2017-18 Portland Trail Blazers
Projected Record: 47-35 (7th in West)
2016: 41-41 (8th in West)
- C Zach Collins
- F/C Caleb Swanigan
- G Isaiah Briscoe
- G Anthony Morrow
- G Archie Goodwin
- G/F Allen Crabbe
- G Tim Quarterman
- Great starting lineup
- Two bona fide stars
- Some useful wings
- Frontcourt depth
- Guard depth is lacking
- Rookies need to contribute early
The Portland Trail Blazers honestly really intrigue me this year, and I can’t quite put my finger on why. They didn’t make any significant splashes this offseason; outside of the draft, their only really notable move was their deal to unload Allen Crabbe’s unfortunate contract. There’s something to be said for continuity, though, and while teams like Minnesota and Denver adapt to the new looks of their rosters, it’s possible that Portland could capitalize.
I really like quite a bit of this roster, as they have a deep toolkit of weapons to deploy around the court. They’ve got a couple fun wing options in Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu, depth to spare in the frontcourt with Jusuf Nurkic, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh, Zach Collins, and Caleb Swanigan, and of course, two legitimate stars in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum to keep the show moving. Theoretically, they should be steady on both ends of the court, though I’d like to see them be a little less dependent on Lillard and McCollum for their scoring punch. If Jusuf Nurkic can stay healthy, he might be the third option they need.
There are holes, though, particularly at guard. The more Evan Turner plays, the worse it’ll be for the Blazers, but the only other options to handle the ball are basically just Shabazz Napier and undrafted rookie Isaiah Briscoe. They like to stagger McCollum into bench units, to be sure, but they’re inevitably going to have stretches where neither McCollum nor Lillard is on the floor, and they need to find something to keep them afloat for those minutes. The frontcourt depth is also heavily predicated on very young players: rookies Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan and 22-year-old Noah Vonleh currently stand to play a lot of minutes, and that’s even when Nurkic is healthy. If Nurkic goes down, can one of those three step up and fill that starting role?
One weird case on this roster: Meyers Leonard, who was bizarrely a 50-40-90 player just a couple years ago, but has since become nearly useless. Can he get his career turned around, or is his contract now a sunk cost for Portland, one of many deals they’d love to escape?
Most Valuable Player: Damian Lillard
I’m not necessarily the biggest Lillard fan; his yearly All-Star “snub” act gets tiresome, and his reputation might be just a little inflated. He’s The Guy in Portland, though – a superstar and skilled volume scorer, and he’s the engine that keeps this team moving. He’s going to have to continue to stay healthy and perform for the Blazers to jockey for better playoff position; if he’s got an extra gear still to come, this would be the year to find it. He and McCollum will have their minutes staggered as always, with McCollum doing a lot of work on bench units.
X Factor: Jusuf Nurkic
In a lot of ways, Jusuf Nurkic was the spark that helped salvage the Blazers’ season last year. Playing with a chip on his shoulder following some tension with the Nuggets and their emerging star Nikola Jokic, Nurkic played like a star himself, averaging a double-double while facilitating more offensive movement with his passes and providing a defensive anchor with his physical presence down low. It was the best ball of his career, but he wasn’t able to stay healthy to maintain it.
Nurkic has yet to play more than 65 games in a season, and his health is going to be crucial for the Blazers to keep pace in the loaded Western Conference. Everything just seemed to click for them when he was on the floor.
Portland has been an unpredictable team for a few years now, but I think their roster continuity will prove to be a valuable advantage on the heavily retooled Western Conference, at least in the early going. There are going to be stretches at some point where teams like Minnesota and Denver start to click on all cylinders; the question for Portland will be how they keep pace. Consistency from the Blazers might be a tough ask, but if they can find some, I think they could be sneakily good this season.