The Portland Trail Blazers finished the 2015-16 season as one of the biggest surprises in the NBA. The team got off to a slow start, winning just 14 of their first 35 games. But after the All-Star break, Portland managed to go 17-11 in the final 28 games of the regular season, making the playoffs as the fifth seed in the Western Conference.
For a team that was projected to be in the bottom tier of the NBA, the Blazers proved that they could compete at a high level. And not only did Portland make the playoffs, they advanced to the second round by defeating an injured L.A. Clippers team. Once in the Western Conference Semifinals, they lost to the Golden State Warriors in a deceivingly competitive five-game series.
This season, however, is a little different. After winning 44 games last year, the Blazers had enough faith in their current roster and decided to retain most of their young talent. In re-signing the likes of C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless and Meyers Leonard, while adding Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli in free agency, the team spent a lot of money on a nucleus that has yet to reach its full potential.
The organization is now fully invested in this group for the long haul, and the expectations have accordingly risen. Fair or not, there are doubters who are assuming the Trail Blazers won’t duplicate their success from last season, but there’s something to be said for team chemistry and continuity. It’s a risky play by management and ownership to pay upfront for their players’ future value, but if it pans out, general manager Neil Olshey will prove everyone wrong once again.
With the strong leadership qualities of blossoming superstar Damian Lillard and the excellent chemistry of this current team, the Blazers could once again make everyone look foolish for doubting them. Don’t count this team out, as they thrive on proving others wrong.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Portland Trail Blazers.
FIVE GUYS THINK
Whether you’ve read my interviews with their players or followed my playoff predictions the last two years, you know that I’ve been on the Blazers’ bandwagon for quite some time. I love this young group, particularly the one-two punch of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in the backcourt. Both of these guys have emerged as legitimate stars and the scariest thing for opposing teams is that their best basketball is still ahead of them. Throw in head coach Terry Stotts – who remains ridiculously underrated – and a very talented supporting cast, and you have a team that should continue to compete at a high level for years to come. I do have the Thunder winning the Northwest, but as I mentioned in my Jazz preview, I think the top three teams in this division will finish very, very close to one another in terms of win total. All three teams are very good and a case can certainly be made for each squad when it comes to who will win the division. Finally, I love the addition of Festus Ezeli, especially because his contract is a bargain. He’ll earn $7,400,000 this season, and then only $1 million of his $7,733,000 salary is guaranteed for the 2017-18 season (giving Portland flexibility and potentially making Ezeli an attractive trade chip).
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Alex Kennedy
If you’re still doubting Damian Lillard as a franchise centerpiece, it may be time to reevaluate your position on the issue. The Blazers surprisingly reached the playoffs last season after losing four starters (LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez) the previous summer. The success was largely driven by the play of Lillard. But now, the Blazers won’t have the cloak of anonymity to sneak up on opponents. Expectations are higher. Media scrutiny will be tighter. The fans in Portland want more. Realistic or not, that’s the price to pay for success. The Blazers have all of the tools to be a 50-plus win club, but could also plummet back to earth rapidly. We’ll go with the former.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Lang Greene
Each year, there are those buzzy young teams on the cusp of doing something really special, and this season it looks like that will be the Portland Trail Blazers. Damian Lillard is to the point where he’s going to be in the MVP conversation every single year, and to see fellow small-school alumnus C.J. McCollum sneaking up right behind him is heartening for a Blazers fan base that remains one of the most voracious in the league. Evan Turner still feels like a weird fit, but it’s not like Portland lost anything to bring him aboard. He’s one more nice piece added to a team full of nice pieces that just so happens to exhibit really good chemistry. Plenty of young guns (Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless, Allen Crabbe) got paid like studs this offseason, so they’re going to have to start living up to their new paychecks. But even if they just repeat last season’s efforts, it should be enough to land them home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. This is a squad that looks ready for primetime.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Joel Brigham
I am quite enamored with the potential of the Blazers. A few weeks ago, in my NBA Sunday, I wrote about how the franchise rolled the dice and decided to spend heavily to invest around the potential of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Seeing them develop and come of age before our very eyes, they almost had no choice. There are some new faces in Portland and certainly cause for excitement. Aside from the Golden State Warriors, the Blazers are probably the Western Conference team I will be watching the most this season. I think they will have every opportunity to push the Oklahoma City Thunder for the division crown, but Russell Westbrook is still the best player between the two teams and one could make the argument that, even without Kevin Durant, Westbrook’s supporting cast is stronger. In terms of personnel, I’m not sure that I love the signing of Evan Turner, and certainly not at the price they paid for him (four years, $70 million). Festuz Ezeli, on the other hand, should have a major positive impact and I think him playing with Lillard and McCollum will make things much easier for him. Re-signing Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless and matching Brooklyn’s offer sheet for Allen Crabbe are substantial investments made in the pursuit of winning at a high level now, and I think they’ll mostly pay off. Terry Stotts has proven that he is able to get a positive return from these guys, and with the best still to come from most of the younger guys on this roster, there’s no reason to believe that the Blazers won’t continue to progress this season, even if they are still one or two steps behind the Thunder.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Moke Hamilton
I’ll admit that I was one of the many people who underestimated the Portland Trail Blazers entering last season. Losing players like LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez in one offseason is a big enough setback that any team could justify throwing in the towel for a season. Well, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum had other plans in mind and led a fun, well-coached team to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. The Blazers’ front office stepped up big this offseason, paying premium rates to keep rotation players like Allen Crabbe, Moe Harkless and Meyers Leonard in town, while adding more talent in Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli. I still think this team has a second-round ceiling, but that’s a soft position as of now. Neil Olshey, Terry Stotts and Lillard have taught me to not doubt this team too much.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Damian Lillard
Not only is he the leader, face of the franchise and best offensive player on the Blazers, Lillard is also one of the most dynamic offensive players in the league. An elite floor general, Lillard does a great job of recognizing what his team needs and when they need it. His ability to read the game, see the floor and create for other teammates is incredibly undervalued.
His “bucket brother” C.J. McCollum, may be more of a threat in certain one-on-one scenarios, but that is part of the reason for Lillard’s success. Defenses have to game plan for both guards, which makes them hard to contain. Defenses can’t completely hone in on Lillard or McCollum, because the other will make the opposition pay. The one-two punch is extremely important for Portland.
With unlimited range and an arsenal of offensive moves, Lillard can also quickly get into the lane and wreak havoc on opposing defenses. Whether it’s coming off of screens or hitting transition buckets, Lillard is impressive on a number of levels.
Similar to Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry, Lillard can get hot and take over when his team needs it most. It doesn’t always work out, but having that ability to single-handedly take over a game is huge for the Blazers.
When asked about what separates Lillard from his peers, McCollum told Basketball Insiders, “His versatility and ability to lead everyone while staying true to who he is and what he stands for is special. Obviously he’s a great player, but he hasn’t let success change his foundation and that’s what makes him who he is.”
The most valuable Blazer last season, Lillard averaged 25.1 points, 6.8 assists and four rebounds, ranking just outside of the top five in the league in points per game and assists per game. Lillard is the clear-cut leader of this group and an offensive juggernaut. At 26 years old, he still has some room to grow, but he’s reaching what could be the prime of his career.
Top Defensive Player: Al-Farouq Aminu
Last offseason, many criticized the Trail Blazers for signing Al-Farouq Aminu to a four-year, $30 million deal. His offensive game was raw and he had failed to live up to expectations early in his career, but his defense was certainly undervalued. After posting career-highs in points (10.2) and assists (1.7) last year, Aminu showed tremendous improvement on the offensive side of the ball while still continuing to defend at a high level. And now, with the salary cap rising significantly, Aminu’s deal now looks like a bargain.
Aminu’s 7’3 wingspan and 6’8 frame allow him to play passing lanes, disrupt shots and create turnovers. A tenacious and hardworking defender, Aminu is among the better perimeter defenders in the league, but his basic statistics don’t do him justice. He’s extremely savvy when it comes to reading the game and making life difficult for his opponents. His chase percentage (Nylon Calculus’ statistic for battling and fighting for rebounds) was among the league’s top 10. So while Aminu may not gather a ton of rebounds, he’s always fighting for them, which is certainly a valuable asset.
He was one of the biggest surprises last season, as he was able to keep opposing forwards in check. His individual defense was extremely undervalued because he plays on a poor defensive team – the Blazers ranked 20th in points allowed and defensive rating.
Aminu is arguably the best defensive player on the Blazers. Once Stotts moved him from small forward to power forward, Aminu was able to make an even bigger impact. Defending bigger and stronger players in the post may be a tough task for Aminu, but his all around defensive impact is a key component of the Blazers’ success.
Top Playmaker: Damian Lillard
Not all top scorers are also their team’s top playmaker, but Lillard does both in Portland. His ability to thread passes, beat double teams and elevate the play of his teammates is pretty incredible. As previously mentioned, Lillard averaged 6.8 assists last year.
Lillard’s maturity, leadership and overall contributions to this young Blazers core have been extremely vital to their success.
“He’s a very down to earth guy,” McCollum told Basketball Insiders. “He keeps it real all the time and has helped me get to this point. When I was getting DNPs and going through injuries, he was constantly staying in my ear and telling me to keep working because my chance was going to come. Sure enough, it did last season.”
Lillard has the ability to penetrate the lane, attract defenders and then find open teammates. With Evan Turner in the mix, Lillard may play off the ball more frequently, but he should still be Portland’s most important playmaker. Lillard’s intangibles and elite floor general skills have helped the Blazers compete at a high level and develop remarkable team chemistry and confidence.
Top Clutch Player: Big Game Dame
Everyone remembers Lillard’s game winner against the Houston Rockets in 2014, but he’s hit clutch shots a number of times since then. When Portland needs help most, Lillard steps up and carries this team through rough patches.
Scoring 125 total points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, Lillard ranks among the top 15 in the NBA in clutch time buckets. There’s a reason they call it ‘Dame Time.’
The Unheralded Player: Maurice Harkless
Re-signed for another four seasons, Harkless will be looking to build upon his strong performances toward the end of last season. A great player coming off the bench, Harkless’ size and athleticism make him an excellent defender and a difficult player to guard.
Averaging 8.5 points and 4.5 rebounds in 21.6 minutes after the All-Star break, Harkless certainly took a leap forward mid-season. Harkless wasn’t utilized consistently, but he started to find his form and role within this Blazers roster as the season went on.
With all the talk around Crabbe, Turner, McCollum and Lillard, it will be very important for Harkless to be utilized properly this upcoming season and pick up where he left off in the second half of last season. He just turned 23 years old in May, so he’ll continue to develop. He could be a very effective 3-and-D contributor for Portland moving forward.
Top New Addition: Evan Turner
One could’ve made the case for Festus Ezeli here, but with his injury history and Turner being a significant scoring option for this team, we think he’s the best addition.
The No. 2 overall pick in 2010, Turner has bounced around a bit over his short career. He’s undoubtedly a good player, but nobody could’ve predicted that he’d get a four-year, $80 million deal a few years ago when he was being criticized for not living up to his full potential. But after a breakout season with the Boston Celtics, he’s cashing in and will now be asked to add another dimension to this Blazers team.
Turner is going to help the Blazers with length and versatility, specifically on the defensive end. But when it comes to offense, there are question marks that surround his fit. He shot just 24.1 percent from three-point range last year, so spacing could be an issue. And if he’s handling the ball more, that indicates that he’ll take touches away from Lillard and McCollum. However, that may not be the worst thing. At times last season, we saw this Trail Blazers team suffer from not having more options on offense. Turner may not fit with everything offensively, but his skill set, size and versatility make him a threat and forces opposing teams to game plan for him. Also, he’s another player who can create his own shot and get to the foul line, something the Trail Blazers lacked last year. Ranking 17th among NBA teams in free throw rating, Turner will help the Blazers in that specific area of need. In Boston, he did some similar things as the Celtics’ sixth man.
Many questioned the Turner addition and his fit with this team, but if he can be a productive offensive threat while giving the Blazers much needed defensive help, they can be a difficult team to match up against on any given night.
– Oliver Maroney
WHO WE LIKE
- Terry Stotts
Coach Stotts is the definition of a players’ coach. He’s done a brilliant job of managing the young core and getting all of his players to buy in. This season, he comes in with higher expectations, but his innovative rotations along with the depth of this team should allow him to succeed.
He’ll add a player with a championship ring (Festus Ezeli) and a former top two pick in the draft (Evan Turner) to the mix, both of whom can contribute if put in the right situations. Integrating two new veterans like Turner and Ezeli could be challenging, but if there’s anyone who can keep egos in check and get everyone on the same page, it’s Stotts.
This might be Stotts’ toughest coaching job yet since he’ll have one of the deeper rosters in the league and a lot of young players that will want to play. If he can utilize his players properly and keep the team chemistry high, a top four playoff seed could be a possibility for these Blazers.
- C.J. McCollum
Last season’s most improved player, McCollum showed that he can be a versatile scorer and go-to option down the stretch. Arguably a better one-on-one scorer than Lillard, McCollum is extremely talented and creative with his offensive game.
There’s always room to get better and for McCollum, it’s on the defensive end of the floor. A little undersized at 6’4, McCollum has to make up for the size differential with other defensive skills. Earlier this offseason, McCollum talked with Basketball Insiders about his work on the defensive end.
“I want to get better on defense,” he said. “I’m really trying work on my lateral movement and tracking down the ball on defense. I know getting better on defense will help this team, so I’m just trying to get better.”
It seems as though he’s really putting in the effort to improve, but whether it’ll pay off remains to be seen. After signing a big extension this offseason, McCollum is determined to help Portland climb in the standings.
“This team’s goal is making the playoffs at the highest seed possible,” McCollum said. “I’m confident we’ll do that. We just take it one day at a time.”
Expect McCollum to improve his defensive impact this upcoming season while continuing to provide his efficient scoring.
- Meyers Leonard
The word often used to describe Leonard is “potential.” If he could put his physical tools and versatility together consistently, he’d be a great asset for this Trail Blazers team. But the past couple of years, we’ve seen him suffer season-ending injuries and setbacks that affected his confidence.
The future looked bright for Leonard last season with a starting spot almost surely locked up. Unfortunately, he suffered a shoulder injury that kept him sidelined for 21 games and really affected his confidence. Leonard is still viewed as a building block for these Blazers, which is why they gave him a four-year, $41 million deal this offseason. However, with some of his issues and the arrival of Ezeli (and the return of Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis), he does have to prove himself moving forward in order to receive big minutes.
Leonard has all the tools to become a very good player, he just needs to put them together and play consistent basketball. With a loaded front court, Leonard could find himself on the outside looking in if he doesn’t produce.
- Allen Crabbe
While Crabbe may not be a starter, he certainly got paid like one this offseason. Crabbe was a primary reason for Portland’s relative success against the Warriors in the playoffs. His ability to hit the outside shot paired with his defensive instincts make him a very solid and reliable player. Last season, Crabbe recorded career-highs in scoring, rebounding, assists, field goal percentage and three-point percentage. If he can continue his ascent this season, that will be huge for Portland.
After getting the big pay day, expectations will be much higher for Crabbe this upcoming season, but he should continue to grow and thrive within Stotts’ offensive system. A great catch-and-shoot player, Crabbe is going to be a vital component to the Blazers’ success.
– Oliver Maroney
SALARY CAP 101
The Blazers were one of the league’s lowest spenders last season, but the organization heavily invested this summer – spending on Allen Crabbe, Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless and Festus Ezeli among others. The team also gave C.J. McCollum a contract extension. Originally under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, Portland is now near the luxury tax threshold of $113.3 million – technically over going into camp with 17 players.
The Blazers have 14 guaranteed contracts, with Grant Jerrett, Luis Montero and Tim Quarterman fighting for one open roster spot. The team still has its $2.9 million Room Exception. Looking ahead to next summer, Portland projects to be over a $102 million salary cap. That presumes the team picks up rookie-scale options on Noah Vonleh and Shabazz Napier before November. Mason Plumlee is eligible for an extension by the end of October.
– Eric Pincus
The one-two punch of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum is one of the best in the league. Two ball-dominant players who are unselfish in nature, the ‘Bucket Brothers’ were the driving force behind the Blazers’ sixth-rated offense. With a deep, young team, the Blazers have a high-powered offense that is hard to defend, especially with Lillard and McCollum running the show.
The Blazers have versatile players who can be used to implement different styles of play. Whether it’s going small and spacing the floor or going big and slowing the game down, the Blazers have the talent to give teams trouble on any given night.
– Oliver Maroney
The Blazers were in the bottom third of the NBA when it comes to points allowed last season. While the team has a great defender in Aminu, it also has sub-par defenders like Lillard and McCollum among others. The addition of Evan Turner will help their defense, but the Western Conference is loaded with talented guards and wings. If McCollum and Lillard can’t defend at a passable level, the Blazers will struggle against the best in the West, making it difficult to win in the playoffs.
– Oliver Maroney
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can the additions of Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli help the Blazers become a top-four seed?
If Lillard, McCollum and Turner can gel in the backcourt while bringing defensive intensity every night, this team has a shot to be very good. The championship pedigree and winning mentality of Ezeli along with defensive impact and versatility of Turner should help the Blazers take another step forward this season. With three ball-centric players in Turner, McCollum and Lillard, it’ll be hard to predict how Stotts will divide up the playmaking duties. But knowing the maturity of those three players, you can expect them to do whatever it takes to win games.
The Blazers hope that the internal growth of players like Crabbe, Leonard and Harkless will also push them into the upper echelon of Western Conference teams. It’s hard to see this young, developing team outside of the playoffs in 2016-17, but there’s always room for concern when you add another ball handler to the mix. With an addition like Turner, Coach Stotts will have to make sure the team understands his role before stepping on Lillard or McCollum’s toes. Considering the chemistry and culture of this team, it’s likely that these three will find a balance that works for one another and the team.
Based on the Blazers’ perceived ceiling, pushing for the fourth seed in the West won’t be easy. McCollum will need to step up on defense, Turner has to find his role quickly and the frontcourt will need to find a rotation that works. If those things happen, Portland could legitimately battle for the fourth of fifth seed in the Western Conference.
– Oliver Maroney
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