2017-18 Season Preview Roundup
I've written it before and I'll write it again: I'm not a big fan of season previews. While there's no real harm in compiling a bunch of old information and extrapolating it in an effort to predict how a team's season is going to shake out, there's not a whole lot of value in it either. It's an exercise in guesswork, and much of it is woefully dated a week into the season (if that), so you won't be seeing your friends here at trailblazers.com putting ourselves through that gauntlet (except for the season preview edition of The Rip City Report, obviously).
But if a bunch of well-meaning journalists and analysts are going to take the time to produce season previews, we might as well do them a solid and promote their hard work. So before the Trail Blazers begin their season versus the Suns Wednesday night in Phoenix (tipoff scheduled for 7 p.m. on NBCSNW and 620 AM), here's what a host of folks from around the Internet had to say about your beloved team...
1. Can Nurkic stay healthy? He finished last season with a fractured leg and the Blazers suffered. This is a contract year for Nurkic so there are steep incentives to remain in one piece and cash in next summer.
2. After trading the too-pricey Allen Crabbe to the Nets, the Blazers need to replace him by finding a scorer off the bench. Right now that person is a mystery man, as nobody on the current roster has fulfilled that role before.
3. The Blazers ranked 25th in points per game allowed last season (108.5). As much as they mean to Portland’s offense, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are, at best, average defenders. The Blazers need some rim-stoppers to step up.
• The NBA TV Trail Blazers Preview
Despite a lackluster encore, capped by a second consecutive playoff dismissal via Golden State, the guts of that team are still very much present. Damian Lillard’s snarl-and-shoot style is, on the right night, still one of the best watches in the league (especially when tracked by the dulcet sounds of tha gawd Kevin Calabro). Internet Public Editor C.J. McCollum can fill it up like few others in the league. And there are enough spry, young bodies on the roster—including two intriguing rookie bigs snared from the first round—for Terry Stotts to cobble together a top-10 offense.
The difference, one way or another, is Jusuf Nurkic. After an up-and-down two-plus seasons in Denver, Nurkic—an Ent with touch around the basket—looked like a modern George Mikan at times, even flirting with a quadruple-double in just his eighth game with the team. All told, the Blazers were 14-6 when Nurkic played (which wasn’t often after April 1), with a plus-9.6 net rating, per NBA.com/Stats, and, more importantly, a respectable defense (103.7 defensive rating, which would have been good for fifth-best in the league).
• Best Case/Worst Case For The Northwest Division, The Ringer
The Blazers have an identity. They're a guard-oriented team behind their two stars, with a big bruiser in the paint. It's the rest of their pieces that don't really reveal an identity. Are they a small-ball team with Al-Farouq Aminu spreading the floor and providing defense? Are they a three-guard squad with Evan Turner on the wing (which hopefully makes Turner impactful as he had one of the worst plus-minus figures in the league last season)? Is Nurkic the engine that makes the team go, with Lillard as the tip of the spear, or will Nurkic have to become more of a complimentary weapon (he barely operated in the pick-and-pop last season)? Or maybe they don't need that, and Lillard and Nurkic can operate independent of each other, but in concert.
The issue is that there's not a real cohesive style that the entire roster speaks itself to, like in the case of say Denver, or the Clippers, two teams the Blazers will be in competition with. It's not about the talent, the Blazers are stocked with good players. It's whether they can maximize everyone, and do so around their stars.
And they have to do all this while improving their defense, which plays into mindset as well.
Best-case scenario: Lillard and McCollum average their 50 points per game. Nurkic cleans up their misses on offense and messes on defense. Al-Farouq Aminu, who missed significant time last season and whose defensive presence also made a real difference, sees an increased role. Turner, Noah Vonleh and Ed Davis round into a net-positive bench rotation. Collins and Swanigan look like future studs. And the Blazers are who they were for the final quarter of last season — a real threat out West.
If everything falls apart: Lillard and McCollum are sieves on defense. Nurkic is less the game-changer he was for six weeks after the trade and more the guy we saw on the Denver Nuggets, and signing him to an extension becomes a question mark. The Turner, Leonard and Moe Harkless contracts (combined $41 million in 2019-20) are a real burden. The improved Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves bump the Blazers from the playoffs. Collins and Swanigan don’t look like they’ll help matters much in the future. And the Blazers are locked into what becomes a lottery team for years to come.
• Ben Golliver, SI.com (Projecting the Western Conference)
5. Blazers: Continuity could prove to be a crucial advantage for Portland, who had the quietest summer of any 2017 West playoff team following a nice post-deadline push. Terry Stotts will continue to lean heavily on scoring guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, but the Blazers’ fortunes will be determined by Jusuf Nurkic’s ability to recapture and sustain his X-factor form.
They had a really quiet summer. Their continuity should help them get a fast start, and they showed they could play winning basketball after the Jusuf Nurkic trade. . . . I don’t think the Allen Crabbe [trade to the Nets] is addition by subtraction. It’s just subtraction. There are more minutes and clearer roles for Moe Harkless and Evan Turner, but they needed Crabbe’s shooting. It’s O.K. to overpay for shooting, and he was part of their best five-man lineup. . . . Damian Lillard doesn’t have any weaknesses on offense. He hits big shots, runs an efficient offense, shoots from deep, he’s a caretaker. It’s all on his shoulders. . . . Lillard deserves a lot of credit for finding a good balance with C.J. McCollum; there’s no real jealousy or push-and-pull between the two of them. It’s seamless how they play off each other. They both get naturally more aggressive when the other one is on the bench. . . . McCollum’s midrange game is a big-time weapon. His handle and his craftiness and his ability to play in pick-and-rolls are all pluses—he can score at all three levels. He can hit you at any moment.
• Kevin Pelton, ESPN (Win/Loss Projections)
9. Portland Trail Blazers
Projected wins: 42.7
Playoffs: 48 percent
To wit: While Portland is on the wrong side of the cut line in the West according to RPM projections, the Blazers still reach the playoffs in nearly half of all simulations.
The two things that the Blazers have going for them this season is their youth and their continuity.
As we have consistently seen over the years, the NBA is a young man’s game. Often, the teams that can stay healthiest and enjoy the best fortune are those that excel. Last season, Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Maurice Harkless and Allen Crabbe—four of the team’s most important rotation players—missed a combined total of just 17 games. The Blazers will enter the season with just one player over the age of 30 years old, and that’s Anthony Morrow, whom the club signed on September 15 as a roster filler. Those playing the lion’s share of of the minutes in Portland will have youth on their side, and that’s definitely a strength.
The other obvious strength of the Blazers is continuity. Entering last season, there were a few new players to crash the rotation and newfound expectations thrust upon many members of the team. This season, with a cast that is mostly carried over from last season, the familiarity should pay dividends.
Not much has changed with the Portland Trail Blazers. Ever since they overperformed two season ago, they are locked into what they are. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum tried to recruit Carmelo Anthony to Portland, but when that didn’t happen, the Blazers’ biggest offseason move became getting out of Allen Crabbe’s contract.
And that is fine, at least kind of. Having Lillard and McCollum as a backcourt duo gets you somewhere. Maybe it’s not as far as they’d like, but they play in the West and such is life. The rest of their roster — Mo Harkless, Ed Davis, Al-Farouq Aminu, etc. — is solid and dependable and generally do good things. But they also are what they are.
As currently constructed, there is only one player on the roster capable of change. Or, to be accurate, show that changes made last season are for real. That player is Jusuf Nurkic.