The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it’s time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2016-17.
Each fall, we’re tasked with projecting the relative likelihood of failure or success for every NBA team. Sometimes, in the course of shooting our shots, we put up a brick.
Two seasons back, we clanged away on the Atlanta Hawks, whom we expected to finish at .500, but wound up producing the most successful season in franchise history. Last year, our Swaggy P heave came from the Pacific Northwest, as a Portland Trail Blazers squad we figured would rank among the very worst teams in the NBA instead played into the second week of May, giving the defending NBA champions a stiff test in the second round of the playoffs before bowing out.
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Yes, there were mitigating factors that help explain why Portland wound up in Round 2 rather than the lottery. At the top of the list: the myriad injuries and spates of inconsistency that knocked one 2014-15 playoff team (the New Orleans Pelicans) out of the bracket, helped keep one hopeful (the Utah Jazz) out of the top eight, and dropped several incumbents (the Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets) in the standings. Terry Stotts’ club, meanwhile, ranked among the healthiest teams in the NBA in terms of total player games lost to injury, according to Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes, with only one member of Portland’s 10-man rotation (floor-spacing big man Meyers Leonard) missing more than seven games.
The Blazers also got the benefit of injury luck in the playoffs, as the Los Angeles Clippers lost both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to season-ending injuries in Game 4 of their quarterfinal matchup. Their exits helped open the door for Portland to advance to the second round.
But injuries strike every NBA team at some point. (Lord knows Blazers fans have seen more than their fair share.) While you don’t have to apologize for good fortune, you do have to capitalize on it, and the Blazers’ ability to do so pointed toward the biggest reason why they outperformed our (and many other analysts‘) expectations: their whole was bigger than the sum of its parts.
We started to hear about this in late February. That’s when folks picked their heads up and realized that, after a rough start that saw the Blazers head into Christmas at 11-20 and owning the NBA’s 25th-ranked defense, Portland had actually been playing pretty damn well. Between Dec. 25 and Feb. 25, the Blazers went 19-8, posting blowout wins over both 2015 NBA finalists while riding a bevy of young contributors led by star point guard Damian Lillard and ascendant shooting guard C.J. McCollum to the league’s seventh-best “net rating” (whether you outscore your opponent, or get outscored, over the course of 100 possessions). Players like Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless, Allen Crabbe, Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee — guys whose NBA production had, by and large, yet to equal their draft positions — were suddenly succeeding in major roles.
The success came thanks in part to some tactical shifts to help shore up the defense, and in part to the roster-wide development of trust and faith in a burgeoning team culture spearheaded by Lillard. The former Rookie of the Year and maxed-out cornerstone responded to the exits of LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez by growing into the Blazers’ unquestioned leader, the perpetual small-school prospect who set an example for how to turn soft expectations into the motivation necessary to thrive.
The rise to Round 2 offered a snapshot of Portland’s organizational blueprint: that banking on the scoring and playmaking of Lillard and McCollum, the development of complementary young talent, and a commitment to working really hard — and not on landing a whopper of a free agent to pair with that stellar backcourt — is the path to better things. The realities of contracts and timing, however, made it awfully pricey for the Blazers to just stay low and build this summer.
In a post-salary-cap-explosion environment, it cost $75 million to keep Crabbe, a solid reserve wing with room to grow but warts in his two-way game. Plus $41 million to keep Leonard, whose shooting and per-minute production tailed off last year as he battled injuries, and who now slots in as a fourth or fifth big. And $40 million to keep Harkless, whose insertion into the starting lineup was a key element of Portland’s late-season surge, but whose iffy stroke and shaky playmaking can make him a liability.
And $106 million to lock up McCollum after he blossomed into the league’s Most Improved Player. And, perhaps most notably, $70 million to import Evan Turner, the former No. 2 overall pick who revitalized his pro career in Boston as a do-everything point forward off Brad Stevens’ bench, but whose poor shooting can cramp floor spacing and whose multipositionality can be compromised by defensive struggles against quicker or larger opponents. (Portland did snag a solid bargain by landing former Warriors center Festus Ezeli for two years and $15 million, but the big man’s already on the shelf following an injection in the left knee on which he had arthroscopic surgery in February.)
The Blazers are on the hook for more than $110 million in guaranteed salary this season, sitting right up against the luxury tax line for a roster that still looks more middling than menacing, and now have six players (Lillard, McCollum, Turner, Crabbe, Leonard and Harkless) locked into eight-figure annual paychecks through 2020. Maybe that was the best course of action; rumored dalliances with top free-agent center Hassan Whiteside went by the wayside when he Snapchatted his return to Miami, it’s hard to get mad at declining to give Dwight Howard $23 million a year through age 33 like the Hawks did, and no other needle-mover on the free-agent market was reported to be seriously considering Portland. If no LeBron or Durant is riding in on a white horse to save you, you’ve got to save yourself, so why not double down on your prior evaluations and player development structure, and believe that widespread internal improvement topped by the best-non-Warrior backcourt in the game can be enough?
But expected improvement isn’t guaranteed. If general manager Neil Olshey’s bets bust, the young up-and-comers who made Portland a Cinderella story as the lowest-priced team in the league last year could wind up looking like serious errors in judgment on one of the NBA’s five most expensive squads this year — especially if all that retention doesn’t result in a bump up the standings, a real possibility in a West whose mid- and lower tiers should be more competitive.
“We are probably not going to make the quantum leap the salaries might indicate,” Stotts told ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe last month.
If not, we’re probably looking at a team with a dynamite offense and a mediocre-or-worse defense that can flirt with 45 to 50 wins and a middle-of-the-West playoff spot, and that likely has limited hope of making it beyond the second round of the postseason. And hey: that’s not nothing!
At the risk of sounding numbingly obvious, it’s good to be good, and to win more than you lose, and to give fans an exciting product for which to root and behind which to rally, and — if the basketball gods once again throw some curveballs into the paths of the likes of the Warriors, Clippers and San Antonio Spurs — have a shot at making a surprising run for Western glory. In the bigger picture, it’s good to be about something: to decide there are certain principles around which to build, certain traits to seek in prospective players, and to commit to them as the foundation of a competitive structure you intend to last for many years.
All of that, inarguably, is pretty good. The problem, such that it is one, is that barring another unforeseen explosion, “pretty good” is all it might be.
Previously, on BDL 25:
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