The Portland Trail Blazers’ Season Starts Now. Answers to These Four Questions Will Define It.

Don’t worry about a bad preseason, Blazers fans. Worry about this instead.

Preseason did not go well for the Trail Blazers. Again.

The Blazers lost four games against NBA competition by an average of 21.5 points. Their only win came against a second-tier Israeli team led by …Norris Cole (last NBA appearance: 2017).

Naturally the lackluster play begs the question of how worried fans should be.

The answer: not very worried.

Not because the preseason is irrelevant. That’s usually true but these losses feel more pertinent given how lost the team looked and how it echoes last season’s abysmal start.

Rather, the reason not to worry is because the process matters more than wins/losses this year. Blazers’ personnel have admitted the roster is incomplete. Not even Mike Rice could convince us a lineup with two rotation players taller than 6′8″ is ready to compete. It’s going to take time to fully retool after last season’s fire sale.

This season is about continuing the progress of evaluating the roster and staff to determine if chasing a championship in the closing years of Damian Lillard’s peak playing days is viable. In place of wins and losses, there are four other big-picture questions that are a better barometer of the team’s future aspirations.

Can Billups coach?

Head Coach Chauncey Billups got something of a free pass last year. The Blazers looked disjointed under his guidance even before Damian Lillard was injured and half the roster was traded. There was open speculation that he had lost the locker room just weeks into the season. That slow start was widely forgotten once Lillard went down and the Blazers climbed into the tank.

But the underwhelming preseason play has many saying the quiet part out loud again: What if Billups is a bad fit for this Blazers team? With more margin for error it would be of less concern, but Lillard is healthy again and the team seems motivated to rapidly fortify the roster. It would be a relief for both sides if Billups and the players rapidly get on the same page.

For his part, Billups seems unfazed. Jason Quick of the Athletic summarized the unorthodox response the coach had to the preseason losses:

That’s why Thursday’s practice was a bit of a curveball. There were no drills. No tactical teachings. No sets or play calls. Billups said he could sense the mental state of his roster after Tuesday’s 131-98 loss at Golden State. So he arrived at practice with a simple message: “Y’all just play.”

Can the Blazers “just play” their way to success? Unclear.

Will the Blazers regret re-signing Nurkic?

Starting center Jusuf Nurkic struggled during the preseason. Example: He committed five fouls or more in each of the last three games. Despite playing no more than 22 minutes. And despite already being in game shape, theoretically, after a summer spent with the Bosnian National Team.

It’s going to be a problem if Nurkic’s lethargy is anything more than preseason veteran malaise. Nurkic is the team’s only NBA-proven big man and the Blazers just gave him a 4-year, $70 million contract extension. He’s also supremely talented and capable of putting up jaw-dropping box scores.

Despite the talent he’s going to take a tertiary, at best, role on offense while continuing to mop up around the rim for porous perimeter defense. Eventually that job description is going to frustrate anybody (except maybe Joel Przybilla). Cleaning up your teammates’ messes is annoying.

There’s no backup plan (almost literally true) so fingers crossed that the Bosnian Beast is ready to make $70 million look like a bargain.

What is Shaedon Sharpe’s timeline?

Shaedon Sharpe might be the future. The rookie out of Kentucky (well, he kind of went to Kentucky) is extremely unpolished but showing flashes of greatness:

Sharpe’s raw game and lack of experience dropped him to seventh in this year’s draft. However, experts have touted that he has one of the highest upsides of the class. In all likelihood, it’ll take a couple years for the 19-year-old to fully learn the NBA game – and patience can pay off as the Blazers are learning with Anfernee Simons and regret with Jermaine O’Neal. But if Sharpe does happen to show immediate all-star talent it gives the Blazers the second star they have lacked for seven seasons. That could alter the course of the franchise.

What does Cronin do at the trade deadline?

It should be obvious by now: The Blazers roster still needs some work. Outside of the big names, weaknesses abound: Lack of big men, no established starting small forward, shallow depth, etc.

Nonetheless, Cronin has acquitted himself well – if nothing else, competence begets hope. Which brings us to the trade deadline. By that time Cronin, and the rest of us, will know if the tank has returned to Portland or if there are playoffs ahead.

In either scenario, action will be needed. Either dumping veterans for draft picks or fortifying the big man rotation. The trade deadline will be Cronin’s first chance to show us Part 2 of his roster-building master plan. Here’s hoping he’s trading for Nurk’s backup and not for draft picks.

Double Dribbles:

Gary Payton II will miss the start of the season.

The Blazers are no longer selling uniform advertisements to a cryptocurrency company.

Lillard helped design an alternate jersey for the season. At least it doesn’t look like tire tracks?

Most Blazers moment ever:

https://twitter.com/nickbat22/status/1580630441136046081

Hey, Josh Hart – It’s just “Rip City.” Leave the “nation” for Vegas.