Blazers Lag In NBA.com Offseason And Western Conference Power Rankings

by Casey Holdahl
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Last week, the folks at ESPN put out their first set of NBA Power Rankings since the signings and trades that resulted in, amongst other things, LeBron James joining the Lakers and Kawhi Leonard heading north to the Raptors. The Trail Blazers, despite being unable to execute free agent signings or trades along the lines of what the Lakers and Raptors pulled off this offseason, still came in at No. 10 in ESPN's rankings.

But the folks at NBA.com (which is operated by Turner Broadcasting, by the way) aren't nearly as optimistic about Portland's offseason, nor their chances during the 2018-19 season, as the panel of voters at the World Wide Leader.

In regards to offseason rankings, David Aldridge has the Trail Blazers' moves this summer coming in at No. 24...

Lillard insists the rumblings heard in some quarters that he’s unhappy in Portland aren’t true, and the franchise better hope he’s being honest. The decisions the Blazers made in 2016 continue to lock them in place; if they catch a favorable first-round matchup (a grumbling Rockets team in 2014; an injury-strafed Clippers squad in 2016), they can advance a round. But last year’s 4-0 sweep by the New Orleans Pelicans had to give everyone pause. How does Portland respond mentally? Re-upping Big Nurk in the middle on a very reasonable deal -- $12 million for a starting center was the going rate five years ago, when the Wolves gave Nikola Pekovic a five-year, $60 million contract -- was necessary. But losing Davis, a locker room and fan favorite for superior work ethic, will hurt, even though Collins should sop up a lot of those minutes.

Not a whole lot to quibble with there, though you could argue every team other than the Warriors and Rockets needs "a favorable first-round matchup" to advance in the Western Conference. Getting Nurkić on an incredibly team-friendly contract was certainly the highlight, and the play of Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr. at summer league is cause for optimism regarding their potential going into their rookie seasons, but failing to utilize the $13 million exception from the Allen Crabbe trade and having only the taxplayer midlevel to sign free agents resulted in a relatively quiet offseason in Portland, and hence, a ranking in the bottom third of the league.

Aldridge ranks Portland's offseason behind Philadelphia's at No. 23 and ahead of Orlando's at No. 25.

Then there's John Schuhmann's Western Conference rankings, which has the Trail Blazers again in the bottom third at No. 10 despite finishing with the third-best record (albeit barely) in the conference last season...

2017-18 record: 49-33
Pace: 98.8 (19) OffRtg: 106.1 (16) DefRtg: 104.2 (8) NetRtg: +1.9 (11)

Key addition(s): Questions about the long-term viability of the backcourt
Key departure(s): Quality depth
Key question: How can this team get better?

It's weird to think that last season's No. 3 seed has to improve to stay in the playoffs, but that may be the case with the Blazers, who finished just three games ahead of the ninth-place Nuggets, got waxed in the first round, and lost three of their top four reserves in free agency. They were a plus-109 in 1,474 minutes with at least two of the three guys they lost -- Pat Connaughton, Ed Davis and Shabazz Napier -- on the floor and a plus-104 in 2,477 minutes otherwise. Hope for improvement comes from Zach Collins, who has shown signs of being an impact player offensively, and the idea of a comeback season from Seth Curry, who shot 41 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers two years ago.

While this isn't an unfair take in the slightest, it is about the most pessimistic reading of Portland's chances going into the 2018-19 season. The Trail Blazers certainly benefited from some good fortune in 2017-18, specifically in terms of health, and a number of teams in the West added significant talent to their rosters, but putting Portland well out of the playoff race seems low-ball for a team that has made the postseason every season for the past five years.

Schuhmann has the Trail Blazers behind the Spurs at No. 9 and ahead of the Grizzlies at No. 12.