The Trail Blazers have an exciting backcourt pairing and track record for claiming a spot in the Western Conference playoffs. This is the general opinion that most fans outside of the Pacific Northwest make about Portland’s team. In an effort to get a better understanding of those outside views, Blazer’s Edge contributor Steve Dewald reached out to a few people who follow the NBA closely.
This wasn’t an attempt to troll Portland fans. Instead, this will hopefully provide a glimpse of what other NBA enthusiasts see when they evaluate the Blazers place in the league.
Adam Mares has watched plenty of Jusuf Nurkic while covering the Nuggets at Denver Stiffs. After watching the Blazers outlast the Nuggets for a playoff spot over the past two seasons, Mares delivered some criticism for the Bosnian Beast.
I have a hard time seeing the Trail Blazers in the playoffs this year. I thought they were probably the 9th or 10th best team in the Western Conference last year (despite earning the 3-seed) but were far and away the healthiest of the 10 teams competing for a spot. I don’t think that they improved at all this offseason. A lot of other teams did.
But the storyline I’m most interested in is to see how Jusuf Nurkic handles his new contract, especially now that the honeymoon phase in Portland is officially over. I think after a season and a half, Blazers fans probably have a good idea of the constant push-and-pull between “good” Nurk and “bad” Nurk. At his best, he dominates the boards, intimidates opposing teams from even looking into the painted area, and rolls to the rim with power and fury. At his worst he clogs the lane by demanding inefficient post-ups, flips up awkward hooks when he should just go up strong, and mopes around the court like his dog just died.
If Portland can somehow manage to coax good Nurkic into playing 27+ minutes per night, then Portland will be a top 6 team in the west. If not, I just don’t see the team going anywhere, at least not as presently constructed. One more year of stagnation will likely mean the end of an era in the city of roses.
Alex Regla serves as a contributor for SB Nation’s Lakers site, Silver Screen & Roll. Along with celebrating the arrival of LeBron James, Regla gave a balanced description of how he views the Blazers.
The Trail Blazers are, and most likely will continue to be, one of the enigmas of the NBA’s Western Conference.
For a team who has had to rely on marginal improvements to their roster due to their loaded books in recent years, they impressively continue to find themselves back in the playoffs every season despite their tepid starts.
Shouldered by a star backcourt, the team is difficult to dismiss in terms of their placement of the conference hierarchy even despite their disappointing first round exit last season. Yet, with losing notable, and inexpensive, rotation pieces in Ed Davis, Shabaz Napier, and Pat Connaughton, the team will expectantly rely on Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum more than ever before.
While they possess the aforementioned superb top-shelf talent necessary to make the playoffs, it is difficult to believe they will be capable of reaching another top four seeding with teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder, and many others projected to see significant improvements.
Brady Klopfer is currently covering a wave of incredible success as a contributor for SB Nation’s Warriors site, Golden State Of Mind. It isn’t shocking that he placed Portland in a group of Western Conference team’s that are on the outside of title contention looking in.
It’s always hard, when looking at a team that had home court advantage just a few months ago and had no major personnel losses, to predict them missing the playoffs; but that’s exactly what I see happening with the Blazers. Last year feels like too big of a mirage, especially when accounting for the the unsustainability of the strong defensive performance, the loss of Ed Davis, and the fact that Jusuf Nurkic is no longer in a contract year. To me, they fall into a vast tier of good-not-great teams, alongside the Lakers, Spurs, Wolves, Pelicans, and Grizzlies, who can all jockey for the positions on the periphery of the playoffs. To me, they’re more out than in.
While I don’t want to place too much blame on a team’s top players, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum deserve the pressure befitting the stars that they are. As someone who spends an unhealthy amount of time watching the Warriors, I’ve come to sing the praises of nonstop off-ball movement, particularly from strong shooters. Lillard and McCollum feel underutilized by a lack of off-ball work. Perhaps this is an indictment of their abilities; perhaps it’s a suggestion that Terry Stotts needs to throw a plethora of floppy sets and elevator screens into the playbook. Either way, for Portland to separate from the rugged pack that makes the 6-10 seeds their home, they’ll need to see improvement in that area from their marquee players.
Robert Flom provides coverage for Blazer’s Edge, but he also does plenty of work over at Clips Nation. Flom’s main concerns centered around Portland’s recent departures, and the crowded field in the Western Conference
I see Portland in the third tier of the Western Conference: they are a good candidate to make the playoffs, but not a lock, and certainly not a contender. Despite finishing 3rd in the Western Conference last year, I actually have the Blazers as one of the less likely teams from their tier to make the playoffs. I am a bit skeptical on them for three reasons. First, they had the best injury luck of any playoff team in the West last year, and not sustaining any severe injuries is unlikely two seasons in a row. Second, I think the loss of Ed Davis (and Shabazz Napier, to a lesser extent) means they’re a somewhat worse team this season. Third, I believe other teams have higher upside, either through free agent acquisitions (Lakers), or through greater possibility of internal development from youngsters (Nuggets, Timberwolves).
The Blazers will probably win somewhere in the 44-46 game range next season, which is pretty good—that would probably the 6th seed in the East, at worst. However, I do believe there’s a chance that at least eight of the Warriors, Rockets, Jazz, Thunder, Nuggets, Timberwolves, Lakers, Pelicans, and Spurs win more than that. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Blazers made the playoffs. I wouldn’t even be surprised if they were as high as the 5th seed, as I believe the West standings 3-10 will once again be within a handful of games of each other. I just lean a little bit more towards the pessimistic side for the Blazers this season.
The Blazers are the in the upper end of the Western Conference, but they have such a wide range projected finishes this year. They are a team with some serious cap concerns, but they have franchise cornerstones in CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard. Players that can take over games and get you buckets when you need them the most and coming from a Grizzlies fan, that is not something to take for granted. If they can figure out they’re cap concerns over the next year, they can really have the money to put some nice pieces are McCollum and Lillard.
Last season the Blazers impressed with a third-seeded finish with 49 wins, including a 13-game win streak through March that featured quite the row of opponents. But the lasting impressions of the 2017-18 season can only be remembered with visions of Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis’ 4-0 sweep in what was the most shocking result of the postseason.
After losing veteran energy plug Ed Davis, small forward Pat Connaughton and point guard Shabazz Napier, frustration crept through even to the most die-hard of Blazers fans in the form of President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey.
Olshey would rebound with a nice deal inked by big man Jusurf Nurkic, but the story of the offseason remained: “what could have been.” The Blazers appeared close to acquiring DeMarcus Cousins in a sign and trade with the Pelicans. That may have shifted the balance of power to the Northwest, should he have returned to full strength. But the former Wildcat instead took a discounted rate with Golden State, and Oshey came to terms with Nik Stauskus and Seth Curry in addition to adding 24th overall pick Anfernee Simons.
Thank you to everyone who contributed to this, and you can find more of their work by following them on Twitter (included in the links above).
—Steve / @SteveDHoops / BEdgeSteve@gmail.com