Kevin Pelton of ESPN Insider has forecast the 2014-2015 Trailblazers to finish 2nd in the NW Division and 5th in the Western Conference behind the usual suspects and Golden State. He writes about how their extraordinary health last year propelled them into the playoffs and thinks they might be able to move up a spot this year if Kevin Durant doesn't return to the court in a timely manner.
So expect Portland to win something closer to 50 games than last season's 54. That still might be enough to move up the West standings. . . . Portland stands a good chance at earning home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs.
Pelton also profiles every player on Portland's roster. He warns that pundits who put a cap on the growth curve of Damian Lillard do so at their own peril, citing his game-closing ability and his improved finishing rate at the rim as last season progressed. Lillard even got some of Pelton's love defensively, though concerns remain.
A defensive liability as a rookie, Lillard made some progress in his sophomore campaign. Despite his small frame, he's become a surprisingly tough post defender, and he's OK in isolations. Lillard's biggest shortcoming is a tendency to get caught on screens, leaving him out of position against pick-and-rolls.
He writes about the foot injury of C.J. McCollum derailing his first year the NBA and suggests that the hiring of Steve Blake means CJ will likely play more shooting guard this year than he did last year. Pelton likes CJ's ball-handling skills but thinks he might be a little small.
At 6-foot-3, McCollum will be giving up size to most opposing shooting guards. A solid 6-foot-6 wingspan will help him in these matchups. McCollum's excellent steal rate in college did not carry over to the NBA, and this season will offer a better idea whether that was because he played more conservatively or simply noise in the data.
Pelton, not unexpectedly, has nice things to say about a couple of Trailblazer "energy guys":
[Will] Barton's best skill is energy. He plays every possession like he's driving on the Autobahn, which is infectious for teammates and the crowd. As a rookie, Barton's speed meant playing out of control. Last season, he dialed things back just enough to find a good balance.
[Thomas] Robinson looks the part of an NBA star, and his chiseled frame and athleticism have been most beneficial on the glass. Had Robinson played enough minutes to qualify, he would have been one of the league's top 20 rebounders. Robinson's rejections tend to be of the spectacular variety and hyped up the Moda Center crowd. That energy was Robinson's biggest contribution last season . . .
If you're an ESPN Insider you can read much more of Pelton's forecast and profiles at these locations: