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NBA PM: Portland Trail Blazers 2017-18 Season Preview

The Blazers finished last season 17-6. Is that a sign of what’s to come? Basketball Insiders weighs in.

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The Portland Trail Blazers enter the 2017-18 as an intriguing bunch, if nothing else.

After winning 44 games during the 2015-16 season, the club made an improbable run to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. Despite losing LaMarcus Aldridge, it appeared that brighter days were ahead for the tandem of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. The Blazers re-signed most of their core free agents and added a few new faces, but stumbled out of the blocks to the tune of a disappointing 10-10 record after 20 games.

The young club entered the All-Star break a dismal 10 games below the .500 mark and the hopes of securing a playoff spot seemed bleak, but the midseason acquisition of Jusuf Nurkic from the Denver Nuggets changed everything.

Acquired on February 12 in exchange for Mason Plumlee, a second round pick and cash, Nurkic would play 20 regular season games for the Blazers before going down with a right fibular fracture, but the Blazers managed to reel off a 14-6 record with him in the lineup. Seeming to be the piece the team has missed over the early part of the season, Nurkic’s injury preempted any chance that the Blazers had at advancing out of the first round of last season’s playoffs, especially once they were locked into the eighth seed and pitted against the Golden State Warriors.

Having been swept at the hands of the eventual champions, one can only wonder which Trail Blazers team will show up during the 2017-18 season—the team that was inconsistent and sometimes listless over the first 60 games of last year, or the 14-6 club that emerged with Nurkic in the middle.

Let’s preview the 2017-18 Portland Trail Blazers.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Portland’s backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are amongst the top guard tandems in the league, and this offseason they’ve spent most of their time training together in preparation for what looks to be another playoff bound campaign.

With a healthy Jusuf Nurkic on board for a full 82 games, the star backcourt will have their inside presence to build with all season.

Despite the star power the Trail Blazers possess themselves, a .500 record likely won’t be good enough to get out of the regular season this year. Just in Portland’s division alone, the Western Conference has seen the likes of Jimmy Butler, Paul George, and Paul Millsap enter the picture.

Lillard and McCollum are on record with their recruitment of embattled New York Knicks’ star Carmelo Anthony. In order to make their lives a little easier in their suddenly stacked division, maybe the stud duo should ramp up their sales pitch.

3rd place — Northwest Division

— Dennis Chambers

Portland Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey has built a reputation for being a savvy team architect. However, his front office’s approach to this offseason has been somewhat dubious. Moving Allen Crabbe’s bloated contract made a lot of sense, but it seems like no one realized how little depth the team has on the wings. If Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum misses any extended period of time this season, the Blazers will likely be in big trouble. Evan Turner can play either guard position, but Turner isn’t the solution to replacing either Lillard or McCollum. The team also lacks three-point shooting, which is going to be a recurring problem, unless the team makes some significant trades. Also, it’s not clear has invested so much money and so many roster slots on big men. Though the roster features significant talent, it’s undeniably imbalanced, which means Portland could look to make some deals before next year’s trade deadline.

5th place — Northwest Division

— Jesse Blancarte

It took the rest of the NBA world a few months to catch up after I suggested that Carmelo Anthony’s ideal situation would be to land in Portland with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, but until Anthony himself sees the light, it’s wishful thinking for the Blazers.

One thing the Blazers don’t have to wish for, though, is productivity in the middle. Over the past few years, there have been a real life game of musical chairs for the pivot man in Portland, but it appears that those prayers have been answered in the form of Jusuf Nurkic. Nurkic got the opportunity to prove his worth and saw his numbers basically double after being traded to Portland, and if the Blazers had better health fortunes, their season may have ended differently.

Without question, the Northwest Division is the most difficult to predict this season, mainly because the Timberwolves, Thunder and Blazers, under certain circumstances, all may have the opportunity to win it. What’s even more amazing to consider is that the team that won the division last season—the Utah Jazz—aren’t even mentioned there.

In terms of talent, I think the Blazers are closer to a 50-win team than they are a .500 team (which they were last year), so I’ll go ahead and give them that. I can totally see this prediction blowing up in my face, but at this point, I think I’m taking Portland to finish third, behind the Timberwolves and the Thunder.

3rd place — Northwest Division

— Moke Hamilton

Something tells me Damian Lillard is on the cusp of taking his game to an entirely different level. Not that he hasn’t been crushing defenders for years at this point, but he’s been passively-aggressively stewing on social media all summer and is made of a lot of the same things that make Russell Westbrook great. I believe in Lillard, flat-out, and getting the contributions we’ve come to expect from C.J. McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and Mo Harkless should keep Portland every bit as relevant in the Northwest as every other team in that tough division.

3rd place — Northwest Division

— Joel Brigham

The Blazers are an interesting test case for what we can confidently take away from a small sample in a previous season. During a 20-game stretch post-All-Star break last year when Jusuf Nurkic joined the team, Portland went 14-6 and often looked dominant. On the flip side of that coin, they went just 27-35 for the rest of the year – and to be honest, their slate of opponents during that strong Nurkic-fueled stretch was pretty mediocre.

Is that 20 games enough to assume Nurkic was the missing ingredient for this team? That’s a big question. The Blazers got weaker in the spacing department over the summer with the trade of Allen Crabbe, and they still have some fairly serious defensive questions. Does adding another high-level guy in Nurkic full-time to the Damian Lillard-C.J. McCollum core do enough to mask these concerns? Playing in the toughest division in the league will also be tough, and this group can’t afford a single injury to either of their stars. At the same time, they’ve still got Terry Stotts behind the bench and a ton of continuity, so they’ll be right there in the playoff picture.

5th place — Northwest Division

— Ben Dowsett

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: C.J. McCollum

There are probably a fair number of people that would argue that Damian Lillard is the top offensive player on the Blazers, and it’s difficult to argue with them. We give the nod to C.J. McCollum, though, not because of any ill will toward Lillard or the way he does things, but more so because McCollum is the more efficient player. Aside from converting on 42 percent of his three-point looks last season, McCollum converted on a higher percentage of total field goals, two-point field goals and free throws than Lillard. While Lillard did lead the team in scoring last season (27 points per game to McCollum’s 23), the difference for Lillard can easily be attributed to his higher usage rate and the fact that he is still the team’s go-to player. If not for that disparity and the fact that Lillard took about twice as many free throws as McCollum did last season, McCollum might have been the team’s leading scorer.

Give the nod here to Lillard if you wish, we won’t argue. But in today’s NBA, efficiency counts for a lot, and McCollum’s excellence in that department can’t be overlooked.

Top Defensive Player: Al-Farouq Aminu

Since being drafted with the eighth overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, Al-Farouq Aminu has played four four different teams, but he averaged a career-high 29.1 minutes per game last season for the Blazers. The reason why is because he has proven himself to be a consistent difference-maker on the defensive side of the basketball. Aminu has impeccable defensive instincts and has proven his mettle as both a weak side defender and disruptor of passing lanes. Aminu is also a player that moves remarkably quick on the perimeter for someone whose size and stature allows him to be an effective post defender.

The difficulty in measuring defensive impact is well-documented, but the five-man unit statistics compiled by 82games.com offers some valuable insight. In terms of plus-minus, four of the top five five-man units that the Blazers trotted out last season featured Aminu playing alongside Lillard and McCollum.

Aside from that, anointing Aminu as the top defensive player on the Blazers is more a result of watching him in action than it is of any statistical evidence to support the claim. Of course, that’s fairly normal for defensive players, but we don’t think many would argue in this instance.

Top Playmaker: Damian Lillard

Damian Lillard averaged just 5.9 assists per game last season. For a point guard who shot 19.8 shots per game, it seems to be a fairly low number. When compared with the 6.8 assists per game Lillard averaged during the 2015-16 season, the reduction is impossible not to notice. It can be reasoned, however, that the lower assist numbers can simply be attributed to Lilliard’s teammates not converting on the opportunities that he created for them rather than the fact that he simply sought to create less for them. Truth be told, though, for Lillard to take the next step in his career, he needs to become a better floor general. Over the years, he has shown an ability to see the floor and has become a better pick-and-roll point guard, but he rarely breaks down defenders and gets into the paint with the intention of creating an open look for a teammate. Lillard, similar to Russell Westbrook a few years ago, usually seems to pass when the defense forces him to, and not as naturally as a Chris Paul or John Wall.

Still, Lillard has developed as a playmaker and, if his progression continues, will lead the Blazers to higher heights. With Shabazz Napier and Evan Turner as the other players entrusted to create shots, he is still fairly considered to be the team’s top playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: Damian Lillard

You can probably count on one hand the amount of players who have hit series-clinching three-point shots at the buzzer, but that’s exactly what Damian Lillard did back in 2014 when he sank the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of their first round playoff series. At just 23 years old, as a sophomore, Lillard proved he had the clutch gene. Last season was incredible, though.

Lillard accomplished the rare feat of sinking two buzzer beaters in the same game. It came in just the third game of the regular season and was an omen of things that were to come. Last season, Lillard scored 183 points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime, third to Isaiah Thomas and Russell Westbrook, respectively. Lillard also shot 12-for-38 in the final minute in the fourth quarter and overtime. It again places him behind Thomas and Westbrook, but without question, he is the top clutch performer on the Blazers.

The Unheralded Player: Maurice Harkless

Moe Harkless put together an across-the-board career season last year, and he did it while sharing minutes with Allen Crabbe. Now that Crabbe has been dealt to the Brooklyn Nets, it’ll probably result in more production for Harkless. In 2015, the Blazers signed Harkless to a four-year, $42 million contract and coming into it, there was quite a bit desired from the 21-year-old forward. Two years later, Harkless has emerged as the team’s starting small forward and has shown remarkable improvement in his three-point shooting. Hitting 35 percent of his shots from distance last season, Harkless seemed to mesh well with Jusuf Nurkic and helped the Blazers find themselves in the playoffs. His play suffered a bit during the team’s four-game sweep at the hand of the Golden State Warriors, so consistency is what will be required of him moving forward. Still, he has shown the makings of a good pro and makes enough of a game impact to be considered a diamond in the rough, and at just 24 years old, he still has appreciable upside.

Best New Addition: Jusuf Nurkic

Over the past few seasons, the Blazers have employed what seems to be a revolving door of big men. Last season, though, with the acquisition of Jusuf Nurkic, the franchise appears to have found a longterm answer to their question in the middle.

Technically, Nurkic was acquired last season, but since this coming season will be his first in a Blazers uniform, he makes the cut. That he only played 20 regular season games with the team further bolsters the case. As a member of the Denver Nuggets, Nurkic was thought to be a building block that the team foresaw splitting time with Nikola Jokic in the middle, however, the two seemed to be diminishing one another’s impact. After the February trade brought Nurkic to the Blazers, his productivity shot up when compared to what he was able to produce with the Nuggets. Nurkic scored 15.2 points, grabbed 10.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. The 1.3 steals and 1.9 blocks were icing on the cake. As if the double-double wasn’t enough, Nurkic giving the Blazers three assists per game is something that few centers are capable of contributing. With him in the lineup for the final 20 games of last season, the Blazers went 14-6. If that wasn’t an aberration, it could mean 50-plus wins and another journey to the second round of the playoffs.

— Moke Hamilton

WHO WE LIKE

1. Zach Collins

The Blazers entered the draft with the 15th, 20th and 26th picks, and managed to use the 15th and 20th picks to walk away with Zach Collins. While Collins did have some issues with staying out of foul trouble in Collins, he entered a loaded drafted as a projected lottery pick and ended up being selected 10th overall, as expected. Collins saw his stock rise dramatically over the course of his freshman year at Gonzaga, mainly due to his impressive per-minute numbers, efficiency ratings and timely performances over the course of the tournament. Obviously, those metrics don’t always translate, but playing behind Jusuf Nurkic, Collins will give the Blazers some depth and youth with upside, so there’s no question that he will have every opportunity to become a valuable part of Terry Stotts’ rotation.

2. Neil Olshey

In hindsight, general manager Neil Olshey may have been a little aggressive last summer when he went on a phenomenal spending spree, but he has consistently shown the ability to find diamonds in the rough and mold them into special pieces. The latest example of this would be Jusuf Nurkic. Perhaps Olshey was simply in the right place at the right time, but Nurkic appears to be the answers for the Blazers in the middle. In the Nurkic trade, while Olshey did send out Mason Plumlee, cash considerations and a second round pick, he managed to convince the Nuggets to include the 2017 first round pick that the club used to select Harry Giles. They eventually flipped Giles to the Sacramento Kings in return for Zach Collins and effectively got Nurkic and Collins for Mason Plumlee and a second round pick. Olshey often finds way to spin pieces into valuable building blocks, and this is another example.

3. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum

If the Blazers made a mistake, it would have been overestimating where they were in terms of their rebuild and committing too quickly to a group of players that won’t ultimately lead them to contention in the Western Conference. One thing they haven’t erred on, though, is committing to rebuild around Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. The duo rightfully belong in the conversation with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and John Wall and Bradley Beal as the top backcourts in the league. Some would even argue that Lillard and McCollum are as good as the defending champions, but we’re not ready to go there just yet. With James Harden and Chris Paul having joined forces in Houston, Lillard and McCollum may see their perceived stock fall a bit. While they do still need to show an ability to have as much game impact on the defensive side of the basketball, there’s no question that they are a magnificent duo to build around.

4. Terry Stotts

Things might be a tad uncomfortable for Terry Stotts in Portland. Even after ridding themselves of Allen Crabbe’s contract, the Blazers will be a luxury tax team this season, and with the 14-6 record that they compiled over the final 20 games of last season, the expectations of Stotts will be to have the team storm out the gate and cruise to 50 wins out West. What we will credit Stotts for is this: he is innovative and courageous. Last season, Stotts tinkered with his lineups and rotations and found a way to make it all work by giving consistent playing time to Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless. With less new faces to incorporate this season, Stotts will enjoy some stability and should, in theory, help the Blazers get their season off to a better start than he did a year ago.

5. Evan Turner

Last offseason, the Blazers signed Evan Turner to a whopper of a contract—four years, $70 million. Although it’s a hefty price tag to play for a player who has started less than 50 percent of his games, Turner is a versatile swingman who has the undervalued skill of being able to create looks for his teammates playing either as an off guard or swingman. Part of the reason why we are showing Turner some love here, though, is because he figures to be a bigger part of what the Blazers do this season with Allen Crabbe having been moved on to Brooklyn. If Turner can revert to the player we last saw in Boston, it would go a long way toward restoring his value and the perception about his contributions.

— Moke Hamilton

SALARY CAP 101

The Blazers entered the summer well above the league’s $119.3 million luxury tax threshold. Dumping Allen Crabbe on the Brooklyn Nets helped shave that down significantly, although Portland is still over the line at roughly $122.2 million in team salary for a $4.5 million penalty. While the team still has their $5.2 million taxpayer Mid-Level Exception, they probably hold off using it to avoid additional taxes.

Next summer, the Blazers will be over the cap. Three players (Noah Vonleh, Jusuf Nurkic and Shabazz Napier) are all eligible for extensions before the start of the season.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The two things that the Blazers have going for them this season is their youth and their continuity.

As we have consistently seen over the years, the NBA is a young man’s game. Often, the teams that can stay healthiest and enjoy the best fortune are those that excel. Last season, Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Maurice Harkless and Allen Crabbe—four of the team’s most important rotation players—missed a combined total of just 17 games. The Blazers will enter the season with just one player over the age of 30 years old, and that’s Anthony Morrow, whom the club signed on September 15 as a roster filler. Those playing the lion’s share of of the minutes in Portland will have youth on their side, and that’s definitely a strength.

The other obvious strength of the Blazers is continuity. Entering last season, there were a few new players to crash the rotation and newfound expectations thrust upon many members of the team. This season, with a cast that is mostly carried over from last season, the familiarity should pay dividends.

— Moke Hamilton

WEAKNESSES

It seems a bit cliche to point to defense as a weakness, but for the Trail Blazers, it rings true. The team can score with the best of them and can win any game wherein they are hitting their shots, but when they go up against a powerful defensive force, they struggle to gets wins because they struggle to get stops. In the Western Conference, every contender needs to buckle down and get stops when they’re needed, and the Blazers simply cannot count on Al-Farouq Aminu to single-handedly get them those stops—not when they’ll be seeing high-octane offenses featuring the likes of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook.

If there is one other weakness of the Blazers, it would have been their lack of interior scoring, but with Nurkic manning the post, the team may be equipped to do something about that this coming season.

— Moke Hamilton

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum Step Up?

Barring something unforeseen (such as Carmelo Anthony agreeing to waive his no-trade clause to relocate to Portland), with the money on their books, the Blazers are somewhat committed to their current core. The team has over $100 million in salary commitments over each of the next three seasons, so their hope of being able to tango with the Golden State Warriors rests squarely on the shoulder  of Lillard and McCollum. Last season, the tandem averaged just 9.5 assists per game on 37.8 shots attempts per game. Simply put, that’s not a recipe for winning basketball. With the addition of Nurkic, those shot attempts should trend downward, but Lillard and McCollum need to become renowned for impacting the game in area other than scoring.

Last season, Portland was 25th in points allowed and 24th in defensive efficiency. If they are to become anything more than the Western Conference’s version of Joe Johnson’s Atlanta Hawks, they need to become a better defensive team. Whether or not they do will likely begin (or end) with their dynamic backcourt.

— Moke Hamilton

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