The Portland Trail Blazers open the 2017-18 regular season tonight against the Phoenix Suns, the first game of what promises to be an exciting and revelatory campaign. Yesterday we ran down some of the ways the Blazers could look subtly different this year, despite returning most of the same roster. Today we get to the big-ticket items shaping the season, and maybe the future of the team for years beyond.
The Starting Guards are Amazing, with an Asterisk
This may be the most “Duh!” statement ever, but the excellence of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum goes beyond their combined 50 points per game scoring average. Not that it needs to; that number is phenomenal. Raw production doesn’t convey the efficiency of their scoring. Their field goal percentages, three point percentages, and true shooting percentages bottom out at “good” and rise well past excellent.
The synergy between the star guards is just as significant. They play seamlessly with each other while finding shots for their teammates. They’ve learned to operate at different ranges, Lillard firing threes and probing the lane while McCollum diversifies from mid-range and beyond.
As well as they perform, it’s easy to forget they’re just now entering NBA maturity. 2017-18 should be another fantastic year for the duo.
In Greek tragic fashion, Portland’s prolific guards also limit the team’s upward potential through lack of defense. Defending is a team-wide issue, but the trouble starts in the backcourt. Things looked better in preseason, but that was largely the work of the supporting cast playing against lineups far below the standard NBA level. Unless the deficiency morphs into an asset, that 50 ppg scoring average will come with a large, “But...” that no amount of graphics and highlight reels will wash away.
Improvement Hangs on Nurkic
Since he arrived last February, Jusuf Nurkic has been the center of attention in the Rose City. He’s displayed scoring potential not seen from a Portland pivot since the turn of the millennium. His defense and rebounding secured a perilously promiscuous paint last season, boosting the Blazers to a strong finish. All this came before he lost 30 pounds over the summer. Nurkic is THE reason to believe the Blazers can better than the 41-41 record they posted last year.
Unless he’s not, that is. Few doubt Nurkic’s accomplishments or potential at this point, but health, stamina, and performance against the league’s toughest teams (which could include three-quarters of the Western Conference) remain unproven. If Nurk isn’t incredible, where else does Portland turn? Don’t even think of scenarios in which he gets injured, leaving them with the same roster they fielded last November minus Mason Plumlee and Allen Crabbe. With Nurkic in the fold, the Blazers have a legitimate claim to relevance should things go right. But that claim rests on his shoulders alone. Without him, they’re just two guards putting up amazing numbers and losing more games than they win.
The Roster Still Needs Work
Below the Nurkic Line, Portland’s rotation gets muddy. Evan Turner is their most reliable mid-rotation player. He’s like a buffet where you know you can get twenty decent dishes, none of them earth-shaking. Al-Farouq Aminu remains the team’s best defender but he lacks the ability to stretch the floor. Maurice Harkless’ contributions are as consistent as the weather. And those three stand head and shoulders above everyone else. Caleb Swanigan looked promising in Summer League and preseason. Draft-mate Zach Collins could develop down the road. At least they try on defense. They’re also rookies. Ed Davis can rebound, but he’ll likely be traded if possible. Noah Vonleh looked good last year when paired with Nurkic, fairly poor otherwise. Meyers Leonard is still Meyers Leonard.
With Crabbe gone, Portland may suffer from a lack of three-point shooting beyond their starting guards (and occasional back-up Shabazz Napier). Once a presumed strength, distance shooting will become a weakness if opponents can force the ball to anyone above 6’4”.
That’s only the most obvious shortcoming among a crowd of players for whom the adjective “unreliable” would be considered charitable. The lack may not show up in Week 1, or even Month 1, but over the course of 82 games, plus hopefully playoffs, the Blazers could suffer in the same way as a Major League Baseball franchise suffers without a bullpen.
The Bottom Line
This season is going to boil down to a single question: Can the Blazers win? Any doubts about the star power of their starting guards got answered last year. Any claims about “rebuilding phase” crumble under the realization that this will be their third campaign without LaMarcus Aldridge (and he’s not coming back), smothered further by their lack of significant moves over the summers following. Every potential franchise-boosting free agent or trade prospect apart from Nurkic went somewhere else, many to conference rivals. There’s no easy path forward, no savior around the corner.
The Blazers need to start winning. They either have to do it with this crew, make a striking trade to alter their roster, or begin to face the creeping specter that perhaps this group cannot get it done beyond a 40-ish win, first-round exit level. Compared to the outlook in 2015, 40 wins and any playoff seed seems fantastic. This is 2017.
The Blazers are vaunting their continuity, maturity, and commitment to defense. Continuity and maturity depend on talent and structure, else all you’ve got is continuously-aging mush. Defense will be the biggest single key to converting Portland’s promise into actual wins, but there’s a reason that they—and all of their opponents—are aware of that. If they weren’t preaching “D” coming into training camp this year we’d need to give up on them before the season started. Preaching and action are different things, however, as are expectations and victories. The Blazers have seen plenty of the former already. Inflation has robbed those currencies of their buying power.
This year the Blazers have to put it together or change it. The middle ground between those extremes is disappearing fast and will be submerged by February. Good enough isn’t good enough anymore. Portland needs to open the door to greatness, at least enough to let the light shine through a bit. Otherwise they need to start wondering whether the path they’re on will ever get them there.
Don’t forget to come together with other Blazer’s Edge Readers TODAY at Spirit of ‘77! Happy opening of the season, all! Stay tuned for more coverage as the day progresses!