After meeting and exceeding his goal to make the NBA playoffs in 2015-16, Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard has once again given his team something to shoot for in the upcoming season. In an interview with J.A. Adande of ESPN, Lillard expressed his desire to make it out of the second round and into the Western Conference Finals.
"This year I want to get to the Western Conference finals and give ourselves a chance to get to the [NBA] Finals," Lillard said. "I think it's possible."
This could prove exceptionally difficult, with teams like the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs retaining powerhouse status, and start-ups like the Utah Jazz gaining steam. Still, it is not impossible. Even if we play it conservatively and assume that the Trail Blazers do not improve from last season, the right side of the playoff bracket could make all the difference.
Adande notes that the Trail Blazers’ successful 2016 playoff campaign many wrote off as a result of injuries to Blake Griffin and Chris Paul in the first round, was still a feat worth crediting. Portland beat Los Angeles at full strength in Game 3, was leading in Game 4 when the injuries occurred, and even led for much of the series with Golden State after that, despite taking a 4-1 loss.
With a squad comprised entirely of players that are either in or approaching their prime, the Trail Blazers can use roster continuity to their advantage and sustain their upward trajectory. A Western Conference Finals berth is not out of the question if the team continues to rise.
With that in mind, the Trail Blazers no longer have overachievement claims to fall back on should they falter. A historic summer of spending such as theirs dictates new expectations. The team is in a somewhat awkward position where meeting Lillard’s goal appears improbable, but failing to meet it means a lack of significant improvement in terms of post-season results. The middle ground between amazement and disappointment is sliver thin.
The Trail Blazers could get credit for that last year. Not just credit, but hefty contracts for returners C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard and Moe Harkless, and an extension for coach Terry Stotts. All that cash means no more credit. Teams don't commit a third of a billion dollars in new contracts to be content winning five playoff games again.
Will the Trail Blazers make it past the second round in 2016-17? It is likely the right goal to have for a young team that reached the second round one season prior, but the field is unfriendly. A binary look at success and failure leaves a larger door to the latter. It is up to Portland to surprise again.