This coming season, the NBA Western Conference will, as always, be competitive for most of its 15 teams. The Portland Trail Blazers enter with some new faces, more defense and versatility and an allegedly rejuvenated star ready to compete. But a number of national pundits have already pigeon-holed the Oregon franchise in the bottom half of the pack.
Perhaps that’s because they don’t rate the moves made by General Manager Joe Cronin in recent months, or, maybe, just maybe, they’re tainted by the outstanding tank job the franchise executed late last season.
And why not? The last look we had of this team was a starting unit of Brandon Williams, Didi Louzada, Keon Johnson, CJ Elleby and Reggie Perry. But while recency bias is convenient for predictors across the country, it’s not entirely reflective of what we might see.
Of the five players mentioned above, Williams, Johnson and Louzada will be on the roster this season but are unlikely to see any real minutes. They’re stuck behind starters Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little, Jerami Grant and Nurkic as well as Josh Hart, Gary Payton II, Justise Winslow, Trendon Watford and potentially Jabari Walker and Shaedon Sharpe off the bench. Greg Brown III is there too.
Cronin, unlike his predecessor, has been bold enough to make changes to a stale, financially bloated, middle-of-the-road roster, stuck in mediocrity wasting away the prime years of arguably the greatest player in the franchise’s history.
I’m not saying the big Colaradoan is this franchise’s savior but he’s made moves that have elicited excitement from a large portion of the fanbase after a decade of kicking the can down the road.
As far as the Blazers’ place in the Western Conference is concerned, we still have questions that won’t be answered until the season is well underway; namely chemistry, fit and the fortunes of the other 14 franchises.
But despite that, here’s a potential hierarchy, based purely on conjecture and opinion.
We’re fit, let’s go get this
The two teams that, if healthy, are streets ahead of the rest.
This team is scary. If Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can stay on the court, they’ll be joined by Norman Powell, Robert Covington, Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris, Nicolas Batum, Luke Kennard, Terrance Mann, Ivica Zubac and John Wall. The Clippers are deep, incredibly versatile, well coached and my pick to win the NBA Championship at this early stage.
I know they’re a rival, but I look forward to watching this roster. If Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. return healthy, it’s going to be so incredibly hard to beat this team. Under the radar additions of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown were also huge. Oh and the two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic and his frontcourt partner Aaron Gordon are also a daunting proposition. Not to mention the likes of Jeff Green, Bones Hyland and Facundo Campazzo fortifying the bench. Mike Malone will have plenty to work with.
Getting older, well Chris Paul is anyway
Elite rosters but, for some reason, I have my doubts.
Yes, I know they’re the reigning champs and well done to the team from the Bay Area, but another year means older legs and potentially less luck with opposition injuries. One could argue that if the Clippers had their full roster available last season, the Finals might have been a little different. Of course, you can never count out Steph Curry, 34, Draymond Green, 32, and Klay Thompson, 32, but I seriously doubt they have the same success next June.
I just don’t know about the Suns. Maybe I’m scarred by the way the season ended and the ensuing nonsense surrounding Deandre Ayton. But Chris Paul is 37, Ayton is probably still pretty frustrated despite getting paid and the roster didn’t really make any real additions — sorry Josh Okogie. Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson are all important pieces but, I’m not sold. No doubt, I’ll have egg on my face this time next year.
Fighting to avoid the Play-in
The biggest group of teams that, if everything goes right, could lock in a top six seed.
Injury was the biggest hindrance for the Tennessee franchise last season and unfortunately it’ll continue with big man Jaren Jackson Jr. likely out until the end of the calendar year. But Ja Morant is a force of nature while the youth brigade, including Desmond Bane and Brandon Clarke, is likely to improve this year so they could very well promote themselves into the previous group.
The folks in Minneapolis sound pretty excited about the addition of Rudy Gobert alongside Karl-Anthony Towns. Hey, maybe they make the playoffs, maybe Anthony Edwards takes another massive leap. But there is still so much unknown about this squad, which lost a lot of young talent and future draft assets just to bring in the big and expensive Frenchman.
If Zion Williamson can get on the floor this season, he, Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum will form one of the more potent offenses in the game. But let’s remember, there’s only one ball and those three guys don’t do particularly well when they don’t have it in their hands. I like their role players, namely Herb Jones, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions and, like Portland, they actually have to execute.
Technically, as the list runs, the Blazers finish eighth, but there are dozens of permutations that could eventuate between seeds five and nine. We’re yet to see Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons and Jerami Grant play together, we’re still not sure which Jusuf Nurkic shows up and can Nassir Little stay healthy? I will say that I have no issue expecting Lillard to return to the form he displayed before the abdominal injury caught up with him. But Coach Chauncey Billups now has bodies that fit his preferred style of play, so it’s time to deliver.
The Mavericks just let Jalen Brunson walk and haven’t really replaced him. Sorry to all the Spencer Dinwiddie fans. Luka Doncic can’t do this all on his own. Sure, they made the Western Conference Finals last season but I don’t feel that adding Christian Wood and JaVale McGee is really enough to help the talented Slovenian return for another deep playoff run.
Fighting to get into the Play-In
Two franchises trying for that last-ditch effort to feature in the postseason.
Come at me Lakers fans. But this team did nothing this offseason to convince me that it will be better. Westbrook is an anvil hanging from the famous franchise’s neck and LeBron James turns 38 in December. I don’t care how freakishly athletic someone is or how well they might look after their body, no one beats Father Time.
Of the 15 franchises here, I think I’m being most unkind to the northern Californian team. I’m excited to see Keegan Murray and Domantas Sabonis play together but I just don’t know if they have the players to get them into the playoff picture.
Watching ping pong balls
Winning games isn’t really the highest of priorities. Have you seen that Wembanyama film?
Danny Ainge has no qualms about completely gutting this Jazz roster, which will likely lose Donovan Mitchell in the not-so-distant future. But even with the athletic guard still in Salt Lake City, it’s hard to see how they progress.
Trading Dejounte Murray to Atlanta was a pretty clear sign this franchise is going down before it goes up. Having said that, Gregg Popovich is still on the sidelines, I’m just not sure how much he’s going to be able to eke out of this squad.
The Rockets are doing the whole rebuilding thing the right way. Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr. are really nice pieces to build around for the future. But that future won’t be arriving in 2022-23. This young roster may win some games it probably shouldn’t, but for the large part it won’t be figuring anyway near the Play-In or playoffs.
Sam Presti will probably have to use a few of these picks at some point but for the moment it looks like he’s pretty happy with Chet Holmgren, Josh Giddey and the rest of the youth movement slowly feeling their way into the league. Not sure how happy Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is about that though.
We have no idea how this Blazers roster will gel, but it’s definitely going to be interesting. We have something different to be excited about, for the first time since LaMarcus Aldridge packed his bags for Texas seven years ago.
The Western Conference will again be a meat grinder with three or four elite teams at the top, a chunk of franchises fighting for relevance in the middle and a handful of rosters looking towards next year’s draft lottery. The Blazers are firmly entrenched in this middle group, spanning the comfortable fifth and sixth seeds to the nervous ninth spot in the lower half of the Play-In tournament.
As with every NBA season, injuries are likely to waylay any number of campaigns. But as we speak, most players look set to compete on opening night with our questions to be answered between October and April.