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KERRY EGGERS ON SPORTS/Portland Tribune/Lillard voted best leader as Blazers begin 50th season Wednesday

COURTESY PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - NBA general managers have voted Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard the best leader of a team in the league.The 50th season for the Trail Blazers tips off at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Moda Center against Northwest Division rival Denver.

Here are eight items to ponder as Portland begins a journey it hopes will end in June at the NBA Finals:

• The Blazers and Nuggets might as well do away with pregame introductions. The players, coaches and fans are well-acquainted. This is the teams' 10th meeting since April 29, when the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series began at Pepsi Center.

The Nuggets won both preseason meetings with the Blazers, which means virtually nothing. The familiarity, though, can breed contempt. We'll see if Wednesday's opener gets a little edgy between two of the better teams in the West.

• Denver is projected by most pundits to be a contender for the NBA championship.

Sports Illustrated picks the Nuggets to win 57 regular-season games, best in the West (the magazine says 49 wins and sixth-best for Portland). The Nuggets return virtually their entire roster from a year ago. They've added Oklahoma City's starting power forward, Jerami Grant, along with forward Michael Porter, who missed all of his rookie season with a back injury after being taken No. 14 in the draft.

• It will be interesting to see how deep Portland coach Terry Stotts goes with his rotation.

If center Hassan Whiteside is able to play — and he says he will, even after spraining an ankle in the preseason finale against the Nuggets last Thursday — he'll be in the starting five alongside forwards Rodney Hood and Zach Collins and guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

Guards Kent Bazemore and Anfernee Simons and forward Mario Hezonja will play, for sure. Veteran forward Anthony Tolliver probably would be the fourth man off the bench, and if Stotts chooses to use 10 players, that likely would mean duty for 6-11 center Skal Labissiere.

The Blazers are thin at center, with Jusuf Nurkic (leg) out for at least the early season and Pau Gasol (foot) unavailable for action. That means Stotts might make a choice between Tolliver and Labissiere for backup minutes at the post. The 7-foot Collins, of course, can slide over for some time at the 5 spot, too.

• Portland is generally considered one of the best offensive teams in the NBA. A year ago, the Blazers were second in offensive rating at 113.7, behind only Houston at 114.9.

Defensive rating was a different story; the Blazers were 16th at 109.5. Opponents shot .359 from 3-point range (tied for 18th) and .457 overall (tied for 13th). Portland was decidedly mediocre at the defensive end, especially for a team that reached the conference finals.

That could change with the addition of Whiteside, who led the NBA in blocked shots in 2015-16, and Bazemore, who had seven steals in 19 minutes in the preseason opener against Denver.

Portland ranked next-to-last in turnovers forced last season (11.9 per game). The stat has never interested Stotts much, but with Bazemore on the scene, that could change.

• Stotts said he intends for the Blazers to increase their pace this season. Last year, they averaged 99.96 possessions per game, which ranked 18th in the NBA. The Blazers' pace averaged 103.90 in their five preseason games.

Creating more turnovers and getting out into transition for more fast-break points might hike the average.

Portland has never been high on the fast-break list under Stotts. Last season, the Blazers tied for 24th in the league at 10.9 points per game. In 2017-18, they were dead last at 8.4. Stotts wants to increase that, because fast-break points are generally layups and dunks, meaning they are the easiest of shots to make.

How important is pace, though, really? Houston, for instance, averaged 98.39 possessions last season, ranking 27th.

• Stotts also says to expect more 3-point attempts from the Blazers this season. Last year, they attempted 30.7 per game, 18th in the NBA. Houston led at 45.4 casts per contest. Portland's percentage a year ago was .359, which was tied for eighth.

In the five preseason games, the Blazers averaged 25.2 shots from beyond the arc. But with the addition of Bazemore, Hezonja and Tolliver and the emergence of Simons, that number almost surely will grow in the regular season.

• In a recent survey of the league's 30 general managers, Lillard was voted the game's best leader, garnering 41% (12.5 votes) to Stephen Curry's 37% (11).

That's a tribute to Lillard's loyalty to the franchise, to the high regard his teammates have for him and respect held for him throughout the league.

I was surprised to see the voting for home-court advantage — Denver first at 38%, Utah and Golden State at 24% apiece and Portland fourth at 7%. After experiencing the Nuggets' crowds during last year's playoffs, I wouldn't put them in the same category as those of the Jazz, the Warriors and the Blazers.

One GM, incidentally, picked Portland to win the West. Four predicted the Blazers to finish fourth in the conference. The other 25 forecast them farther down the list.

• Portland's early-season schedule has to be one of the most difficult in NBA history, at least in terms of the percentage of road to home games.

After the opener against Denver, the Blazers embark on a four-game trip, but that's only the start. They will play 13 of their first 18 games away from home, including a six-game stretch with stops in San Antonio, Houston, New Orleans, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Chicago that ends on Nov. 25.

If the Blazers can emerge from that with a winning record, they could be on the path to a very good regular season, indeed.

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@kerryeggers


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