Last Season: 44-38, 5th seed in the West
Off-season gains: SF Evan Turner (free agent), C Festus Ezeli (free agent), PG Shabazz Napier (trade), C Greg Stiemsma (free agent)
Off-season losses: SG Gerald Henderson (free agent/Philadelphia)
Off-season stock: I've been saving my pennies all summer for this. I'm gonna wait in line at Voodoo Donuts, then buy a couple books at Powell's, and then go buy some Blazers stock at a cafe while munching on my donuts.
League Pass team?: Heck yeah, these dudes are like the indie version of the Warriors, before they sold out and started lip syncing at concerts and charging $50 for t-shirts and stuff.
Oh, blessed Portland.
Much like the middle of these United States is oft-referred to as "flyover country," the middle of the NBA's geographical alphabet is a morass of mediocrity. You take the 11 cities on the NBA map from Miami to Sacramento (encompassing the Heat, Bucks,Timberwolves, Pelicans, Knicks, Thunder, Magic, 76ers, Suns, Blazers and Kings) contain as many as 10 teams that may well miss the playoffs this season.
Only the Blazers are our respite from the abyss. I really like these guys. I sort of fell in love with them during the playoffs last year. Their second round series against the Warriors, in which they lost 4-1, was So. Much. Fun. It took a while me to warm up to Damian Lillard, but I'm a full-fledged fan now. He's everything that's right about the league. And while PATFO may never admit it publicly, it sure appears in terms of personality, culture fit and competitive fiber, that he's at least as much of a Spur than the former Blazer star they wound up signing, even if LaMarcus Aldridge is the better overall player. No matter what you think of the Aldridge rumors, it's undeniable that the Blazers got over losing him a lot faster than anyone imagined. They really didn't skip a beat, from a leadership and chemistry standpoint. If the situation was reversed and Lillard was the one to leave, I think the whole organization would've been devastated.
Also, C.J. McCollum seems like a cool dude and I want him to be a Spur too. That's the super-analytical way I judge teams: How many guys do they have that I wish were Spurs? Al-Farouq Aminu? Sure. Allen Crabbe? I'm down. Mason Plumlee? Why not? I'd be a GM at the candy store. Gimmegimmegimme. If we're being honest with one another, I probably like more Blazers than I like Spurs at the moment, it's just that the Spurs I do like, I like super lots, if that make sense.
And the Blazers sure appear to be modeling themselves after the Spurs organization, not only building with strong character guys but also really striving for corporate knowledge.
Updated continuity rankings w/ J.R. contract, CHI-MIL trade & other minor changes/fixes. pic.twitter.com/s6EpNqUTPS— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) October 17, 2016
Look at that. Players who logged 89.8 percent of Portland's court time last season will be returning, the most for any team by a significant margin. All they've really lost is a backup wing in Gerald Henderson, and they upgraded there with Evan Turner while also adding a quality --albeit injury prone-- rim-protector in Festus Ezeli. My concern is they overpaid for both, but that's a problem for the future, not the present.
Obviously, the heart of the team is the Lillard-McCollum backcourt. Lillard's improvement year-by-year has been steady and incremental, and his percentages have been consistent overall. I'm most impressed by his durability, because he's not exactly the biggest, stockiest guy, and teams always make a point of trying to destroy him on defense with screens. Still, he got to the line more than ever last year, so he's been able to absorb punishment. I'd like him to cut down on the turnovers a bit, and he'll never be a great defender, but again that's a luxury at his position more than a necessity. All you really want is for him to stick to shooters instead of getting sucked in. What intrigues me is the possibility of Lillard playing off-the-ball some with Turner in there as a point-forward. I want to see what that would look like, him running around picks and losing defenders and receiving the ball on the move.
McCollum was extended for the full max, which I guess was necessary but still something that causes a wrinkle in my brain just for the fact that he's only had the one big year. He's an explosive, streaky scorer and he can fill it up from anywhere, one of the few guys in the league who's efficient from both mid-range/long-two shots and from downtown. He's an underrated play-maker, definitely not one of those 20/1/1 guys like a Klay Thompson or a Devin Booker, and even though he's undersized, a decent, not awful, defender. He led the Blazers in net rating last year both on (2.0) and off (-2.9) the floor, which speaks to his importance. The one area he could stand to really improve would be getting to the line more.
Aminu was their breakout star during the playoffs, which was ironic considering his PER was better two years ago for the Mavericks. The main difference in his game was the radical spike in his three-point shooting and it remains to be seen if he can maintain that. He's a terrific rebounder for his size and a bit of an overrated defender, but he was vital last year. I'm curious how he'll react to Turner's presence on the roster. Will it ease the pressure on him to perform and lift his game to even greater heights, or will it cause him to constantly look over his shoulder?
Plumlee was another guy who gained some attention in the playoffs, emerging as an unexpected play-maker as a point-center. He's limited as a scorer and his effectiveness defensively comes and goes depending on his focus and the referee's whistle on any given night, but he's an asset overall. A lineup of he, Turner, Lillard and McCollum would give the Blazers four guys who can pass it, and it's going to cause problems. Or they can go the other way, use Ezeli as a starter ---assuming he's available (a bone marrow aspirate concentrate injection doesn't sound fun)-- to anchor the defense and bring Plumlee off the bench to be the energy guy and to wreck opposing backup units with his backdoor feeds to cutters.
Maurice Harkless is the fifth Beatle here and while he too raised his game in the playoffs you get the feeling that the team's brass would love for him to get seriously challenged for minutes by Noah Vonleh, Meyers Leonard, Ed Davis or anybody. Harkless is springy and can hit the occasional three, but he's not really good at anything and his ceiling is lower than the rest. Vonleh, 21, was supposed to be the main prize of the Nicolas Batum trade to Charlotte, a guy who'd be the next Chris Bosh, and so far he's been a major disappointment. He can make 15-footers but hasn't been playable otherwise. Davis emerged as their main backup forward last year while Vonleh stalled. He can score in a variety of ways and his mid-range jumper was more reliable to boot. Davis doesn't have much of a defensive reputation, but he quietly led the team in defensive rating last year. Leonard was missed down the stretch. He's a bit of a one-trick-pony, but his size causes problems and opens the lane for others.
At the wing, while McCollum got all the attention for his Most Improved Player campaign, Crabbe flourished almost to the same degree in his promotion to the sixth man role. He too is a rangy, streaky shooter and one that struggles to get to the line, even though he attacks the rim. He's not a passer though and an uninterested defender. Turner, who christened himself "The Villain" with Boston, is a versatile guy who's like a rich man's Kyle Anderson. He can do everything but shoot threes. Like Anderson or perhaps Jeff Green he can be useful in mild doses, but you don't want to count on him night after night. I'm not sure if being ingrained in Portland's culture will have a positive effect on him or if he'll poison them. Pat Connaughton probably has the best fastball on the team, but beyond that I don't know if he can help much.
Bottom line, I think the sky's the limit for the Blazers. The Spurs are in flux, with a pair of Hall-of-Fame guards at the very end and two bigs also bound for Springfield (for their accomplishments elsewhere) past their primes. Chris Paul doesn't have many elite seasons left in him for the Clippers. The Thunder were torn asunder by defection.
By contrast no one important to Portland is older than 26. They're poised to be the Warriors' biggest foils by 2018 or so. The franchise is not exactly renowned for injury luck, but unless something weird happens, they should win 48-54 games, grab a four or five seed and I believe a potential series with Memphis could be the best of the first-round.