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Blazers Middle of the Pack in Division

Zach Harper of the Athletic gives an in-depth preview of the Northwest Division. He points to strengths and challenges for Portland.

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NBA: Preseason-Utah Jazz at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Zach Harper of the Athletic wrote a substantial preview of the Northwest Division (subscription required), and he broke down what he expects out of the Blazers.

On the plus-side, he praises the Blazers continuity and backcourt:

Damian Lillard is still one of the filthiest weapons in the NBA. He doesn’t quite bend the court like a Steph Curry, but Lillard still manages to make defenders nervous when he’s around 30 feet from the hoop. CJ McCollum has one of the biggest bags of tricks to use as his quiver on the court. He can score from just about anywhere, was the most efficient and deadly spot-up shooter in the NBA last season and moves the ball within the half court.

Mostly, though, the core of this team has stuck together. Sometimes that can lead to stagnation, but with the Blazers, it breeds an important familiarity. They know how Terry Stotts will want to attack things, and they embrace his game plan. Their defense picked up a lot last season, and they’ll need to prove it’s not a fluke.

While Harper explains that the New Orleans Pelicans were simply a terrible match up for the Blazers in last seasons playoffs, things could still possibly fall apart this season:

Portland still hasn’t figured out how to succeed with Lillard out and McCollum in the game. CJ has struggled running the show as the primary weapon while Lillard gets a breather. Being able to stagger those two and their minutes could lead to a much more balanced attack.

Last season, Portland went from plus-4.9 points per 100 possessions with both guards on the floor to minus-6.5 when Lillard sat and gave the keys to McCollum. The Blazers can’t have that ineffectiveness again. Especially considering McCollum leading the offense lead to a putrid 99.3 points per 100 possessions. Portland can fix some of this by shooting more 3s (18th in 3-point rate), but it needs a couple more shooters. Giving the ball to Evan Turner is the equivalent of deflating someone’s soul.

Ultimately, Harper projects the Blazers to finish third in the Division, behind the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder. He also writes at length on Jusuf Nurkic, the team’s ceiling/floor, and more.