One of the more frequently-asked Mailbag questions is how much the Blazers will improve this year. I always hate predicting records for a couple of reasons:
1. Too many variables come into play to pin down a specific number. If you really knew so much about how the season would progress that you could call the exact win total every year, why would you need to watch the games?
2. Predictions always seem self-centered to me. "Look how good I am! Look how right I was!" (Plus when people are wrong they conveniently forget what they predicted.)
3. I hate the modern trend of sports discussion becoming a peeing contest between "experts" wielding varying predictions. If you call the right number for all the wrong reasons does that mean you were more correct than the guy who got farther from the number but had a better handle on the reasons things developed as they did?
But you know this question will keep coming up. It's easy shorthand, a discussion starter. Soon they'll ask me to do a video preview of the season or a league-wide topic post centering on predicted number of wins. The Mailbag requests will keep rolling as well. So I might as well get it out of the way and ask you guys to chime in with your own thoughts.
The Blazers won 33 games last year. If things go wrong I'd put them in the 37-38 range this year. If things go right I'm guessing 41-42. So I'm going with a final prediction of 38-40 wins. That's as narrow as I get.
Plenty of people are going to forecast that win total as low, thinking the improvements over the summer will boost the team into the mid-40's. 45 wins would mean a 12-game increase over last season. 47 or 48 would be 14-15. That's a huge ask given the level of this summer's acquisitions.
The Blazers have made double-digit jumps in win total five times in franchise history:
The first was 1976-77 when they leaped from also-ran status to World Champions. That summer saw Bill Walton return from injury, Maurice Lucas and Dave Twardzik join the team via the ABA Expansion Draft, Johnny Davis as a rookie, and a number of other changes.
The second huge jump came in 1989-90 when the Blazers picked up an astonishing 20 extra wins by trading Sam Bowie for Buck Williams and picking up Cliff Robinson in the draft. But the continuing maturation of Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey, and Kevin Duckworth also had something to do with it.
In the lockout-shortened season of 1998-99 the Blazers took the equivalent of an 11-game jump as the group of Rasheed Wallace, Damon Stoudamire, Arvydas Sabonis, Brian Grant, J.R. Rider, and Jim Jackson (plus Walt Williams, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony...Jermaine O'Neal and Bonzi Wells were the 11th and 12th men on the team) started to gel.
In 2006-07 the Blazers benefited from drafting Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, netting 11 games over their previous total.
Finally the Blazers picked up 13 wins in 2008-09 as Greg Oden played his only semi-healthy season and Roy reached his career peak in production and efficiency.
A few factors are common in each case outside of the nonesuch '98-'99 season. The Blazers had strong talent sitting on the roster and major talent coming in via trade, free agency, or the draft. A couple times they also had a world-class player returning from injury. Few of those descriptors fit this year's team.
The Blazers have jumped 9 games on three other occasions. (If duplicated this year that feat would leave them with 42 wins, at the highest upper end of my best-case projection.) In each prior case the 9-game jump was accompanied by continued growth from once-in-a-generation-level talent: Walton, Lucas and friends in '78, Drexler and company in '87, Roy and Aldridge in '08. Do the Blazers have that kind of talent and ceiling on their roster currently? If so, it's certainly less obvious than it was in any of those prior scenarios.
Over the years a double-digit jumps, or even getting close with 9 extra wins, haven't come from incremental improvement. They've been the marker of historically good units, unmistakable in their prowess and potential.
The Blazers didn't start the summer with all-world talent, potential or depth. (Damian Lillard may be close in the talent/potential department but we need to see another year at least before we declare him historically good.) They did not pick up Buck Williams or Maurice Lucas level veterans in trade. They have no franchise center returning from injury. This was not an Aldridge-Roy draft. None of the markers indicating a double-digit jump are shining forth.
Whether the Blazers can make the playoffs without a double-digit win increased depends on what happens to the rest of the conference. I'd say it's possible, especially if you'll settle for the 8th spot. But it's hardly a guarantee. They'll need another team or two to help them out and they'll have to play with guts all season themselves.
So there it is. What say you? Predict the record below and share what's going through your mind.