2018 Preview — Portland Trail Blazers

2018-19 Portland Trail Blazers


Projected Record: 47-35 (8th in West)

Over/Under: 41.5

2016: 49-33 (3rd in West)


Key Additions:

  • Seth Curry (Free Agency)
  • Nik Stauskas (Free Agency)
  • Anfernee Simons (Pick #24)
  • Gary Trent Jr. (Pick #37)

Key Subtractions:

  • Ed Davis
  • Shabazz Napier
  • Pat Connaughton
  • Georgios Papagiannis

Summary

Strengths:

  • Backcourt remains loaded
  • Roster consistency, as always

Weaknesses:

  • Overachieved last season
  • Might be stagnating in Western Conference
  • Lots of pressure on young frontcourt

The Portland Trail Blazers would very much like you to forget about last April, if you wouldn’t mind.

Things were different last March. The Blazers were piling up wins and leaving the corpses of playoff teams from both conferences in their wake. Their improbable 13-game winning streak featured wins over Golden State (twice), Utah, Minnesota, Oklahoma City, Miami, Cleveland and Detroit, and on March 18, Portland was a triumphant 44-26, lapping up praise while Damian Lillard inched his way towards a darkhorse NBA candidacy.

Dread it, run from it; Anthony Davis still arrives. Portland’s four-game first-round mauling at the hands of the Pelicans quickly turned closed the book on what at one point could have been the finest season of the Lillard era. While the series loss was the nadir, though, the cracks had already begun to show — the Blazers won only five of their remaining 12 games after the win streak while Lillard and C.J. McCollum floundered. While the Blazers may have landed the third-seed in the conference, they were only eighth in net rating (+1.9) by season’s end.

Now, the Blazers have a lot of questions and no easy answers. The roster is more or less the same — Shabazz Napier and Ed Davis are out, Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas are in. Not exactly an exciting offseason. While Napier was a valuable contributor last season, Curry is a worthy replacement — and might fit better next to Portland’s star guards. While Davis remains criminally undervalued by NBA teams, his departure frees up minutes for second-year men Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan. These aren’t major changes; the Blazers will feel very familiar.

Last year, I wrote that the Blazers’ undying roster consistency would prove to be a virtue in the West, as so many other teams were incorporating new stars and managing significant roster turnover. Honestly, this turned out to be largely true — teams like Oklahoma, New Orleans, Minnesota and Denver underwent significant growing pains as the season progressed, while the Blazers were relatively slump-proof before April, apart from a five-game blip in December. This is likely a reason they were able to overachieve to the extent they did.

However, their consistency might not be such a boon this time around. The series against New Orleans exposed some fatal flaws in Portland’s construction; the Pelicans’ homicidally aggressive perimeter defense flustered Lillard and McCollum for much of the series. Without them, Portland’s supporting cast simply wasn’t able to make any plays. Nurkic was nearly invisible, and only Collins provided any semblance of a spark off the bench.

The Western Conference has only continued to bolster itself, and right now, the Blazers look like one of the most likely teams to suffer as a result. Most of those teams who struggled last season look less likely to do so this time around — the Thunder are streamlined and confident without Carmelo Anthony on-board, the Pelicans will roll out a more fleshed-out version of their post-Cousins success, and Denver will have a fully healthy Paul Millsap joining an extra year of growth from their young core. Only the Blazers have stood pat — and that could prove to be their downfall.


Most Valuable Player: Damian Lillard

Dame Lillard is one of the best point guards in basketball. You really don’t need me to tell you that. As great as we all know he is, however, I’m starting to believe it’s possible he deserves a touch of scrutiny for his performance in the playoffs. Dame’s reputation holds him as one of the most clutch players in the NBA, and while I enjoy “Dame Time” as much as the next guy, it has yet to carry Portland out of the second round. His net rating has been heavily negative in all five of his playoff appearances, and his shooting stats leave quite a bit to be desired.

You tell me: which of these career playoff shooting lines belongs to Dame, and which belongs to much-maligned playoff performer Kyle Lowry?

.412/.340/.788, .482 eFG% vs. .400/.341/.890, .467 eFG%

This isn’t a significant shot at Lillard, though it may come off that way. Lowry has been a much better playoff performer than he probably gets credit for, and the offensive loads they each carry are fairly dissimilar. It’s not Dame’s fault nobody in the West can contend with the Warriors (they eliminated the Blazers each of the two seasons prior to last year, and Dame was tremendous in the first matchup), and he sank one of the most iconic shots in recent postseason memory, the Game 6 triple to sink the Houston Rockets in 2014.

Still, it’s something. There has been a difference between Regular Season Dame and Playoffs Dame, especially in the past two years. The Blazers have few — if any — avenues to pursue outside reinforcements, and so they’ll need a better version of their franchise player come April, or their postseason stay might be a short one once again.

X Factor: Jusuf Nurkic

One of the most most fun stories of the 2016-17 season was a disgruntled Jusuf Nurkic getting traded from Denver, playing the best basketball of his life for two months with the Blazers and eliminating the Nuggets from playoff contention, wishing them a “happy summer” after the game. It was a blast.

As a result, I was very high on Nurkic as the Blazers’ third piece alongside Lillard and McCollum this time last year. It didn’t quite pan out. While we knew he wasn’t going to be a +8.5 net rating type of superstar, Nurkic regressed in almost every phase of the game compared to his 24-game Portland debut. He looked less Nikola Jokic and more Nikola Vucevic, and it was particularly disappointing to see the sharp passing he displaying (3.2 assists per game) return to merely decent levels for a frontcourt player.

Nurkic is not without his value, of course — the Blazers were still +3.6 per 100 possessions with him on the court. He’s a ridiculously strong, physical presence in the paint, especially on the defensive end, and he does solid work on the boards. There have been mutterings of the Blazers extending his range out to the three-point line this offseason, and it couldn’t hurt; he launched 130 jumpers from 16 feet or further last season and hit 36% of them. Turning some of those long twos into threes would be beneficial for everyone.

The Blazers inked Nurkic to a four-year, $48 million contract this offseason, and now they have to figure out exactly what the best way to deploy him might actually be. Unathletic, paint-bound centers have been largely left behind by the NBA, and in the Western Conference Playoffs, Nurkic will be brutally exploited in a lot of matchups. If that incredible partial season proves to truly be a flash in the pan, this could turn into a headache for the Blazers.

Don’t Forget About: Seth Curry

I don’t know what it’s in the air at the Curry household, but man, that is a family that can shoot some three-pointers. I want what they’re having, thank you very much.

Seth “The Other One” Curry hasn’t played in over a year due to a leg fracture, and in that time, it’s possible people have forgotten just how good he was with the Mavericks in 2016. I love his fit on this roster. While Shabazz Napier was a breakthrough contributor for last year’s Blazers, he was similar to the point of redundancy with both Lillard and McCollum — an on-ball scorer who wants to put the ball on the floor and let the pull-up jumpers fly. He’s also tiny, and physically a poor matchup against the average two-guard.

Curry’s game is more balanced. He shot very well on both catch-and-shoot threes (40%) and pull-up jumpers (47%), and he moves well without the ball in his hands, which will bring him lots of opportunities to thrive around the defensive attention Portland’s stars will attract. He’s also a little bit bigger, though still small, but every inch counts, right?

Seth Curry’s breakout season was generally obscured by a pretty unexciting Mavericks team, and missing an entire season didn’t help matters. Now that he’s back, I expect he’s going to open some eyes as the Blazers try to fight their way into the Western Conference Playoffs once again.


Second Opinion

Jackson Frank, The Step Back + Liberty Ballers (@jackfrank_jjf)

Since the beginning of the 2013-14 season, only five teams have made the playoffs each year. Four of those clubs have either been their conference’s top seed or won an NBA championship in that span: Golden State, Houston, San Antonio, and Toronto. The fifth? Portland, who has only won two playoff series.

The Blazers return their entire starting five — Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Moe Harkless/Evan Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic — following a surprising run to the third seed that was undercut by a disappointing sweep at the hands of New Orleans. Yet repeating such a season seems near-impossible, especially given the reinforcements or high-level signings Portland’s Western Conference peers will be armed with this year. Despite earning the third seed, Portland was only three games better than ninth-seeded Denver, and had a relatively clean bill of health, unlike many of their Western competitors.

Hamstrung by their lavish 2016 offseason, the Blazers’ summer roster moves were fairly nondescript. Out are Ed Davis, Pat Connaughton and Shabazz Napier — three key bench pieces on a 49-win team. In are free agents Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas and rookies Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr. Jusuf Nurkic also inked a new deal: four years, $48 million.

Barring injury, Curry, who averaged 12.8-2.7-2.6-1.1 on .481/.425/.850 shooting splits in 2016-17, should be able to replace Napier as a lead guard off the bench. He missed all of last season after undergoing surgery to address a stress fracture in his lower right leg but all reports suggest he is fully healthy now. Beyond him, though, none of the new faces project to be valuable cogs in the machine. Instead, Portland is leaning heavily on its young and inexperienced frontcourt trio of Meyers Leonard, Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan. Collins is slated to become the primary big off the bench — assuming Davis’s role — though he’ll need to bulk up and establish better consistency on his jumper to really thrive.

Portland is hoping whoever wins minutes between Leonard and Swanigan can mesh with Collins just as Davis did. Together, Collins and Davis posted a net rating of plus-6.4. Without Davis, Collins’ net rating plummeted to minus-14.8. Replacing Connaughton’s production might fall on Jake Layman or one of the rookies, though none seem prepared to do so right now.

While the majority of the conference was improving this summer — the Lakers acquired LeBron James, Julius Randle is a Pelican, Paul Millsap should play more than 38 games, etc. — the Blazers said goodbye to some vital rotation players. None are huge needle-shifters but in the West, an extra rebound from Ed Davis or a late three-pointer from Shabazz Napier to steal a win might be all that’s required to sneak into the postseason.

While the Terry Stotts-led Blazers have shown a knack for remaining competitive in the face of adverse conditions, the West is more talented than it’s been in recent history. Without the requisite depth to replace its offseason departures and no impact player returning from injury, Portland might be on the outside looking in come April for the first time since 2013. Don’t assume that’s the case until it happens, though — Lillard, a perpetual dark horse, seems to relish these opportunities, and his 2018-19 underdog novel could be the best one yet.


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