hezonja looks like he has some playmaking chops, especially in transition. I also was impressed with Zach Collins. He looked confident in the pick-and-pop, both in the midrange and from behind the 3-point line, and looked really strong in the post physically. He's not getting pushed around anymore. I was also surprised when I looked at the box score, because I thought he had a couple blocks.
Orlando: It’s hard not to fall prisoner of the moment and get caught up in the preseason, yet here we are. I was impressed by what I saw from Kent Bazemore. He was all over the place. How many vets come out in their first preseason game of the year and reel off seven steals? He adds a dynamic to the team that was missing. He can defend and wants to. He can handle the ball and push the pace in transition. Terry Stotts pointed out how Tuesday’s game was probably played at a faster pace than any game they played last season. When Stotts was asked about Bazemore’s seven steals, he gave that look you give people that says ‘I tried to tell you.’
Nate: Terry Stotts’ suit was easily the best part of the first preseason game. They should put that up on the team’s online store. Beyond that, I didn’t take away much. It was disappointing to see the Blazers shoot poorly from the 3-point line, but it was the first preseason game. I’m not going to overreact. Mario Hezonja flashed some of the explosiveness that gives Blazers fans hope that he can be a productive rotation player. It was encouraging to see Kent Bazemore have an impact immediately defensively by coming up with seven steals. If Hezonja and Bazemore can perform in the regular season like they did in the first preseason game, it will be a major boost toward Portland’s championship hopes.
3. There are four preseason games left before the Blazers' open the regular season Oct. 23. What are you most interested in seeing from the Blazers the rest of the preseason?
Orlando: Watch the new guys and overreact to everything you see. It'll help make the time fly until the games start to count on October 23.
Nate: Anfernee Simons, of course! We haven’t seen Simons play many minutes at any level, so anytime he’s on the floor, I’m interested. From a team perspective, I want to see what the flow of the offense looks like. For the first time in years, this is a roster built with shooters around Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Are we going to see a more free-flowing offense? Is the pace going to pushed? What is this offense going to look like now that defenses must respect the wings who will be playing alongside Portland’s star backcourt? I imagine we’re not going to see too many shooting nights like what we saw Tuesday. I think I’ll have to wait until the regular season to get my answer, but I’m hoping to see glimpses this preseason.
Jared: First and foremost, I want to see the Blazers stay healthy. If that means they limit the playing time of Damian Lillard and the team's other key players, that's OK with me. Portland is doing that tonight against Maccabi Haifa, sitting Lillard, McCollum and Hassan Whiteside for "rest management." That's good. I think I want to see if the Blazers continue to push the pace more than we've seen in years past. The team looked fast and eager to run in the first preseason game and at Fan Fest. I'm really interested in seeing if that continues throughout the preseason (and then into the regular season). I'm also intrigued by Bazemore. If he continues to shine, does it call into question who starts at small forward? Or is he too valuable leading that second unit to move him into the starting lineup? I'm excited to find out.
MEET THE 3-ON-3 BLAZERS TEAM
Jared Cowley is a digital producer who writes about the Blazers and other topics for KGW.com. Jared has written about the Jazz and Warriors as a sports editor at two daily newspapers.
Nate Hanson is a digital producer who contributes to KGW.com’s coverage of the Blazers, Ducks, Beavers and high school sports.
Orlando Sanchez is the sports anchor and reporter for KGW News, Sports Sunday and Friday Night Flights. Orlando has covered multiple NBA Finals, NCAA Basketball Tournaments and World Series.