Earlier in the week we ran down a list of reasons why the Portland Trail Blazers might be better in the coming season than they were last year. Today we flip the script and look at reasons they could be worse.
Last Season Was Amazing
From the 22-4 start to the Shot Heard Around the Blazerverse in the penultimate playoff series, Portland fans spent most of 2013-14 pinching themselves to see if they were dreaming.
The great performance wasn't a fluke. I cannot stand the use of that term. It's bitter, a function of losing. Teams earn what they get. The Blazers deserved their accolades.
But just because something wasn't random doesn't mean it's easily repeatable. The Blazers will need to be amazing again just to break even. What if the start is slower, if Damian Lillard's shot doesn't fall this time, or if he never gets the chance?
We're going to find out whether the Blazers were playing in their wheelhouse or over their heads last season. Blazer fans are hoping for the former. The number of things that had to go right just to get the Blazers to the second round of the playoffs last year may argue for the latter.
The Off-Season Was a Wash
Adding talent is the clearest way for a team to get better. After taking a swing at Spencer Hawes but losing him to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Blazers brought Chris Kaman on board. Kaman will bolster the center position but he's hardly a revolutionary, or even a load-bearing, player. Steve Blake covers the departure of Mo Williams, offering a shift in style and a steady presence. He's not a fortune-shifting player either.
The moves weren't bad. Do they usher in a new era or even significant improvement? That's doubtful, especially since half the value of the Kaman and Blake signings came in their modest and temporary cap impact. If the combined ages of the players didn't indicate that these weren't long-term moves, their contract provisions would.
Improvement Hinges on Players Still Weak or Unproven
If the Blazers are going to improve this year they'll need strong showings from their young players. Thomas Robinson, Meyers Leonard, Will Barton, and C.J. McCollum had their moments in 2014. Overall the group can be described as mercurial at best, unhelpful at worst. In a given game any one of them could shine. Over the course of 4-5 weeks none of them have for long. With every win past 50 coming harder and with 54 wins as the new baseline, the Blazers will need sustained contributions from this quartet.
The Starters Are Still Overburdened
Chances are the Blazers won't get those sustained contributions from their young players, leaving them depending heavily on their starting lineup. Measuring by talent and chemistry this isn't a problem. But the team enjoyed near-perfect health last year. What happens if a starter goes down or even runs through an extended slump? Who fills the shoes of Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, or even Wesley Matthews?
The Contract Situation Is Janky
The contracts of LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, and lesser players all expire in the summer of 2015. In theory this gives the front office flexibility. In practice it becomes an excuse for agendas among the players.
The Blazers seem immune to such things compared to most teams, even compared to their roster two years ago. (Who can forget the disastrous finish to 2011-12 with Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford, et al playing out the string?) They should remain immune as long as things go well. Uncertainty multiplies as momentum wanes. If losses start to mount, doubt takes hold...not just personal doubt but communal. Doubt quickly becomes distraction, distraction an easy avenue to more losses.
We listed Western Conference competition as a potential contributing factor to the Blazers being better this season. Few teams below Portland improved dramatically. Most of those teams didn't get worse either. Nor do the teams above the Blazers in the pecking order appear poised to fall. We've described the Blazers as lead dogs in the mushy middle of the Western Conference. They'll start the season in that lead position but the field is no less muddled. It's hard to draw hard lines between the Blazers and the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, or Memphis Grizzlies. It's easier to draw those lines between the Blazers and the Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder, and San Antonio Spurs. At this point (understanding that no games of the new season have been played yet) it appears easier for the Blazers to be caught from behind than it would be for them to catch a team ahead of them outside of the Rockets, who finished last season with an identical record to Portland.
As with the factors to the positive, none of these items are conclusive. Terry Stotts and his players will control their destiny more than destiny--positive or negative--controls them. But it's fair to say that the Blazers have as much to prove this season as they do to celebrate about last season.
The most worrisome observation is that the Blazers could play as well as they did last year without earning commensurate results. Predicting an 85% win rate in the first 1/3 of the year is near impossible even if the team puts in a solid start. Predicting the fluctuations of their conference-mates is just as hard. I wonder what happens if the Blazers play well through February but the record and vibe just aren't the same. I wonder what happens if a relatively good first-round playoff appearance pales beside last season's incredible second-round advancement.
In the end, "better" and "worse" get colored by perspective and expectations. No matter how the season goes, what fans expect of the Blazers this year--indeed, what the Blazers expect of themselves--will provide an interesting subtext to the 82-game record.
--Dave firstname.lastname@example.org / @DaveDeckard