The dust has not yet settled on free agency, as trade rumors for players such as Bradley Beal, Kevin Love, and Andre Iguodala linger. However, most free agents have been signed, with all the big names off the map. There are still moves to be made, but the Western Conference is rounding into shape. Where do the Portland Trail Blazers stand in the West after their moves this summer, and those of their competitors?
Blazers Moves and Outlook
Players lost: Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless, Evan Turner, Enes Kanter, Seth Curry, Meyers Leonard, Jake Layman
Players gained: Hassan Whiteside, Kent Bazemore, Anthony Tolliver, Mario Hezonja, Nassir Little
In the aggregate, the Blazers probably got a little worse this summer. Aminu and Harkless were crucial pieces to their defense as large, switchable wings who could defend multiple positions and cover for the small backcourt. Curry is one of the best pure shooters in the league, a sniper who helped provide spacing for the Blazers’ star duo. All three will be deeply missed, as will Turner’s ballhandling, Layman’s cutting, Leonard’s screens, and Kanter’s offensive rebounding. The Blazers lost a lot of rotation players over the past few weeks.
That’s not to say the Blazers didn’t bring in some good players this summer. They did. But while Bazemore is a better fit than Turner on the wing due to his superior shooting, they’ve mostly downgraded elsewhere. Whiteside, in a vacuum, is a superior player to Enes Kanter, but has questions regarding his energy level and effort that Kanter has never faced. Hezonja is actively bad: a poor defender who can’t shoot, and doesn’t rebound or pass. Nassir Little is promising, sure, but he’s a one-and-done wing who was extremely raw in college, and probably shouldn’t be getting minutes for a contender this season. Tolliver is a perfectly fine rotation player, but is a step down from Harkless or Aminu as a big wing outside from his shooting. Overall, the Blazers have less depth than they did last year, especially considering Jusuf Nurkic will miss much of the regular season. It’s not a vast decrease, but it looks worse when much of the rest of the West upgraded so substantially.
The Rest of the West
I think the Blazers are behind five teams in the West, as of right now: the Clippers, Lakers, Nuggets, Jazz, and Rockets. The Nuggets and Rockets were a better (regular season) team last year that retained all their pieces, which puts them at least at even keel with the Blazers. I think the Nuggets will get better as their young players continue to develop, and the addition of Jerami Grant will help them a lot. The Jazz were around the same level as the Blazers last year, and upgraded much of their roster, making them one of the favorites to win the Western Conference. The Lakers are somewhat thin, but the superstar power of LeBron and AD can’t be denied, and they are going to win a ton of games with reasonable health. The Clippers have superstars along with depth, and even though Kawhi Leonard will assuredly get load management once more, the Clips have the reserves to fill the gaps quite well. The Rockets are somewhat of unknown because of the Westbrook-Harden fit, but there’s no doubt Russ will probably help them more in the regular season than Chris Paul would have, and the rest of their core remains the same. Injury issues could strike any of these teams, of course, but I think all will probably have better records than the Blazers next year.
I believe the Blazers will be in a second tier of Western Conference playoff teams, along with the Warriors and the Spurs. The Warriors have lost much of their established roster this summer, and are going into the future with only a few of the players that have made them so potent over the years. But as long as they have Steph Curry and Draymond Green (and presumably Klay Thompson at some point), they will be dangerous. The Spurs somehow won 48 games last year, and while their roster is largely similar, they have young players who will probably develop some, as well as Dejounte Murray, who missed all of last season. The Blazers, like these teams, are likely to make the playoffs, but don’t have the regular season win upside of the top tier.
After that comes another group with three teams, this one with potential playoff squads. The Thunder, right now, are considerably worse than they were last year, having lost franchise player Russell Westbrook, along with Paul George and Jerami Grant, who were the best and 4th best players on their team in 2019. I do think that if they retain Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, and Steven Adams, the Thunder will be pretty good, but all of those guys are real injury risks. The Kings were a surprise story last season, putting together a winning record for the first time in over a decade, and thrilling NBA watchers with their young talent. While they added more veterans to that core this summer, most of those players don’t move the needle much, if at all, and it’s questionable whether they improved enough to reach the teams above them. The Pelicans are the most intriguing of the bunch: while they traded away superstar Anthony Davis, the return for him was massive, and they have a deep group of young talent, headlined by a potential future superstar in Zion Williamson. With Jrue Holiday leading the way, and experienced veterans like JJ Redick and Derrick Favors to help, the Pels could be a threatening squad as soon as 2020. I could see any of these squads making a push for the 7th or 8th seeds, but the Blazers have a much higher floor than any of them.
The bottom of the West, to me, will be the Mavs, Timberwolves, Suns, and Grizzlies. The Mavs and Timberwolves have young superstars in Luka Doncic and Karl-Anthony Towns, but not nearly enough talent around them. The Suns have plenty of young talent, and have added some competent veterans, but lack the established stars and roster cohesion to win much over 30 games. The Grizzlies had a phenomenal summer, but are incredibly young and relying on a rookie point guard. I would be shocked if any of these teams were better than the Blazers next season.
The Blazers should be a playoff team next season. As long as they have Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum on their roster, they possess a floor that should carry them above quite a few Western Conference teams. Unfortunately, one of the greatest strengths of the Blazers the past few seasons was roster continuity, and the amount of shakeup they went through this last offseason could threaten that. Additionally, I think their talent level dipped a bit, enough to lower them below the top tier of teams in the West. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Blazers got homecourt advantage again, as they certainly still have talent and starpower, but I think a few teams passed them by this summer, and another 50+ win season could be difficult to come by.