The Portland Trail Blazers have been historically difficult for the national media to rank heading into each NBA season, but there is little mystery as to why. Expectations tend to be low where output tends to be high for the same reasons year-in and year-out. Portland cannot be discounted because it has Damian Lillard; the team cannot be vaunted because he lacks help.
Is it any different this time around? The long answer is “Yes, with an if,” and the short answer is “No, with a but.” We’ll dive into that shortly. In either case, the bar set by EPSN’s Zach Lowe is, well, low.
According to the seasoned analyst in his annual tier list column, the Trail Blazers remain enigmatic and could land somewhere at the edge of playoff contention by April, along with the Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, and Sacramento Kings. Each of those teams will be “grasping at Play-In home-court disadvantage” in the NBA postseaon.
Portland might be the toughest team to project. Damian Lillard is a top-6 offense by himself, and the Blazers surrounded him with one monster catch-and-shoot threat (Anfernee Simons, 50% on catch-and-shoot 3s over the past two seasons) and multiple forwards who can (mostly) shoot and attack off the dribble. These guys — Josh Hart, Nassir Little, Jerami Grant, maybe Justise Winslow and Shaedon Sharpe — are not Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless.
Simons will man bench units that should include two of Hart/Little/Winslow and Gary Payton II — an All-Defense-level menace. (I’d sub Payton in early each half for Simons so he can prop up the defense around Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic — and then leave him in with reserve-heavy units when Simons returns.)
Portland won at a 48-win pace two seasons ago with a team that on paper is not much different. But the top half of the West is better now, and it will take coaching magic and luck to glue together an average defense with Lillard, Simons, and a (mildly) declining Nurkic — plus zero reliable backup centers.
Lillard loves proving people wrong, and the Blazers have an upside of 45-plus wins. We’ll see.
So let’s circle back to that “No, with a but.” Is the Trail Blazers’ outlook all that different than it has been in years past (last season’s Lillard-less gap year notwithstanding)? Not really. The team lacks another bona fide star, though there is a short list of players – particularly Simons and Grant – who could reach for the role. We’re once again looking at a team that boils down to Lillard-plus. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, though it is probably not enough to make legitimate noise in the Western Conference right now.
But that “Yes, with an if” is tantalizing, and Lowe is not wrong to place Portland’s floor and ceiling so far apart. If the team can scrape an average defense; if new additions are the answer as to how; if the plethora of wings can provide reliable shooting; if we see another leap from those poised to improve; if there is some “coaching magic and luck” involved, we may just see a 45-win finish. Like Lowe says, we’ll see.
There is plenty of cause for optimism but little ground for certainty. At least at this juncture. What we do know is that we don’t. This tier is probably reasonable right now. If Lillard and company have anything to say about it, it will look laughable in hindsight.
Read Lowe’s full article with an ESPN+ subscription, here.