With the 2017-18 NBA regular season just around the corner, it’s time for a final analysis of the Portland Trail Blazers and their chances in the upcoming campaign. Las Vegas set their win total lines back in August, placing the Blazers place smack dab in the middle with an over/under of 42.5 wins. Two months ago this seemed perfectly reasonable for a team returning most of the roster from a disappointing .500 season, save for trading away Allen Crabbe, their best rotation 3-point shooter, in a salary dump.
At the time, I forecast the Blazers somewhere between a 7-seed and missing the playoffs entirely. Disappointing, yes. But it wouldn’t be a total shock in the brutal Western Conference. But after seeing how they performed in preseason, the perspective has changed. Here’s why.
This is the big one. I’ve maintained that if Portland could just manage to be a Top-15 defensive team, they would be in decent shape. But I just didn’t see enough skill or effort. On Media Day, when center Jusuf Nurkic called out the team’s defense from last year, it seemed like lip service. But right out of the gate, the Blazers have executed on the defensive side of the ball, with a 91.9 Defensive Rating, good for 6th best in the NBA. The team also only allowed 34.4 points in the paint per game, good for 4th-best in preseason.
While guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum will continue to have challenges on the defensive end, the rest of the team is picking up the slack. Evan Turner compiled a DRtg of 74.4, best in the NBA among players who played at least 35 preseason minutes. With coach Terry Stotts often electing to use Turner against high-scoring guards, hiding Lillard on a weaker offensive player in the process, a locked-in Turner is incredibly valuable to this team.
NBC Sports NW’s Jason Quick recently wrote that Turner has his sights on being named to the NBA All Defensive Team this season. So far, so good.
Not to be outdone, the Bosnian Beast has continued to be a mountain in the paint. While he has impressed on the defensive end, the new, dare I say trim, Nurkic has looked virtually unstoppable at times in the post - with a bit of bounce to his step and newly unleashed spin move from the block. Nurkic is healthy, fit, and motivated. I wrote in August that Nurkic has the inside track to win the NBA’s Most Improved Player award and nothing that he showed in preseason has convinced me otherwise. Assuming health is not a factor, the Blazers now have a legit Big-3. Maybe that’s not enough to propel them to the upper half of the Western Conference, but it’s enough that they won’t be on the outside looking in come April.
I don’t expect big minutes from either Zach Collins or Caleb Swanigan right off the bat. I actually don’t expect big minutes from Collins all season long. But it was fantastic to see his defensive instincts translated to the next level after a limited and rocky Summer League showing.
On the other hand, I just don’t see a way that Swanigan will be denied. On draft night, I was hosting an draft party with about 100 Blazer fans in attendance. Three clapped when Adam Silver called out Biggie’s name. His inspiring story faded beneath fears of being too ground-bound and “positionless” to prosper at the NBA level. Even when he crushed Summer League, my immediate reaction was “Yeah, ok, but 75 percent of these guys won’t be getting NBA minutes next year.”
Despite an up-and-down offensive performance, Swanigan was an impact player in preseason. He averaged seven boards a night in 18 minutes and grabbed 57 percent of all available offensive rebounds, nearly 40 percent overall. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s very, very good. While I’m still not sure how his offensive game will develop, he’s shown me more of a jump shot in two weeks than Noah Vonleh has in two years. I’m going on the record, Biggie is going to be a meaningful rotation player by March, even if he’s limited to 15 minutes a night.
I’ve always been a believer in familiarity and continuity. The Blazers had minimal changes over the summer. Over the long haul it might not make a huge difference, but it may provide a critical boost early in the year when the schedule is still manageable and teams like the Timberwolves, Rockets, Nuggets, and Thunder are still trying to figure out how to integrate their shiny new All-Stars. This doesn’t guarantee that Portland will ultimately finish ahead of any of them, but being able to get a jump on the competition in October could be difference between an 8-seed and a 6-seed in April. In a packed conference every game counts, and the Blazers have an advantage right out of the gate.
Portland’s roster still needs tweaking, especially with their glut of big men, But even an imbalanced Blazers squad will surprise pundits who picked them to finish in the 8-9 position in the West. If the preseason flow continues, these young Blazers might just pull a feat similar to 2015-16 and surprise us all.
I’m bullish on the Blazers. How about you? Do you see fool’s gold or is Portland’s promise legit? Let us know in the comment section and don’t forget to come together with other Blazer’s Edge Readers on opening night at Spirit of ‘77, now only two days away!