Coming off the best season the franchise experienced in a long time Trail Blazers stalwarts Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum finally received some well deserved recognition. With LeBron, Kawhi, and others sitting out both Dame and CJ received invitations to participate in training camp with Team USA for the FIBA World Cup in China. Being “snubbed” from honors such as this were commonplace in the past for both players. So as refreshing as finally being given a seat at the table with the leagues elites is, it also has to be surprising to fans that both players dropped out of participation with the squad after flirting with starring roles.
Players declining to participate with Team USA this year is actually fairly popular with at least 13 players of All-Star caliber pulling out of the competition after training camp had begun. Lillard and McCollum both played along before deciding to enjoy their summer vacation rather than rock the stars and stripes. Despite the heroes of Rip City not being in China, the Blazers will benefit by who is choosing to stick around.
Coming off their longest playoff run in two decades the Blazers will be impacted by their extra time on the court. During the 18-19 season Lillard was sixth in the NBA in total minutes played, only about 200 total minutes from leading the league. None of this is counting anything included in a trip to the Western Finals. In the league’s era of “load management” it’s possible that time away from the court is exactly what the Blazers need going into this season.
The FIBA World Cup gives the Blazers that chance to even the deck a bit, as Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell is expected to be a primary factor on Team USA. Mitchell, widely considered by many outlets to be a potential breakout star during the 19-20 season for the reloaded Jazz, is a huge threat to the Blazers aspirations should he be firing on all cylinders. In Team USA's recent exhibition against Spain Mitchell played 23 minutes, the team then flew to Australia for three more exhibition games, after which they will head to China for what is assumed to be seven additional games if they advance all the way to the title game. These trips and minutes add up, especially considering the Jazz open training camp mere days after the completion of the World Cup Finals, and open their pre-season schedule on October 9th. How the Jazz choose to manage this situation remains unknown as of yet, but if they go the route of load management to get him off his feet from time to time during the year would result in possible wins or possible losses. In the ultra tight Western Conference every game is important, and one or two games could be the difference of not making the playoffs or having home court advantage in the first round. Utah also almost entirely turned over their roster meaning Mitchell will have to assimilate himself with nine brand new teammates. Not unlike Lillard and McCollum, who will get a large head start in that department. The Jazz also face to reality of dealing with this exact scenario with reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, who will suit up for the French National Team in the FIBA World Cup as well.
The Jazz aren't the only division rival with a star in the field, as Trail Blazers nemesis Nikola Jokic will participate with the Serbian National Team. Largely considered the biggest threat to Team USA, Serbia looks primed for a deep run in the World Cup as well. Jokic, the All-Star Center for the Denver Nuggets, who's fitness level can be a question mark at times and has shown to wear down with heavy workloads in the past (see last seasons four-overtime thriller), is almost more important to the Nuggets than Mitchell is to the Jazz. Advanced statistics show Jokic's usage rate (how often the ball is in his hands based on his time on the floor) is the highest on the team and his VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) is more than double any other player on the Nuggets roster last season. Denver's play drops dramatically with Jokic off the floor and if he were to miss any time due to a heavy summer workload this would stand to benefit Portland. The Pacific Northwest will find out soon how Jokic looks, as a date with the Nuggets in the Moda Center looms on opening night.
While it would have been a welcome sight for Portland fans to watch their beloved stars take on international competition, the Blazers stand to potentially gain the upper hand on their division counterparts going into the regular season. While Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and Nikola Jokic travel to China and play heavily contested games, racking up mileage on their bodies for the next month and a half, the Blazers will be getting to know the new guys and enjoying the comfort of their own beds. The 19-20 NBA season is coming fast, and Dame and CJ have their priorities in line with making sure it's one to remember.