After making the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons under Damian Lillard’s leadership, the Trail Blazers’ steady consistency came to an abrupt halt in 2021-22. That coincided with Lillard, limited to 29 games, needing surgery to treat an abdominal injury. But the Blazers (27-55) finished 13th in the Western Conference for other reasons, too. Portland dealt with a front-office shakeup. Chauncey Billups experienced growing pains as a first-year coach. And beyond Lillard’s injury, Blazers players lost an additional 326 games to injuries of their own.
That prompted the Blazers to tear down some of their foundation leading into last season’s trade deadline. Portland dealt Lillard’s long-time backcourt mate, CJ McCollum, and key role players Larry Nance Jr. and Tony Snell to New Orleans. Portland also traded Norman Powell and Robert Covington to the LA Clippers to accumulate more draft picks and further improve their financial flexibility. Once the offseason hit? The Blazers used their No. 7 pick on dynamic scorer Shaedon Sharpe. They secured extensions to both Lillard and improving young prospect Anfernee Simons. They retained valued big man Jusuf Nurkić. They further bolstered their backcourt with the acquisition of Jerami Grant. And they signed Gary Payton II, a promising young defender coming off an NBA title with Golden State.
Are the Blazers a playoff threat? By granting Lillard an extension and supplying him with new complementary pieces, Portland sent a message that it remains intent to win with its long-time cornerstone. Barring any major injuries, the Blazers should not worry about falling into the NBA Draft Lottery again. Even though they should compete for a playoff spot again, the Blazers may only have enough to advance past the first round. It seems too much to ask Lillard to carry Portland any further without additional talent around him.
Portland will become a dangerous playoff team. Lillard will deliver the same way he did prior to his injury. The Blazers will show remarkable defensive improvement. And the team’s young players will comfort Portland about its long-term future. Nonetheless, it seems likely that the Blazers will experience the same issues during their previous eight-year postseason run. Portland appears talented enough to win a playoff game against anybody. Portland does not appear talented enough, however, to win a playoff series against a serious contender. Projection: Playoffs.
1 KEY STAT TO KNOW
47.8% — Anfernee Simons shot 47.8% on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, the best mark among 113 players who attempted at least 200 of them last season.
— John Schuhmann
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
Damian Lillard: The Blazers’ star will become determined to show that they made the right choice to extend him instead of beginning a massive rebuilding project.
Anfernee Simons: After showing steady improvement in scoring from 2020-21 (7.8 points per game) to 2021-22 (17.3), Simons could make another leap worthy enough of Kia Most Improved Player consideration.
Josh Hart: Although undersized, Hart will be much needed at small forward to guard the opposing team’s top wing.
Jerami Grant: With the Blazers lacking defensive consistency in recent seasons, Grant could become instrumental with forging that identity.
Jusuf Nurkić: After nursing plantar fasciitis in his left foot last season, Nurkić appears ready to assume his familiar role as a pick-and-roll screener, rebounder and finisher.
Shaedon Sharpe: The Blazers’ prized rookie could not show much in Summer League after injuring his left shoulder, but expect him to provide energy off the bench with entertaining dunks and passes.
Gary Payton II: After giving the championship Warriors backcourt grittiness to relieve pressure off Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Payton will fulfill the same job description to help Lillard and Simons.
Nassir Little: Following three seasons filled with injuries and sporadic playing time, Little appears motivated to show he can stay healthy and develop into a dependable 3-and-D player.
Drew Eubanks: He impressed the Blazers enough in Nurkić’s absence to land four 10-day contracts and a one-year deal.
LAST 5 SEASONS
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
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