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Portland Trail Blazers 2016-17 Season Preview

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The Blazers have seen some changes since they last took the court. How can they improve upon a surprisingly solid 2015-16 campaign?

Portland Trail Blazers v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Five Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

SB Nation’s NBA team blog preview series continues with the Portland Trail Blazers. Be sure to visit other team sites for insight on the season to come.

  • Team Name: Portland Trail Blazers
  • Last Year’s Record: 44-38
  • Key Losses: Gerald Henderson, Brian Roberts, Chris Kaman
  • Key Additions: Evan Turner, Festus Ezeli, Shabazz Napier

What significant moves were made during the off-season?

The Blazers pursued a handful of talented players in free agency, including Chandler Parsons of the Memphis Grizzlies, Hassan Whiteside of the Miami Heat, and Pau Gasol of the San Antonio Spurs, but failed to woo any of them with the promise of eventual contention. However, they did not come home empty handed. They successfully signed swingman Evan Turner for a pretty penny (4yr/$70M) and center Festus Ezeli for a Chuck E. Cheese token (2yr/$15M with a team option in the second year). Both will have the opportunity to contribute right away.

On top of new additions, the Blazers re-signed all of their restricted free agents. They matched the Brooklyn Nets’ ludicrous offer for Allen Crabbe (4yr/$75M), retaining Meyers Leonard (4yr/$41m) and Maurice Harkless (4yr/$40M) as well. They even inked 2016 Most Improved Player CJ McCollum to a 5yr/$106M extension that begins next season. The Blazers’ summer of spending left many with sticker shock, nervous to see how investments pay off in the season to come.

President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey advised patience, suggesting that despite the astonishing figures, the Blazers were careful in calculating contracts under the new cap structure:

“We look at things based on percentage of cap,” Olshey said. “And when you look at the salaries given out to our players in order to retain them, based on the percentage of cap, if you go back to what that would've been four or five years ago on that cap, these are commensurate salaries.”

At the end of the day, the Trail Blazers have an abundance of young players on long deals, which bodes well for a future predicated on internal growth. In a city that has historical difficulty attracting talent, there are worse strategies than doubling down.

What are the team’s biggest strengths?

With a variety of marksmen at their disposal, 3-point shooting will remain a strength for the Blazers, especially in head coach Terry Stotts’ flow offense, which emphasizes perimeter play. The addition of Turner as a third ball handler was intended to open up off-ball play for Damian Lillard, making the star point guard even more of a threat when he and McCollum pull the defense to opposite wings. The Lillard-McCollum duo is already one of the most lethal backcourts in the league.

What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?

That Lillard-McCollum duo is also one of the most punished on the defensive end. Lillard in particular tends to get swallowed on screens and offers limited resistance when opposing point guards charge the lane. This makes Mason Plumlee’s job a lot more difficult around the basket, but the hope is that Ezeli will bring a degree of rim protection that the Blazers lacked in 2015-16. Whether or not he can stay healthy enough to do so remains a point of unease for observers.

What are the goals for this team?

Quoth Olshey: “Step one is to make the post-season, step two is to be a factor in the post-season. We were last year; we expect to be this year.”

Barring unforeseen forces at play, the Blazers are probably not a championship team this year. They are still in the process of becoming a contender. Again, having talented, young players on long contracts is decent groundwork, but a more realistic goal than nabbing the Larry O’Brien trophy is to win a playoff series—two if the team excels and their cards fall right. Consider it a solid season if they win the Northwest division. The Oklahoma City Thunder may have fallen from grace, but the Utah Jazz will likely be tough to beat.

What will the team’s rotation look like?

Lillard and McCollum have the backcourt locked down, while we will likely see some combination of Al-Farouq Aminu and either Plumlee or Ezeli up front more often than not. The real ambiguity comes at small forward. The Blazers just paid through the nose to keep Crabbe, so he makes sense as a starter, but, then again, Turner did not come cheap either, and his skills may be better suited for complementing Lillard and McCollum than facilitating for the second unit. Truthfully, he can do either, which is the sort of versatility Portland liked from him in the first place. Let us not forget about Harkless, though. He turned a corner toward the end of last season and was a standard starter when the team was playing at its best. One of those three will earn the lion’s share of the minutes. The smart money is on a mildly lopsided Turner/Crabbe timeshare.

Outside of the starting lineup, we will certainly see a now healthy Leonard resume a larger role, cutting into some minutes that had belonged to Ed Davis by default. Even with such a deep roster, Stotts typically does not employ more than eight or nine bodies on a given night, so it is probable that some of the talented players will be on the outside looking in unless matchups favor them. Whether you consider this a log jam or an embarrassment of riches, you’re not wrong. The player who is likely to see their role diminished most from last season is the 21-year-old Noah Vonleh, who started 56 games in 2015-16, but is now the fourth or fifth power forward on the depth chart.

Who is most likely to break out?

That probably depends on how you define breaking out. No one is going to make the kind of statistical leap McCollum did last season unless Lillard takes umbrage to the musings of some poor analyst and decides 40 points per game is an appropriate response. Look for upticks in production from Crabbe and Leonard if the minutes are there. Leonard in particular seems poised to prove his worth to himself and the fans. Missing the end of last season was hard for him, but he has a confidence born of equal parts frustration and positivity at the moment. His mind is right, the physical tools are there, and he is still just 24 years old. Will he lead the team in scoring? Not a chance. But watch for new aggression.

What is the ceiling for this team? What is the floor?

The Blazers could surpass expectations, win 50+ games, and perhaps make the Western Conference Finals. Then again, they rely so heavily on a few key players that some hard times at the wrong times could mean missing the playoffs entirely. The Las Vegas Westgate SuperBook set the Blazers’ 2016-17 over/under at 46.5 wins, which seems to be about right. By most accounts, this should be a playoff team. They have no reason not to improve from last season, but whether or not that translates into more success depends on how and how much other teams have improved. The West is always tough, and the upcoming season will be no exception.