The Portland Trail Blazers will start training camp in three weeks with a shiny, new lineup and a returning All-NBA player in Damian Lillard. Plenty of people are excited about Portland’s prospects, including one reader who provided our Blazer’s Edge Mailbag question today.
I see you answered what would happen if we didn’t have a successful season but what would happen if we did? How high do you think this team can get this year and what are the realistic and upper level goals?
That’s a hard one to answer, not having seen the new lineup play together. We also haven’t seen Damian Lillard back healthy and whole. Nor have we seen him start alongside Anfernee Simons. Nor do we know what the small forward position will shake out like. Those questions alone show huge cracks in our knowledge base, and thus our ability to assess.
You’ve saved us by the way you’ve asked, though. Assessing Portland’s upper limit assumes that most, if not all, of those issues will be resolved to the positive. Lillard will return to All-Star form. He and Simons will defend better than the backcourt of Lillard and CJ McCollum did. Nassir Liltte, or another candidate, will fill in the three-spot well. Chemistry will not be an issue.
Even with those things assured, for the sake of this question, answering isn’t simple.
Most NBA pundits put the Los Angeles Clippers at, or near, the apex of the Western Conference. Kawhi Leonard will be returning to their lineup, joining Paul George and a stacked veteran cast. The Golden State Warriors are defending champions, doing that Hulk Hogan thing of winning the title every time they show up healthy. They’re impossible to discount. The Phoenix Suns haven’t gone away either.
It doesn’t seem reasonable to forecast even a best-case Blazers team over those three. For me, the apex would probably be the fourth spot in the conference and homecourt in the first round.
The Blazers would need to make good on that, of course, advancing to the second round. That provides the standard for “good season” this year. If they make it past the first round with their cast of mid-20’s players plus Lillard, maybe there’s something to build on there. if they get eliminated in their opening-round playoffs series—or worse, don’t make it in the first place—head shaking will accompany hand wringing. We’ll be asking if there’s any road forward that matters.
The big “what if” comes if they can parlay Josh Hart (and perhaps other assets) into a sweet mid-season deal. Hart’s contract is expiring and it’s extremely unlikely they’ll pursue him next summer. If the Blazers can find a great move mid-year, maybe we bump “good season” up to making the Conference Finals and see what happens.
Those are my thoughts. What are yours, Dear Readers? Share your definitions of good season and best possible outcome in the comments below!