With the 2019-20 NBA season officially beginning on Tuesday, ESPN published their NBA preview with rankings, projections and questions for all 30 teams. ESPN and Kevin Pelton have the Portland Trail Blazers ranked eighth, noting once again the potential for regression.
Coming off a surprise trip to the Western Conference finals, the Blazers aspire to more this season after the Warriors team that beat them sustained heavy personnel losses. Yet statistical projections, including ours based on ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, suggest Portland might be due for regression.
Pelton pointed out the significant roster turnover and how it’s unusual for most conference finalists to overhaul a roster as much as Portland. Still, he has the best case scenario for Portland being a 55-27 record thanks to breakout seasons from Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons and the leadership of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
How would Portland get here? The leadership of Lillard and McCollum revitalizes Whiteside, whose shot-blocking also fits perfectly in Terry Stotts’ defensive system. Zach Collins becomes the latest Blazers player to break through in his third season, solidifying the power forward spot by providing both floor-spacing and rim protection. Anfernee Simons becomes a potent scoring threat when Lillard and McCollum are on the bench and Nurkic returns after the All-Star break to give Portland a strong 1-2 punch in the middle. Add it up and the Blazers celebrate their 50th anniversary with their most wins in two decades.
The Blazers are no strangers to less than generous projections. Pelton’s big question for them is whether they can once again exceed expectations.
Pessimistic predictions are nothing new for the Blazers, pegged as a fringe playoff team entering last season after getting swept out of the playoffs by the Pelicans in the first round in 2018. Instead, Portland won 53 games and claimed the No. 3 seed. During Terry Stotts’ seven seasons at the helm, the Blazers have gone under their preseason wins over/under total only once, beating their line by an average of 6.6 wins per season. With an over/under of 46.5 wins this season, similar overperformance would put them back at last season’s total.