A few days into NBA Free Agency 2018, almost all of the big names have already been signed, and enough has happened to significantly shake up league-wide power rankings going into next season. Between free agency and the 2018 NBA Draft, the Western Conference has an entirely new structure than it did in 2017-18. This creates an interesting situation for the Portland Trail Blazers, who so far have made only modest moves. If the Blazers become the rock in the river around which the rest of the conference shifts, where will they stand in 2018-19?
The Blazers’ Changes
The Blazers haven’t made any major moves, but their roster has been shaken up a decent amount since the end of the season. Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas have stepped in to replace Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton as reserve guards, a move that is probably lateral, but might prove an upgrade if Curry is able to stay healthy. The Blazers also added Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons in the draft, though neither is likely to play much next year. Finally, backup center Ed Davis signed with the Brooklyn Nets, a real loss to a Blazers team that played well when he was on the court. Davis’ minutes being filled by second-year players Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan could pay off (especially for Collins), but it’s hard to see Portland having a better squad than they had last year. If anything, they are probably somewhat worse, with the possibility of breaking even if their young guys develop quickly.
The Top Contenders
The Warriors are still the Warriors. While their roster is incomplete, especially in terms of reserve guards and wings, they started with the best starting lineup in the world, then added DeMarcus Cousins as a failsafe. They are the presumptive favorites to win their fourth title in five years. The Houston Rockets are definitively weaker than they were last season, having lost starting small forward Trevor Ariza without bringing in a reasonable replacement. Star center Clint Capela also remains unsigned, though he should be back under contract in no time. Still, the Rockets are clearly the second-best team in the conference. The Blazers are nowhere near either of these squads.
Other Playoff Teams
Both the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder have opted to return largely the same rosters as last season, as each have re-signed free agents. The Jazz are young enough to continue improving, while the Thunder will presumably have defensive menace Andre Roberson healthy next season. They should become dangerous teams. The New Orleans Pelicans are the first major team in the West that has undergone substantial renovations, swapping Cousins for former Lakers’ big man Julius Randle, and bringing in Elfrid Payton to replace Rajon Rondo. While these moves might be lateral, or a little worse, having a full season of Nikola Mirotic will help, and Cousins’ absence for much of last season means any play by Randle would be an upgrade.
The Spurs are still up in the air, as the Kawhi Leonard situation has yet to be resolved. They did replenish their youth in the draft with Lonnie Walker, and have also brought back some of their veterans. Their overall talent isn’t great, but if they trade Kawhi, they will likely get a massive influx in that area. Either way, they will likely be in or around the playoffs.
The Minnesota Timberwolves, too, have only made minor changes, and with Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns still on the roster, they will probably be in the playoff hunt next season. The Blazers finished above all these teams last year, but the margin was very close, and the other teams seem to all likely be as strong if not stronger next season. That’s not good news for Portland
The Up and Comers
The scary situation for any mid-playoff teams comes farther down in the Western Conference, as several bottom-dwellers should be much improved next season. The most obvious candidate to make the playoffs is the Los Angeles Lakers, who added LeBron James without giving up anything of substance. Not much more needs to be said about that.
The Denver Nuggets just barely missed the playoffs last season, and while they haven’t added any players in free agency, their young talent should improve. Paul Millsap will do them credit and they added a potential All-Star talent in the draft in Michael Porter Jr.
The Memphis Grizzlies brought on a stud rookie in Jaren Jackson Jr. and will likely have a healthy Mike Conley. The Dallas Mavericks added Euroleague MVP Luka Doncic and DeAndre Jordan, who will be a massive upgrade for them at center. Finally, the Phoenix Suns obtained a veteran wing presence in Ariza as well as rookies DeAndre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, who should both be ready to contribute right away.
Neither the Grizzlies, Mavericks, or Suns are likely playoff teams next year, but all should be much tougher outs on a game-to-game basis, which will sap the win totals of teams above them. The Sacramento Kings are the only sure-fire lottery team in the West, while the Los Angeles Clippers are likely to be competitive without being all that threatening, though they could pull off a Kawhi deal yet.
Where the Blazers Fall
The Blazers are by no means doomed to the lottery. They have two of the best scoring guards in the NBA, a bevy of solid veterans, and some young talent that could make leaps and propel the team forward. Still, it’s not hard to envision them ending up a little worse than last year while a bunch of teams below them get better. That could shove Portland towards the bottom of the playoffs bracket, if not out of the postseason entirely.
Of teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year, the Lakers are a sure bet to get in this season. The Nuggets will also be a strong contender to knock off a team above them. That throws at least two playoff spots into play. Younger teams might make noise if one of their prospects has a Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell type rookie campaign. Instead of projecting in the 3-6 range this year, Portland looks more like 7-10. They aren’t a lock to drop, but if they aren’t careful, they could tumble down the Western Conference standings.