The Portland Trail Blazers’ season ended Monday night, upon getting swept by the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the NBA playoffs. After a disappointing start—and by “start,” I mean first two-thirds of the regular season—that put them at low point of 11 games under .500 (24-35), the Blazers had rallied to make the playoffs with a 41-41 record.
While most of the season was a disappointment, the strong finish after the mid-season acquisition of Jusuf Nurkic should give Blazer fans some hope for next season. On Monday, Josh Martin of Bleacher Report wrote his analysis of what Portland needs to do this offseason. He listed five different things the Blazers should do if they want to climb the Western Conference standings next year.
The first is “Get Jusuf Nurkic Up to Speed.” Martin cites Nurkic’s stats with Portland (15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.9 blocks per game) and adds this:
And that was without anything close to a complete grasp of the playbook after coming over from Denver before the February 23 trade deadline.
"I'm really happy I come in a right place," Nurkic told NBA.com's David Aldridge at the beginning of the month. "I think I'm a perfect fit here, and how it show right now, how it looks."
The last thing the Blazers want, though, is for their newest big man to fall into their long, painful lineage of injury-riddled bigs. If Nurkic can avoid that, Portland might have itself the frontcourt cog it's long sought to line up next to Lillard and McCollum.
Martin’s second point is “Keep Tightening the Screws Defensively.” He points out that the Blazers fell from 20th in defensive efficiency (105.6 points allowed per 100 possessions) in the 2015-16 season to 26th (108.9) before the Jusuf Nurkic trade. After the trade, however, their rating improved to the 12th-best mark during that span (105.7).
Sustaining that improvement may be all the Blazers need to make the leap from lower-tier playoff participant to bona fide Western Conference contender.
So long as Lillard and McCollum are at the controls, Portland shouldn't have any trouble scoring points. A top-half defense could be the perfect complement to put the Blazers among the NBA's best.
Next, Martin examines Portland’s salary situation. He addresses the depressing fact that the Blazers are in line to have the highest payroll in the NBA next season.
Their roster will soar well past the projected luxury-tax line of $121 million, but team owner Paul Allen (net worth: $20.1 billion, per Forbes) can afford the bill if he chooses.
No matter how deep Allen is willing to dig into his pockets, Portland's front office will be hard-pressed to add talent without carving out some long-term flexibility. Nixing Festus Ezeli's non-guaranteed $7.73 million for 2017-18 would only begin to scratch the surface.
Fortunately for the Blazers, they have some chips they can deploy should shedding salary become a priority. They have their own first-rounder to spare along with the Cavaliers' selection and the Memphis Grizzlies' pick (via Cleveland to Denver), which they netted in the Nurkic trade. They also have several future second-rounders due from other teams.
The fourth item in Martin’s list is “Sort Through the Frontcourt.” He writes, “If Nurkic is a sure thing up front, Portland will have to determine which of its remaining forwards and pivots fit best next to him, Lillard and McCollum in the rotation.” Martin mentions Meyers Leonard as the most likely to be moved. Beyond that, the Blazers will have to figure out the best rotation for Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner, Maurice Harkless, Noah Vonleh, and Ed Davis.
Martin’s final point is “Think About the Backcourt.” While Lillard and McCollum ended the season as the highest scoring backcourt, their defense leaves a lot to be desired. Martin suggests that Portland may have to consider what it would look like to move on from one of them.
As important as it is in today's outside-in NBA to have perimeter players who can put the ball in the hole from all over the floor, it may be even more critical to have guards who can, you know, guard.
Portland's cap crunch only adds to any consideration of a split between Lillard and McCollum. Can the Blazers afford to allocate such a huge share of their resources to two players with such similar skill sets?
Maybe they can, and maybe they will. If nothing else, it would behoove them to see what Lillard and McCollum can accomplish over a full campaign with Nurkic in the middle. But now might be the time to at least consider the possibility of a future with just one of the two Rain Brothers.
Overall, Martin has a pretty optimistic outlook on Portland’s prospects for next season. He seems to think that having a healthy Nurkic for a full season might be enough to move the Blazers toward the top of the Western Conference. Check out his full article, here.
What do you think, Blazer fans? What would your offseason priorities for the Blazers be?