2017-18 Preview: Portland Trail Blazers

By Bryan Crawford #26

Let’s just be honest for a second. There isn’t a more underrated superstar in the NBA than Damian Lillard. He’s constantly overlooked in the point guard conversation in favor of guys named Curry, Westbrook, Irving and Wall, while having just as big of an impact on his squad with considerably lesser talent around him. Still, Lillard has proven that if you give him a teammate who can put up 20 PPG, whether he’s 6-11 (LaMarcus Aldridge) or 6-3 (CJ McCollum), he’s good enough to take that team to the playoffs in one of the deepest, toughest conferences in the League. Were the last two seasons just a fluke, or is “Videogame” Dame the real deal? We’re about to find out.

Trailblazers 2017-18 Ballhandlers Wings Bigs
Returners Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Shabazz Napier Maurice Harkless, Pat Connaughton, Evan Turner Jusuf Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu, Noah Vonleh, Meyers Leonard, Ed Davis
Newcomers Caleb Swanigan, Isaiah Briscoe, Archie Goodwin Zach Collins
Gone Allen Crabbe
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Offense: Lillard will continue to be the first and second option on offense, but McCollum will also get a ton of opportunities to look for his own offense and score. Portland might very well have the best scoring backcourt in the NBA. Head coach Terry Stotts knows that as fact as he gives his two best players the freedom to shoot at will, but with Jusuf Nurkic back in the fold and healthy, the coach will need to make it a point of emphasis to get the Bosnian center more involved. Nurkic was a pleasant surprise after getting traded to the team from Denver last season. If this is the case, then it should give Lillard and McCollum an opportunity to get their individual assist numbers up now that they have another capable scorer to pass the ball to instead of each other. Nurkic should also help the team get a lot of second-chance opportunities with his tenacity on the offensive glass, and in this Trail Blazers offense, he should get a fair amount of assists with his ability to pass, especially out of the double team. Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic will be Portland’s primary offensive weapons, but scoring gets pretty thin outside of that trio. The Trail Blazers have a glut of bigs who can’t be relied on consistently for scoring, and the departure of Allen Crabbe leaves a huge void when it comes to bench production. Stotts will work with a combination of Pat Connaughton, Evan Turner, Shabazz Napier and rookie Caleb Swanigan to be the primary ballhandlers and scorers on the reserve unit, but he’ll also be faced with the dilemma of needing to have Lillard or McCollum on the court at all times. Portland has been top-10 in scoring the last four seasons. Don’t expect that streak to end this season as putting as many points on the board as possible is this team’s main offensive strategy and obviously, one of the major keys to its success.

Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

Defense: Portland was worse on the defensive side of the ball last year than they were the year prior, which could also explain the -3 in the win column—from 44 victories to 41. Nurkic should certainly help in the rim protection department. During his 20 games in Portland last season, he averaged right at two blocks per game. With Lillard and McCollum equally being weak on defense, channeling everything into Nurkic will open up more opportunities to challenge or block shots, grab the defensive rebound and get out on the break and run. Portland has been one of the NBA’s 10 weakest defensive squads since LaMarcus Aldridge left for San Antonio. With so many squads in the Western Conference having made significant moves to make themselves stronger, Portland will need to make defense a priority if they want to make the postseason for a fifth straight year.

Upside: This team’s most redeeming quality is they seem to embrace the role of perpetual underdog. Like Lillard, Portland is often overlooked as being one of the NBA’s elite teams, and that seems to suit them just fine. They still have the ability to sneak up on opposing squads on any given night and beat them handily. That always makes the Blazers an intriguing squad to watch, despite not being a legitimate championship contender.

Durability: Lillard has been the team’s most durable players since he came into the League. His first three seasons he played a full 82 games, and in the last two years, he’s played no less than 75 games. McCollum has also been healthy, playing no fewer than 80 games in his last two campaigns. The health of the backcourt is paramount to the success or failure of this squad as it has been since Stotts made them option one and two. However, Nurkic remaining healthy will also be critical as he’s the only force in the middle and scoring threat from the low-post and midrange. The Blazers can survive missed games from many of the supporting cast, but at least two of their big three will need to play 70-plus games, at least, if this squad wants to remain competitive in 2017-18.

Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

Synergy: Portland has taken on the personality of their leader, Lillard. They’re always chill and laid back, and they never get too high or too low after wins or losses. This has made them a group that knows how to play together and feed off of each other in a positive way on the court, which also bleeds over into the locker room. Considering they’ve all played together for multiple seasons and the pieces they have mesh well, the synergy on this year’s squad should continue to remain in-sync as it always is.

Experience: Portland knows what it needs to do to make it to the postseason ad with Lillard as the main guy, he’s already taken the Trail Blazers to the second round of the playoffs. This is a team that fully understands how many wins they’ll need to have to secure, at least, one of the bottom three playoff positions, and that will be the goal once again this season. Lillard will continue to quietly carve out his territory as a superstar, and McCollum will be a dual threat on or off the ball, and everyone else will slide into their roles without complaint. There’s a recipe and a formula for success in Portland, and don’t expect Stotts to deviate from it. A fifth straight playoff appearance is definitely a legitimate possibility for this team, even in a deeper and more talented Western Conference.

Win Frame: 42-45 wins

2017-18 HOOP Season Preview

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