The story once again for the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2021-22 season will be a simple one: Can the Blazers play good enough defense to challenge for an NBA title?
New head coach Chauncey Billups preached a changing mindset to commit to that end of the floor.
In the preseason, the Blazers went 0-4 and allowed 121, 107, 119 and 119 points in the four games, two against Golden State, one at Phoenix and one against Sacramento.
Like any team trying to make a change though, the Blazers realize it will be a work in progress on defense.
"There'll come a time where it clicks," Damian Lillard said. "Once it's time to really go, games count, the urgency, possession to possession, it's different. … We're trying to change habits, and when you're trying to change habits, you're going to have bumps in the road."
Blazers fans hope some of the initial bumps already have been driven over after the 0-4 preseason slate. They also hope players are coming into the year healthy.
Larry Nance Jr. (right knee soreness), Anfernee Simons (right thumb sprain), Tony Snell (right foot sprain), Nassir Little (left hamstring strain) and Cody Zeller (nose fracture) all missed the final preseason game, as well as Lillard (rest).
Depth is one area Portland and president of basketball operations Neil Olshey feel good about.
In the offseason, the Blazers traded for Nance Jr. to help on the defensive end, and also signed Ben McLemore, Snell, Zeller and Dennis Smith Jr.
"I think we have real good depth this year," Billups said. "That was a point of emphasis for Neil (Olshey) and the front office. We wanted to be a deeper team. … I like our depth. I am very optimistic about this season. Excited about it."
One important piece that will help keep all the Blazers on the court this season: The team is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, including the coaching staff.
Speaking of the coaching staff, however, new assistant coach Milt Palacio is on administrative leave following a report of an alleged insurance fraud scheme involving former NBA players, including Palacio.
Couple that with the mixed feelings on the hiring of Billups, who was accused of sexual assault in 1997, and there are some off-the-court issues circling Portland.
As for on the court, the Blazers' other goal in the offseason was to build a roster that could improve and make Lillard happier after he voiced his displeasure with the direction of the team following a first-round playoff exit last season.
"We got some decent guys around that we can form into a really good team and be competitive," Lillard said on media day. "There's only one way to find out how competitive and what it can actually be. We're going to find out soon."
The Western Conference could be wide open for a potential run, especially after watching the Phoenix Suns come from seemingly nowhere last season to reach the Finals.
The Los Angeles Lakers are presumed favorites, but with a roster relying heavily on aging veterans and an injury-riddled Anthony Davis, there's plenty of question marks.
The Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers both face injury issues with Jamal Murray and Kawhi Leonard, respectively, set to miss most, if not the entire season due to ACL injuries suffered last season.
Golden State looks to return to championship level with the return of Klay Thompson, plus the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks think they have a shot behind their stars in Donovan Mitchell and Luka Doncic, respectively.
With all that star power, it's clear to see that playing defense will be the only way forward for Portland rather than trying to outscore other teams despite their talented backcourt in Lillard and CJ McCollum.
"My focus is on defense," Blazers forward Robert Covington said when asked about his offensive production decreasing. "The amount of shots I get or my offensive production doesn't bother me because at the end of the day that doesn't impact the other side, that's where I'm most impactful."
That level of sacrifice is exactly what Nance Jr. talked about a team needing to reach the Finals, something he experienced playing alongside LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2018.
"The thing I can bring from that Finals trip is just the hunger and drive to get back," Nance said. "If they need me to play two minutes a night, terrific, if that means we're winning. If they need me to play 30 minutes, terrific. As long as we're winning, I don't care."
Defense takes effort, though, something Lillard said might have been lacking in the preseason but will certainly be addressed.
The Blazers hope it's addressed sooner rather than later with the season opener at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 20 against the Sacramento Kings at Moda Center.
The Blazers look like they could get off to a slow start in 2021, but with Billups' emphasis on holding players accountable for mistakes and the sheer talent the team possesses on offense, there's no reason the regular season win total should change much. But, it's such a competitive Western Conference that anywhere from fourth to sixth would be an accomplishment.
Jason Vondersmith contributed to this report.
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