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The Trail Blazers are Still Primed for Growth

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The Blazers’ 41-win 2016-17 season may have underwhelmed based on expectations, but there’s hope for a bounce back next year.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

As we approach the 2017 NBA Draft and the league’s free agency period, Blazer fans are waiting with bated breath to see how team President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey is going to improve his team. It’s well known that Portland has three picks in the first round of the draft, and is also hamstrung by a payroll projected to swell well past the luxury tax threshold next season.

Despite the narrow—mostly self-inflicted—window for roster improvement this summer, the Blazers still are prime candidates to have a bounce back year next season. As Olshey himself puts it, there are four ways to improve a team; the draft, trades, free agency, and internal growth. Although there are no guarantees in the draft, and the Blazers’ massive payroll makes many trades and potential signings impossible, this team has hope for next season.

Internal Development

As the second youngest team in the league last season behind only the Philadelphia 76ers, Portland’s roster has ample room for internal growth. It’s generally accepted that NBA players peak around age 27, with additional research showing a peak in a player’s fifth year in the NBA if not factoring for age. The Blazers only have two players on their roster 27 or older; Ed Davis, 27, and Evan Turner, 28.

While Portland might not have a player on the roster ready to break out as a big-time player, it’s not unreasonable to expect continued, incremental growth from guys like Maurice Harkless (24), Allen Crabbe (24), Noah Vonleh (21), and even CJ McCollum (25). While it can be argued that they didn’t live up to their contracts, both Harkless and Crabbe did improve last season, and there’s no reason to expect that they can’t do so again.

Of course, Portland may actually have a player who is ready to break out into the big time—Jusuf Nurkic. It’s not something to necessarily count on, but Blazer fans have already seen how he was able to impact this roster. At just 22, Nurkic still has ample room for growth in terms of footwork, shot-selection, etc. Even a small uptick in some of these areas means big improvement for the team as a whole.

Injection of young talent

Although no one knows for sure what Olshey will end up doing with the three first-rounders he has to play with, the simple odds support him adding at least one player through the draft. While it’d be futile for me to speculate on who Olshey would be targeting or what position they’d play (ahem, backup center or defensive wing please), it can virtually be assured that they’ll be a more talented player, if not a better fit, than Tim Quarterman. If nothing else, in the first round you’re likely getting someone more worthy of appearing on the depth chart, at least for a while, as opposed to someone who only plays mop-up duty in blowouts.

Overachieving/Underachieving

It’s generally accepted that the Blazers overachieved in 2015-16, pushing for 44 wins and reaching the playoffs despite blowing up their roster and essentially starting anew, but what if that’s not the right way to look at things? What if that was a legitimate, if surprising, performance and they actually completely underachieved last season? This is a team that looked flatfooted and disinterested from November to January. None of us is sure what the driver was behind that, but it clearly wasn’t entirely talent or lack thereof.

Despite several players saying they were confident they could turn it on and salvage the season, it was clear they weren’t able to fully turn it on and meet expectations despite the warm and fuzzy last 30 games of the season. I’m betting we’ll see a more focused group next season.

Despite playing like they didn’t have it for much of the season, these guys have pride. While this will still be a team of poor defenders, it’s doubtful that Blazer fans will see the worst defensive team in the NBA through 30-40 games like we did last season. That’s progress.

Health

While the Blazers enjoyed surprisingly good health in 2015-16—missing the second-fewest games due to injury—they weren’t so fortunate last season. Damian Lillard, Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner, Ed Davis, and Jusuf Nurkic all suffered significant injuries that forced them out of action and impacted their play upon return. These were three key players from Portland’s surprising 44-win campaign and the two biggest additions from outside the team.

Assuming the Blazers see a regression to the mean next year in terms of health, it stands to reason that the team will see an uptick in overall performance as well.

One Last Thing

Much has been written about how the Blazers have backed themselves into a corner with the contracts that Paul Allen and Olshey handed out to Turner and Crabbe. While they are bad contracts, in my opinion, there’s not necessarily reason to believe they won’t be some degree better next year.

Turner doesn’t fit perfectly with this offense, but he’s had a season to figure it out and showed improvement as the year progressed. Crabbe pulled a disappearing act every other game, but still shot 44 percent from the 3-point line—don’t be surprised if the offense is tweaked to get him just a couple more shots.

Are the Blazers hamstrung from pulling off a major move this offseason? Yeah, probably. But there’s also plenty of opportunity to improve, already sitting on the roster.