The Portland Trail Blazers enter into a ’17-’18 NBA season as yet another talented team in the western conference that is set to engage in a titanic slug fest to secure a playoff spot. The truth is that the Blazers are a good enough roster – on paper, at least – to call themselves a playoff team. The problem is that there are definitely more than eight teams out west that are in a similar situation. Here is the 2017-18 Portland Trail Blazers season preview.
Countdown to NBA Tip-Off: Portland Trail Blazers Season Preview
What Worked Last Season
Although the Blazers finished last season with a mediocre 41-41 record after a disappointing start (before getting swept by the Golden State Warriors in the first round), they ended up playing fantastic basketball after the Jusuf Nurkic for Mason Plumlee trade. Portland managed to end the regular season with a 14-6 record with Nurkic playing. The Bosnian big man enabled Portland to finally awaken a three-headed, offensive juggernaut in the form of Nurkic and their star backcourt, Damian Lillard, and C.J. McCollum.
Nurkic was able to act as a much-needed paint and post presence, helping to draw defenders in and leave Lillard and McCollum with more space at the three-point line. Moreover, with Lillard especially, Nurkic was able to execute the pick-and-roll play to perfection. It helped that he was unusually athletic for a 7 foot, 280-pound giant, and his rolls to the hoop were surprisingly smooth.
Along with Nurkic, what also continued to work for the Blazers was the one-two punch of Lillard and McCollum. Portland’s star backcourt averaged 50 points a night between Lillard and McCollum. Both possessed the scary ability to completely take over a game at any stage, albeit in different ways.
McCollum was a tremendously efficient scorer at every spot on the floor. He posting the leagues highest free throw clip (91%) to go with fantastic percentages from the floor (48% FG, 42% 3PT FG.) McCollum’s efficiency was complemented by his old-school bag of dribbling tricks that had the power to make any defender look silly. After winning the MIP award two seasons ago, McCollum stepped up yet another notch last season to continue his progress into the elite echelons of players in the NBA.
Lillard, on the other hand, had lower shooting percentages but on nights that he caught fire, the opposition didn’t have a chance of salvaging something from the game. Lillard’s 59 point burning of the Utah Jazz was his best performance of the year.
In addition to that, Lillard continued to provide valuable leadership to younger members of the team and spoke publicly of his wish to stay in Portland. He was valuable to the Blazers both on the court as a player, and off the court as an ambassador.
If the trio is able to continue their scintillating offensive form, the Blazers could be in for a successful year.
What Needs Improvement
While Portland’s de-facto big 3 were impressive last season, virtually every department surrounding them needs to step up should the Blazers want to make a playoff push.
Effective and efficient production was few-and-far-between from leading role players such as Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe. Turner tossed up a woeful 26% from beyond the arc, and while Crabbe was an above average shooter, he did not have enough touches to truly make an impact. Both players signed contract deals last season for over $70 million over 4 years, and are yet to prove they deserve anything close to that money.
While the role playing wings left much to be desired, what was even more detrimental to the Blazers were their bigs rotation. Nurkic – who joined towards the end of the season – was their only truly above average paint presence. Outside of Nurkic, no other big man stepped up in Portland. Noah Vonleh was energetic and at times, destructive. However, Vonleh was too inconsistent, putting up disappointing stat lines. Meyers Leonard was asleep whenever he needed to show up big. Deemed a ‘stretch forward,’ his lengthy shooting release form and 34% clip from three let him down significantly. Other bigs, such as Festus Ezeli and Ed Davis, missed most or all of the 2016-2017 due to injury.
The Blazers now have a wide array of bigs to choose from; namely Nurkic, Vonleh, Leonard, Davis and their latest draft additions; Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan. Over the course of the season (or as soon as possible), head coach Terry Stotts will have to figure out the best way to rotate these players for maximum impact.
Another player with a lot more to offer is Al-Farouq Aminu. As the defensive heart and soul of the team, Aminu wasted too many possessions on the offensive end last season. Too many plays ended with him tossing up difficult shots or over dribbling the ball resulting in turnovers. For a ‘3 and D’ player, a three-point percentage of 33% was disappointing. Aminu also had the highest turnovers of his career in a single season.
Aminu is vital to the Blazers as he is one of their few genuinely good defenders, so the team will rely on him to step up on the other end of the floor.
Although the Blazers were in hot pursuit of Carmelo Anthony, so far, the offseason has remained by-and-large quiet for them.
Drafting Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan in an attempt to bolster their frontcourt was a gamble, as they decided to ignore their inconsistencies on the wing. However, they recently signed shooting guard Archie Goodwin and small forward Anthony Morrow to training contracts.
Overall, the Blazers have made small, measured moves that haven’t quite set the league on fire but have plugged small holes in the roster. General manager Neil Olshey’s salary cap errors of the last offseason left the Blazers without much breathing space, but they’ve still managed to make the best of a mediocre situation.
Beyond that, no marquee player has signed that’ll truly change the way the team plays. Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic remain the clear-cut frontrunners of the youthful roster.
Lillard has marched his team to the playoffs for four consecutive seasons, and it is hard to see the Blazers out of the postseason. Given their core and its elite talent. Although securing a playoff spot this year will be as tough as it has ever been, Portland is a playoff-caliber team. It will take a serious showing from other teams in the conference to push them out of the running.
With that said, it is also difficult to imagine a situation where the team can make inroads in the playoffs. The cream of the west – the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, and Thunder – may be in too high a realm for the Blazers to cause any serious worries. It may end up being another one of those years where they reach the playoffs and are knocked out in the very first round.
Win or lose, expect an exciting season of Portland Trail Blazers basketball with an emphasis on internal development.