Portland Trail Blazers
Will the Portland Trail Blazers be legitimate contenders in 2021? (Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images)

The question is plain and simple, will the Portland Trail Blazers be contenders next season?

A year ago, the Blazers were swept in the Western Conference Finals by the Golden State Warriors. They lost a few key players in free agency, but it looked like they had filled those holes and made vital acquisitions as well. The most significant acquisition being the addition of Hassan Whiteside, who filled in well in the absence of Blazers starting big man Jusuf Nurkic. While in the Orlando bubble this season, Nurkic regained his starting job, beating out Whiteside in practice. 

In the bubble, Portland went 6-2 in the regular season and took game one from the Lakers in their first-round series. If they keep their roster together, how high could the ceiling be, and what might their final record look like?

Had the Blazers continued their pace during the bubble’s seed-in part, excluding the challenging playoff-caliber games, they would be 61-21. However, we all know that’s not super realistic at this point. A good projection for this team would be 54-28. It’s one more win than they had during the 2018-19 season, but this time around, Nurkic will be healthy in the postseason and help lead the team.

Over the past two seasons, the one thing the Blazers truly lacked was defense. It didn’t help that the team lost assistant coach David Vanterpool to Minnesota. To take the next step on defense, they need to bring in a defensive mastermind to assist head coach Terry Stotts. One name that comes to mind is Gary Payton. Payton averaged 2.9 steals per game in a single season, and he has a lot of respect for Damian Lillard. Payton seems to be the type of guy who would get on the guards if they were to get lazy on defense.

Portland could improve their depth at the small forward and power forward positions whether they re-sign Whiteside or go after Nerlens Noel. However, they should still go after like Danilo Gallinari, who can play both SF and PF. A couple of other options might bring in Chris Boucher or Derrick Jones Jr. as an athletic backup for Rodney Hood and Carmelo Anthony. 

Though those are outside moves the Blazers front office could make, they have some in-house decisions. That includes figuring out what to do with Whiteside, Anthony, Trevor Ariza, Mario Hezonja, Caleb Swanigan, Wenyen Gabriel, Jaylen Hoard, and Moses Brown.

Portland needs to upgrade the backup power forward and center positions and bring in a defensive-minded coach assistant coach. The team is stacked at the guard positions with Lillard, CJ McCollum, Gary Trent Jr., and Anfernee Simons, so the guard positions need no upgrade.

Although they have some decisions to make, whether or not Portland makes these moves, they’ll be a contender in 2021. But they need to avoid major injuries to star players and essential role players such as Hood and Zach Collins come playoff time. When everyone is healthy, the Blazers have proven they can be a deadly team.