2016-17 record: 41-41. 8th in the Western Conference. Swept out of the first round by the Golden State Warriors.
Transactions: Last season the Blazers barely the made the playoffs. One win separated them from the Denver Nuggets in the race for the final playoff berth in the West.
That’s why it’s so shocking that they didn’t really do more this off-season. There were no real major moves or signings to speak of to be honest.
Maybe that’s because they’d make their biggest deal in February when they traded Mason Plumlee to the Nuggets for their back-up centre Jusuf Nurkic – who was never going to get the minutes he needed sharing time with Nikola Jokic. Ironically, as a direct result of the trade, Portland catapulted ahead of Denver in to make the play-offs going 14-6 over the 20 games that Nurkic appeared in as a he put up 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.3 steals over that period and looked like an absolute world beater.
Given the acquisition of a player that had that impact, perhaps it isn’t so surprising that the Blazers opted to largely stay the course, but it is concerning given how much other Western Conference teams loaded up.
Most of their moves concerned dealing with potential salary cap issues and freeing up money. For instance, they moved back up guard Tim Quaterman to Houston for cash considerations as a peripheral piece in the deal that brought Chris Paul to the Rockets.
Portland also got to atone for one of their poorer financial decisions when they team parted ways with Allen Crabbe. The team had capped off an off-season of freewheeling spending – where free agent Evan Turner got a four year, $70 deal, Meyers Leonard got a 4 year, $41 million deal and Moe Harkless got a 4 year, $42 million deal – by matching the Brooklyn Nets $56 million offer sheet for Crabbe.
That move made the Blazers a luxury tax team which is a position that a squad that barely made the payoffs last season has no business being in. It was an incredibly irresponsible position to be in financially and was made even more unforgivable by the fact that Nurkic – so important to their late season resurgence – was n impending restricted free agent and someone they needed the financial flexibility to sign. So moving Crabbe to the team that had wanted him enough to offer him an inflated deal in the first place made a lot of sense.
Losing a skilled wing who shot 44% from three point range last season hurts. Crabbe had become a key part of Terry Stotts system and had shown steady improvement in each of his four NBA seasons. The financial implications and luxury tax penalties were ultimately too great though and moving him makes sense from a money standpoint.
Portland waived Andrew Nicholson – the player they received in return – and received a $12.9 million trade exception which can be used to acquire another player to bolster a playoff push if they’re in the picture this season.
The Trail Blazers also bolstered their back-court depth by signing 26 year old C.J Wilcox to the two-way deal, which allows them to add another player without sacrificing a guaranteed roster spot.
2017 NBA Draft: The Blazers made a big splash at the Draft when they sent the 15th and 20th picks in the draft to the Sacramento Kings in order to take Zach Collins out of Gonzaga.
Collins is a 7-footer with impressive athletic ability that allows him to run the floor with agility and to play above the rim. He’s very light on his feet for his size and is capable of elevating on either end of the floor. The 20 year old is great playing off passers as he’s able to sprint out in transition for open looks and can be a consistent target for lobs or work out of the pick-and-roll. He’s also developing a more consistent jump shot.
The former Bulldog does need to develop his passing as he currently lacks the court vision or instincts to allow him to operate as a play maker. On the back-end, Collins has a lot of work to due in order to make himself a physical presence as he lacks the length and awareness that is often needed against opposing big men and is too easy to push around or back down in the post, which can take away from what he offers as a rebounder and shot blocker.
Collins is a work in progress who needs to refine his skills to be effective at the pro level, which was evident in his underwhelming Summer League performance. He’s very unlikely to be a significant contributor to the team this season. It’s an odd match for the Blazers as they could have traded up to take someone who would more immediate impact on a team looking for a fifth straight playoff appearance.
Portland did a lot better with the 26th selection in the draft by taking a much-more NBA ready talent in Caleb Swanigan out of Purdue who was one of the more inspirational stories out of the draft having overcome the death of his father and childhood homelessness to arrive in professional basketball. He also triumphed over childhood obesity as he weighed nearly 400 pounds as an eighth grader but through diet, exercise and incredible tenacity managed to turn his size into an asset.
Standing at 6’8” and weighing in at 246 pounds, Swanigan was one of the more physically imposing players in collegiate hoops. He’s got a powerful frame and a 7’3” wingspan ans what he lacks in quickness and explosiveness, he makes up for in power, tenacity and hard work – a testament to the struggles that defined his early life.
Offensively, he’s able to use his size and strength to create mismatches in the deep post and thrives as an interior scorer. He has shown some improvement with his fade away which should make him more effective in the post. His passing is also quite impressive as he’s shown good court vision and solid instincts in terms of moving the ball. Swanigan’s best asset for the NBA is his three point shooting. He converted 45% from deep last season which will make him very effective as a floor spacer and constant perimeter threat.
Defensively, he will need to work on becoming a more consistent shot blocker and will have to continue to develop his skills defending the pick-and-roll and staying with stretch fours. He does thrive as as rebounder though – his 12.5 per game was the second highest in the NCAA and he had four games with 20 or more boards – which will help to mitigate some deficiencies as he continues to grow on the back end. He shows excellent instincts in locating the ball off the glass and is able to use his size and strength to establish position for rebounds.
He was a double-double machine in the Summer League as he averaged 16.1 points and 10.6 boards and was the stand out of Portland’s entry into the tournament – taking them all the way to the final game. He really looked NBA-ready and showed of his imposing physicality at every opportunity.
There is no doubt how much character Swanigan has given everything that he’s overcome in life and his work ethic, drive and commitment will make him an invaluable asset to the Blazers going forward.
Outlook: The importance of Jusuf Nurkic to the Blazers cannot be overstated. Their 14-6 performance with the Bosnian Bear in the line-up was largely the result of the stability he provided them at the centre spot after a season of trying out different line-up combinations to less-than ideal results. Before acquiring the 7’0” big man, the Blazers had one of the worst defenses in the NBA, allowing 109 points per 100 possessions which was just terrible. With Nurkic in the line-up, the mark improved to 105.9 points per 100 possessions including 103.7 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. The rim protection and interior D that the Blazers starting centre offers is a major piece of that turnaround.
Nurkic’s impact wasn’t just felt on back end, he helped the Blazers offense jump from 13th in the NBA for 5th and gave them new looks with his physical presence. When he sets a screen, it’s like planting a tree on the court and it’s opened up a ton of room for Damian Lillard to operate out of the pick-and-roll. He was also a double-double machine that could fill the stat sheet as evidenced by an unbelievable 28 point, 20 rebound, eight assists, six block and two steal masterpiece of a performance against the Philadelphia 76ers shortly after coming over in the trade. Those numbers haven’t been put up in a game by anyone since Charles Barkley in 1986.
In a league that relies on multiple stars, the emergence of an elite starting centre gives the Blazers a constant offensive option behind their all-star calibre back-court. At only 23, Nurkic isn’t anywhere near his peak yet and has reportedly shed 35 pounds off his once 285 pound frame which should help him be even more mobile and elevate even quicker for blocks and on the glass. The weight loss will also help with his health and the Bosnian has struggled with lower body injuries throughout his career.
If he’s able to stay healthy this season and play an entire season at the level that he showed in just 20 games in Portland, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nurkic mentioned when it’s time to hand out the Most Improved Player award. Even in a Western Conference loaded with talent that kind of ability to an impact a team will stand out.
Evan Turner signed a big contract to come to Portland last off-season to provide back-court depth behind Lillard and McCollum. He responded with a pretty underwhelming season that saw him shoot just 42.6% including 26.3% from deep while missing 17 games with a broken bone in his hand that also impacted his play going forward. ET really struggled to fit into Terry Stotts three-heavy system at times and while he will never become an elite three point shooter is going to need to become more comfortable in that facet of his game and offer up more consistent offense in general.
Turner should have a bounce back season with the departure of Allen Crabbe which will ensure even more minutes for The Villain due the versatility he offers. Turner can handle the ball and make plays which allows him to fill in at either guard spot. Terry Stotts can opt to play him alongside McCollum or Lillard or even out on the wing in different sets but also run his own offense and gives the Blazers a different looks with his dribble heavy attack and his mid-range game. What will keep ET on the floor, and prove most vital to Portland, is his perimeter defense as he can contain opposing point guards off dribble which is a vital skill on a team that was very defensively challenged before the Nurkic trade.
Portland is also going to need a healthy Al-Farouq Aminu if they are going to compete int he Western Conference. The 27 year old missed 21 games last season and the Blazers defense suffered as a result as he offers the Blazers the type of defensive versatility that they need in the line-up. He can help on the weak side, block shots, disrupt passing lanes with his lengths and even work out in the low post and body up to much bigger front-court players – which is something he had to do when Nurkic went down with an injury to end the season.
Aminu is never going to be confused for an elite offensive threat and he had a terrible shooting year last season as he hit only 39.3% total, but he’s able to contribute as a rebounder, shot blocker and with his high level defense and positional versatility. With a healthy Turner, Aminu and Nurkic, the Blazers defense shouldn’t crater like it did last season which will go a long way toward Portland being able to chase a playoff spot in the West.
Noah Vonleh made a huge jump down the stretch that kind of flew under the radar while the Portland faithful were caught up in “Nurkic fever”. Over the last 15 games of the season, he put up six double digit scoring games, six double digit rebounding games and four double-doubles. Over the previous 67 games, he’d had 11, 8 and 4 respectively. This surge culminated in an April where he averaged a 8.7 points and 9.1 boards – over double his career average. It really appeared as though the 22 year old constantly spoken of in terms of his “potential” was finally starting to realize it.
Unfortunately Vonleh is going to be sidelined with an injury to start the season so it’s unclear on how much he will able to build on his showing late in the season. The Blazers bench was very weak last season and if the young power forward can develop into a consistent contributor for Portland that would go a large way toward solidifying the second unit.
Meyers Leonard is one of Blazers’ fans favourite punching bags last season and responded to signing a 4 year, $41 million deal by laying an egg last season with 5.4 points and 3.2 boards – the worst numbers since his second year in the league. It’s make-or-break time for the 25 year old as if Vonleh continues to improve, Ed Davis continues to offer steadier minutes off the bench and the need to play Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan up front, if Leonard doesn’t rebound from a bad season, he could find his way out of town in a hurry.
Similarly, Moe Harkless is going to have to find a way to overcome his struggles with consistency and become a much more reliable contributor to the Blazers. He’s got the skills to be a key contributor to the team and should compete with Evan Turner for minutes at the three or even play the four in small line-ups but he’s got to be able to bring a high level of effort to every game.
The bench was bad last year and needs to get better as even with the major improvements Nurkic offered the team, there is no way that Portland can make it in the West with so little consistency and depth on the second unit. Even with improved depth and the presence of a third star in the emergence of the Bosnian Beast, there is no guarantees for the Blazers in a loaded West and the team will still go as far as it’s excellent back-court can carry it.
C.J McCollum will continue to be an absolute nightmare for opposing defenses to deal with. His ability with the snake dribble allows him to isolate not one, but two defenders: the guard trying to get back in front of him and the big who he engages with a series and zig zags and then makes a decision to either drive, pull up or dish it off to an open man.
It’s that ability to create his own show that makes McCollum especially lethal and gives the Portland back-court so much potency. He’s incredibly skilled as a ball-handler and play-maker in his own right as even playing next to Damian Lillard, 61% of his shots were unassisted last season. That number increases to 71% in mid-range where he torches opposing defenders with his step-backs and made 230 buckets from mid-range which was 6th best in the NBA.
McCollum followed up winning the league’s Most Improved Player in 2015-16 with an even better season that cemented him as one of the elite 2 guards in the association. He averaged 23 points on 48% shooting including hitting 42.1% from downtown which was the sixth highest mark in the NBA. McCollum also lead all players in free throw shooting with 91.2% efficiency.
Nobody is ever going to confuse McCollum for an all-NBA defender, but his strengths on offense far outweigh his weaknesses on the back-end and he’s reportedly been working at tightening up his defense. In a loaded Western Conference, he’ll be hard pressed to get any all-star considering which is unfortunate because he is without a doubt one of the best two guards in basketball.
Damian Lillard is also highly underrated. Coming off the best season of his career, he still wasn’t able to get any all-star recognition in a loaded Western Conference which is really not right given his status as one of the best point guards in the entire NBA. For all the hype around Kyrie Irving after he demanded his trade out of Cleveland and ended up in Boston, there was Lillard who’s been the focal point of a thin Blazers roster that’s managed to make the play-offs two seasons in a row – even after he was the last remaining starter of the 2015 edition of the team that won 51 games.
He’s an incredible scorer and is able to generate offense virtually anywhere on the floor with a ridiculous shooting range and the ability to get to the rim with ease and carve up opposing defenses on the way with his ball-handling. Dame averaged 27.0 points, 5.9 assists and 4.9 boards on 44.4% shooting including 37% from three point range but expect those numbers to get even better this year.
As Dolla Dame, he’s quite likely the best rapper in NBA history as well. At the very least, he’s top five.
The thing is that as good as he’s been, Lillard’s likely on the verge of an even better season this year. He’s back to his rookie weight after starting a vegan diet and undergoing an intensive off-season regimen and he’s also going to continue to reap with the benefits on his new Bosnian centre.
The Nurkic-Lillard pairing is going to be one to watch this season. In the 20 games he played with the Blazers new big man, Lillard averaged 27.8 points and 6.1 assists but more importantly his efficiency shot up as he shot 47.8% including 42.1% from three point range – including a stretch where he won NBA Player of the Week while averaging 35.3 points on 55.1% shooting. Lillard is an elite scorer who now has a big man who can open up a ton of room for him out the pick-and-roll and by setting impenetrable screens. Imagine a a whole season of that pairing.
With the Nurkic-Lillard-McCollum trinity firing on all cylinders, the Blazers will be one of the most exciting teams in the West and should contend for a play-off spot as overall they will be much better than they were last season when they had a terrible start and ended up 14-21 by December. This year, they should be able to get off to a much better start with a much-improved offensive attack and more importantly an even better defense.
Unfortunately, the rest of the West is much better too. In that sense, even with Nurkic for an entire season, I don’t think that Portland did enough to improve their depth and there are still a lot of questions surrounding their second unit. If Turner and Aminu stay health and Vonleh comes back at a similar level he was playing at to end last season, it will be a huge boost to Portland, but they still didn’t really add any significant pieces over the off-season and even if Caleb Swanigan’s emergence mitigates the loss of Allen Crabbe, they’re still largely the same team they were to end last season.
Is that team good enough to make the playoffs?
I believe they are under normal circumstances but this is a Western Conference where so many teams loaded up and got better around them which will make a playoff push more challenging when the team they barely beat for the eight seed last year – the Denver Nuggets – added a perennial all-star and should be significantly better this season. The Blazers can’t really say the same, but can conceivably play at a similar clip to their 20 games with Nurkic in the line-up this year.
I see the Blazers hanging in the picture for most of the season, but ultimately without a big addition using their trade exception, I don’t trust their second unit depth enough for them to push through. I think they hang in the race for most of the season but ultimately fall just short.
At the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were able to get in as they have when they’ve been counted out by many in each of the last two seasons.
Prediction: 41-41. 9th in the Western Conference.