In conversations I've had about the Trail Blazers' future locally, be it with tweeters or blog commenters or radio callers or whomever else, the impression that I get is largely one of optimism. Here in Portland, among people who follow the team closely and watch all 82-plus games, there's a pervading sense of hope about the coming years. There's good reason for this. After all, the Blazers just wildly exceeded expectations in the first year of an (expected) slow rebuild, and they should only get better as their players mature and build continuity. Moreover, their free-spending owner just committed more than the GDP of Micronesia in new contracts last month to keep those players around.
This is how most people here see it. In general, things are good for the Blazers moving forward. They've got a winning team, they've kept that team together almost entirely, and they're moving in the right direction. The optimist vibe isn't just homerism - it makes intuitive sense.
That's the word internally. If you gauge the general feeling about this Blazers team outside the Portland metro area, however, you're likely to get a very different reading. Those who live here and watch this team every night have one conception of where the Blazers are headed; others have another. If you live in one of the other 49 states, chances are you view this team with a bit more skepticism. You're probably questioning Neil Olshey's decision to invest nine-figure salaries in multiple players who aren't proven as anything more than career backups. You're probably super confused about what Evan Turner is doing with a four-year contract. You might even be unsure about the long-term ramifications of pairing Damian Lillard with CJ McCollum in the Portland backcourt.
And - this is perhaps the most important one - you may be wondering whether the Blazers' 44-win season was an aberration. A fluke. A one-year blip that's not to be repeated in 2016-17.
I've heard this notion several times recently. And to be honest, I get it to a certain extent. The Blazers ripped everything to shreds a year ago. The players they built around, excepting Lillard of course, were not established stars. They were entrusting modest role players with starters' minutes. They were supposed to be borderline tankers last season. That they weren't was seen largely as a combination of injury luck, streaky shooting and a team just generally playing over its head. There's no guarantee that these factors return for year two.
And here's a more specific accusation I've heard leveled against these Blazers. In casual conversations I've had with NBA observers from outside Portland, I've listened not once, not twice but on three separate occasions as they've compared the Blazers to the 2014 Phoenix Suns. Yes, those Suns - the young, would-be tankers who traded Marcin Gortat just days before the start of the 2013-14 season, looked poised to lose 60-plus games, then managed to wildly overachieve and win 48 instead, competing for a playoff spot in a loaded Western Conference the following spring. Those Suns had a miracle season - and then collapsed. They went 39-43 in year two of that rebuild and 23-59 in year three. This summer, they picked fourth in the NBA Draft.
At this time two years ago, optimism was running high in Phoenix, as the Suns looked ahead to a second consecutive year fighting for a playoff spot. Instead, it came crashing down.
Time and time again, I've heard speculation that the Blazers might be following that model.
It's hard for anyone to look at this comparison too objectively when they're too close to either franchise. I'm not immune to this. Watching the Blazers as closely as I have, I've probably developed irrational attachments to certain things I love and unreasonable loathings for certain things I hate about this team. Anyone in Arizona who's likewise obsessed over the Suns is probably the same way. But when I do my best to make an honest, fair, apples-to-apples comparison, I don't see it. I think the Blazers are in a much better spot than that Phoenix group two years ago - or any other similar team in recent memory that's crashed after a fluky season. (Looking at you, 2015 Milwaukee and New Orleans.)
People are always going to be skeptical whenever a team has a surprisingly good season, but in the Blazers' case, I think their skepticism is silly. This team is going to be fine. I've got five reasons why...
The Blazers simply have too much talent.
I think we have to start with the obvious. Hypothetically, if you put the current Blazers and the 2013-14 Suns in a gym together and had me select teams for a pickup game (assume for the sake of argument that time travel exists and we're using it to settle this silly hypothetical instead of killing Hitler), there's no doubt I'm taking Lillard first. With all due respect to Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, I don't even think it's that close. Lillard might have his deficiencies on the defensive end of the floor, but he's still such a singularly talented player that he alone gives your team life. The moment it became clear last summer that the Blazers were rebuilding, my immediate hunch was that the Blazers weren't winning fewer than 35 games as long as they still had Lillard on the roster. Turns out, they won a lot more than that.
It's not just that Dame's on-court talents are astounding (though they are!). It's also that his contagious personality lifts everyone around him. His competitiveness and work ethic sent a ripple effect through the rest of the Blazers' roster last season. I strongly believe McCollum is a better player because of it. A few other youngsters (think Allen Crabbe, Mason Plumlee, Maurice Harkless) are too.
Speaking of McCollum, has there ever been a better second-best player on an alleged "regression risk" team? Would you take CJ or Bledsoe? I'd lean CJ. Who was the second-best player on that Bucks team that flopped after one playoff appearance - Giannis Antetokounmpo? I'll take CJ over him, too. This Blazers roster isn't just starry; it's deep. Go down spots three through 10 on this Portland depth chart, and it's not exactly Golden State, but it's absolutely a team with the talent to sustain multiple winning seasons.
The Blazers have a group of players that fit together really, really well.
Having talent is nice, but that alone doesn't guarantee a winner unless that talent works well together. There's been a lot of talk these last few weeks about "logjams" on this Portland roster, and I understand where that's coming from. But when you have logjams at basically every single position, that's not a sign of an imbalanced roster - that's just depth! I'd much rather the Blazers have this problem than the opposite one.
I love the Blazers' collection of talent because they have such an interesting variety of skill sets, they can really play any style they want to at any given time. If he wants to go all-in with shooting, Terry Stotts can simply use Al-Farouq Aminu at the power forward spot, flanked by Meyers Leonard and Crabbe. If he wants the Blazers to be big and stout defensively, he can use Farouq at the three, with Ed Davis and Festus Ezeli behind him. If he wants great ball-handlers and passers all over the floor, he can lean more heavily on Turner and Plumlee. The Blazers have many pieces, and they're wonderfully interchangeable and synergistic. Compare that to the Suns, who piled about 18 point guards onto their roster two years ago and were then shocked - shocked! - when their pieces didn't fit.
The one really legitimate complaint I've heard about the Blazers' roster fit-wise involves Turner, who's a ball-dominant player joining a lineup that already features two ball-handlers in Lillard and McCollum. This is true, but it never hurts to have depth - god forbid, if one of the Blazers' star guards ever goes down with an injury, Stotts will be happy to have a third on-ball guy around. And if it turns out everyone's healthy and Turner is superfluous, that's fine. There's no reason Stotts has to play him 35 minutes a night. Forget the money; that's a sunk cost. If Turner doesn't work out, he doesn't work out, and the Blazers' coach is smart enough to adjust his depth chart if necessary.
Continuity is a real thing in the NBA, and it makes teams significantly better.
The Blazers' pieces are good, they fit, and for the most part, this group will benefit from continuity. The longer you keep your roster together and allow your players to build chemistry, the more they win. If you don't believe me, ask the Atlanta Hawks, who went from 38 wins to 60 without making any major roster moves, or the Memphis Grizzlies, who climbed from 40 to 56 over the course of a few years. Toronto's done OK too. None of these teams has relied on blockbuster trades or free-agent signings; for the most part, they've just developed.
A lot of people have criticized the Blazers this summer for boringly just getting the band back together, but the truth is that's what works in the NBA. I wrote about this a year ago - there's a strong statistical correlation in this league between roster continuity and win total. Generally, turnover is trouble. Consider those 2014 Suns again - six of their eight best players that season were Dragic (now gone), Channing Frye (gone), Gerald Green (gone), Miles Plumlee (gone) and the Morris brothers (both gone). Only Bledsoe and P.J. Tucker remain. You could definitely have a good chicken-or-egg argument here - does the winning breed continuity, or does the continuity breed the winning? But the answer is probably it's a little bit of both. Clearly, guys are willing to stay in Portland, and it's probably because they enjoy getting better together.
The Blazers will be better next season when they're in win-now mode.
This isn't to say the team was all-out tanking last year, but it's definitely fair to say they'll be at a new level of competitiveness now that they've had a year to discover their full potential.
Consider this. According to NBA.com lineup data, the Blazers' most used lineup last season was the one they started for much of the year, featuring Noah Vonleh at power forward alongside regulars Lillard, McCollum, Aminu and Plumlee. That group played 611 minutes together; during that time, they were outscored by 1.7 points per 100 possessions. If the Blazers were truly fielding the most competitive team possible, there's no way they devote that many minutes to the "Vonleh with the starters" experiment. It was just that - an experiment. The Blazers didn't think they were a competitive team at the time, so they fooled around.
The team's second-most-used lineup last season, seeing 290 minutes, was the same group except with Harkless over Vonleh. That unit outscored opponents by a ridiculous 14.4 points per 100. It's amazing what this team is capable of when it simply plays its best guys.
Next season will be different. The Blazers will be competing from the start; there's no time to goof around with experimental lineups. Vonleh, who's entering his third year or service but is still only 20 years old and needs plenty of seasoning, will probably play significantly less. He saw 1,174 minutes last year; it wouldn't shock me if that figure were slashed in half or more. Ezeli and Leonard are both better players and will almost surely see more time. If the lineup stats above are even close to sustainable, the improved scoring differential should translate directly to wins.
The Blazers have solid leadership and an excellent organizational culture.
Once the wins start flowing, I expect them to continue for quite a while. It's hard to sustain your winning ways when you're constantly forced to build and rebuild your infrastructure. That Suns team we've been talking about? They've been through four coaches in four years. The last three (Lindsey Hunter, Jeff Hornacek, Earl Watson) have had losing records. Their GM, Ryan McDonough, is young and unproven and has made questionable moves. Their owner, Robert Sarver, is ... well, not a fan favorite to say the least.
Meanwhile, Portland has an owner in Paul Allen who has left zero doubt about his competitive drive (just look at the luxury tax bills he agreed to foot this summer). They've got a GM in Olshey who's made a series of solid decisions both in terms of talent evaluation and (dubious Turner deal notwithstanding) finding bargains on the market. No NBA executive ever bats 1.000, but Olshey over the last four years has had a lot more hits than misses, and he appears to have Allen's blessing to make bold decisions. Finally, in Terry Stotts, the Blazers have a well-liked coach who has proven his ability to develop young talent and build team unity.
I'm a big believer in all this stuff. If you look at the best organizations in the league long-term, they tend to have strong brain trusts leading the way. Just think about Holt/Buford/Popovich in San Antonio, or Lacob/Myers/Kerr in the Bay Area. Again, you could argue about chicken versus egg and whether it's the winning that shapes our opinions of these organizations or vice versa, but it seems safe to say that having smart, stable people in charge helps you build a winner. I'd say the Blazers have that.
It's hard to say what the next four years will bring for the NBA's Western Conference. It seems clear that the Warriors will be the cream of the crop through 2020, but the other top spots in the West are basically up for grabs. The Thunder took a huge hit this summer, of course; the Spurs downgraded significantly by losing not just Tim Duncan, but Boris Diaw as well. They're aging, and their future is uncertain. The Clippers are good now, but their whole team could walk this summer. The window is more or less open for Portland to rise to power in the next couple of years.