POWER RANKINGS » New Season, Similar Rankings In Week 1

by Casey Holdahl
Follow @chold

After an offseason of change, the Portland Trail Blazers have finally made it to the start line of the 2021-22 regular season. With a new coaching staff, new style of play on both sides of the ball and five new players, the product on the court this season will, if nothing else, look markedly different from what we’ve seen over the last five years. Hopefully it’ll be an improvement, even if it might take a bit of time to see it, but if nothing else, it will be different under first-year head coach Chauncey Billups.

But what hasn’t changed much? Where the Trail Blazers come out in the first NBA Power Rankings of the regular season. Sure, there’s not as much optimism this time around -- they were as high as No. 7 in the first rankings last year, while they come in no better than No. 12 this year -- but the average take seems to be that the Trail Blazers are an average team, both now and at this time last year. When you consider the similarities -- a first-round exit followed by some well thought of changes in personnel, though not to the core of players -- it’s not especially difficult to figure out why.

So here’s where Portland starts at they begin the NBA’s 75th season. If they managed to get off to a good start -- winning their opener versus the Kings and besting the defending Western Conference Champs on Saturday would be a strong opening salvo -- a quick accent up the rankings is certainly possible.

• John Schuhmann at NBA.com has the Trail Blazers at No. 17 to start the 2021-22 regular season...

The Blazers promised to defend pick-and-rolls more aggressively, and preseason Synergy tracking data (they had the league’s lowest percentage of opponent possessions that were pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions) is evidence of real change. As we saw in New Orleans last season, that change puts a lot of pressure on weak-side defenders to recover quickly to shooters after helping in the paint. The Pelicans couldn’t do it (they allowed 16.3 3-pointers per game through their first 29) and we should know within a few weeks if the Blazers are more qualified to employ that type of scheme. They had the league’s highest opponent 3-point rate (53% of their opponents’ shots came from beyond the arc) in the preseason.

The offense was a bigger issue as the Blazers went 0-4. In fact, their 87.1 points scored per 100 possessions was the worst preseason mark (for an NBA team) in the last 10 years (since the lockout-shortened, 2011-12 season). Damian Lillard only played 42 minutes, but the Blazers only scored 81 points on 99 possessions (82 per 100) with him on the floor.

The Blazers have the league’s toughest first 20 games (both in regard to cumulative opponent winning percentage from last season and back-to-backs), and they certainly aren’t hitting the ground running. But they’re a veteran group that should pick things up in the games that count, and four of their first five are at the Moda Center.

Schuhmann has the Trail Blazers behind the Celtics at No. 16 and ahead of the Raptors at No. 18.

• The panel of voters at ESPN has the Trail Blazers smack dab in the middle of the pack at No. 15 to start the season...

There will be heightened interest around the league in Portland's record because teams are eyeing Lillard as the next superstar to change teams.

Although Lillard aired his unhappiness, he never took the step of requesting a trade and indicated his commitment to the Blazers at the start of training camp. That could change if Portland struggles, putting additional pressure on Billups to win now. He'll have a better defensive group to work with than Stotts, as the Blazers replaced the backup frontcourt of Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter with veteran center Cody Zeller and trade target Larry Nance Jr.

Portland also enters the season healthy after starters McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic missed a combined 60 games last season. When those two were in the lineup with deadline addition Norman Powell, the Blazers' current starters outscored opponents by 13.4 points per 100 possessions, second-best among units with at least 350 minutes together according to NBA Advanced Stats.

• The panel of voters at The Score have the Trail Blazers just in the top half of the league at No. 14 to start the season...

The folks at ESPN have the Trail Blazers behind the Knicks at No. 14 and ahead of the Grizzlies at No. 16.

• Colin Ward-Henninger at CBS Sports has the Trail Blazers at No. 14 to start 2021-22...

The Damian Lillard drama appears to be in the rearview mirror for now, so the Blazers enter the season hoping to duplicate the dominant offense they displayed last season, but also add at least a little bit of defense to the mix. Having Jusuf Nurkic healthy will be a big help in that department, as will the additions of Larry Nance Jr. and Tony Snell. First-year head coach Chauncey Billups has significant pressure on him, as the entire league has their eyes on Lillard and his potential dissatisfaction if the team gets off to a slow start.

Ward-Henninger has the Trail Blazers behind the Knicks at No. 13 and ahead of the Celtics at No. 15.

• The panel of voters at Canadian sports outfit The Score has the Trail Blazers starting the year at No. 14...

The Blazers had a decent offseason with the additions of Larry Nance Jr. and others despite a dire cap situation, but will it be enough to keep Damian Lillard happy? Time will tell.

Our friends up north have the Trail Blazers behind the Warriors at No. 13 and ahead of the Bulls at No. 15.

• Jordan Greer at Sporting News has Portland at No. 12 in his first rankings...

Offense wasn't a problem for the Blazers last season. Defense was. In giving up 115.3 points per 100 possessions, Portland ranked 29th out of 30 teams in defensive efficiency. The addition of Larry Nance Jr. should help, but a lot of it will come down to Billups getting the Trail Blazers to defend harder and with more purpose than they did last season.

Greer has the Trail Blazers behind the Celtics at No. 11 and ahead of the 76ers at No. 13.

• Andy Bailey at Bleacher Report has Portland up at No. 12 to start the season...

Injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic have served as untimely and unfortunate limits on the Portland Trail Blazers' success over the last few years. When healthy, those two form a trio with Damian Lillard that has to be taken seriously.

Over the last three years (playoffs and regular season included), the Blazers are plus-8.3 points per 100 possessions when all three are on the floor. In 2021-22, those three will be surrounded by a beefed-up supporting cast that includes Robert Covington, Norman Powell, Larry Nance Jr. and Cody Zeller.

The first two can help keep the floor spread around pick-and-rolls with Nurkic and Lillard. Nance gives them a multipositional defender and underrated passer who can provide some inside-out playmaking. And though Zeller isn't as prolific of an offensive threat as Enes Kanter, he's an experienced roll man who can create some vertical gravity for reserve units.

If Nassir Little or Anfernee Simons takes a developmental leap, Portland will be a night-to-night problem.

Bailey has the Trail Blazers behind the Mavericks at No. 11 and ahead of the Celtics at No. 11.

• Zach Harper at The Athletic has the Trail Blazers at No. 16 in his initial regular season rankings...

Why are they here? If you can assure me the Portland Trail Blazers will be together all season long, I’d move them higher. But there remains so much drama surrounding the future of Damian Lillard in Portland that I’m just going to hedge by putting them smack dab in the middle of the pack. Neil Olshey scapegoated Terry Stotts by making him the reason they didn’t win more or play better defense. Chauncey Billups comes in and the Blazers will continue to go with a ridiculously talented offense. Billups is going to have to get a group featuring Lillard and CJ McCollum to lock down more though. The Blazers could be the four seed, or they could be in the back end of the Play-In Tournament.

Harper has the Trail Blazers behind the Clippers at No. 15 and ahead of the Raptors at No. 17.

• Josh Conelissen at HoopsHabit has the Trail Blazers at No. 13 to start the season...

The Portland Trail Blazers may only get this season, or even the start to the season, to convince Damian Lillard that he can contend with the team built around him. The team did not get off to a hot start, with an 0-4 record in the preseason with the league’s worst point differential.

Lillard himself was strong in limited minutes, shooting 58 percent from the field and 46 percent from 3-point range. The team around him had trouble getting the ball in the net, and their opponents had no trouble scoring themselves. Stephen Curry in particular went supernova against them in the preseason finale.

The preseason has to be taken with a major grain of salt, but when it confirms your priors it has greater weight. Starting Lillard, CJ McCollum and Norman Powell puts this team in an incredibly difficult place defensively, as Lillard and McCollum are both poor defenders and Powell is undersized at the 3. To help put the team in a better position to contend against the elite backcourt in the Western Conference they may need to bring Powell off the bench and start Larry Nance Jr. alongside Robert Covington.

Conelissen has the Trail Blazers behind the Celtics at No. 12 and ahead of the Knicks at No. 14.


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