After being eliminated in the first round a year after reaching the Western Conference finals, the Portland Trail Blazers entered the shortened off-season with a clear goal: adding background talent with All-Stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and starting center Jusuf Nurkic. Today, a few days before the start of the regular season, General Manager Neil Olshey and the management of the team accomplished this task and much more.

After a series of exchanges, signing free agents and adding internal players, Trail Blowers has become one of the biggest winners of the offseason and look poised to improve on last year’s 35-39 win-loss record and fight for one of the top spots in the Western Conference playoffs. Newcomers to Portland include Robert Covington, Derrick Jones Jr., Enes Kanter and Harry Giles, as well as the return of Rodney Hood and Carmelo Anthony.

Portland’s off-season surrounds Lillard with arguably the strongest and most talented support he has ever had, with a mix of promising young players and proven veterans. This gives the Blazers a chance to get ahead in the Western Conference, even if other opponents also make changes during the off-season.

Here are four bold predictions for the Blazers’ 2020-21 season.

1. The Trail Blazers will have a top 15 defense

Asking the Blazers to play with an average defense may not seem like much, but the team comes from a season in which they finish at the bottom of the pack on defense, with an average of 116.1 points per game, which puts them in 26th place in the NBA, and a defense grade of 114.8, which puts them in 28th place.

The addition of Covington offers a much needed defense to the starting line-up of the Blazers, while Jones Jr. and the return of Hood are also able to take different positions. The loss of center Hassan Whiteside will hurt because he was the protector of the team, with an average of 2.9 blocks per game last season. But the addition of long and versatile wingers to Covington and Jones should help the Blazers keep pace with the best of the competition.

Covington in particular should do well with Lillard and McCollum, and is likely to have the unenviable task of following the opponent’s best player. It’s a big order, but the former Houston Rocket knows it well. Despite the departure of Whiteside, the addition of these players ensures that the team will be one of the best defences in the league next season, after the 2019-20 season.

2. Bench blowers significantly improved

Despite one of the best fouls in the league, averaging 115 points per match, the sixth best in the NBA, and an offensive rating of 113.7, the third best, the Blazers reserves did not really help Lillard, McCollum and the rookies. Portland reserves an average of just 26.5 points per game last season, tied with Boston Celtics for the worst in the league.

Recent additions and the return of some key players after an injury should help solve this problem and give their bench a much needed punch. Anthony, who will probably leave the bench, averaged 15.4 points last season and should help head coach Terry Stotts with the second team. Kanter, who was a member of the Blazers team that reached the final of the conference, took the average of 8.1 points for the Celtics last season and is now off the bench.

Hood, who averaged 11 points in only 21 games this season for missing playing time due to an injury, also has to give the team a boost after the regular rest. Young players like Gary Trent Jr, Anfernee Simons, Zach Collins, Nassir Little and Giles also give the Blazers a better overall rotation than last season, allowing them to keep up with the reserves of other teams when their regulars take a break.

3. Damian Lillard winsMVP award

Lillard finishes his best year since he’s been in the league. He has an average of 30 points, 4.3 rebounds, 8.0 assists and 1.1 steals, while shooting 46.3% of the field and 40.1% of the half lane. In the NBA bell, as the Blazers face the Memphis Grizzlies for eighth place in the playoffs, Lillard actually intensified his game, averaging 37.6 points and helping 9.6, while shooting 43.6 percent of downtown play in the standings, helping Portland to win a 6-2. In his five All-Star games, he was unanimously named Bubble’s MVP.

Lillard probably won’t be able to maintain his ridiculous grades during his last season in Orlando, but with a five-fold choice in the prime of life and playing the best basketball of his life, it’s no surprise to see him in the middle of the MVP conversation. However, it turns out that Lillard once again slipped off the radar when he was defeated by Luca Doncic, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis and Stephen Curry in ESPN’s predictions for MVP candidates.

But if Lillard continues to make large numbers and the Blowers compete for one of the top four places in the Western Conference, the 30-year-old will be a strong contender for the MVP title, alongside Doncic, James and Antetokounmpo. Doncic in particular seems ready to win the prize in his third season, but with Lillard playing as he does and keeping his back with almost all the teams and keeping Portland in the playoffs, it’s no surprise that Lillard wins his first MVP award.

4. Portland takes fourth place west

ESPN predicted the Blowers would improve on last season’s 35-39 record, predicting that they would be a 41-time winner, which would allow them to secure sixth place in the Western Conference and avoid the playoffs they had to go through in the NBA bubble. The Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz all have a head start on the Blazers in the ESPN projection standings.

But in addition to the Lakers, Clippers and Nuggets, a healthy Portland team could follow any other team in the Western Conference, especially if Lillard regained the deadly form he showed during the bubble. Except for injury or chemistry problems, the Lakers and Clippers will probably finish first and second in the conference, followed by a team of Nuggets that just made it to the finals of the conference.

It is not unlikely that a Blazers team full of talent and led by a motivated Lillard will be among the top four seeds in the first round of the playoffs in the West and will have home advantage.

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