The Portland Trail Blazers were undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable surprises of the 2015-16 NBA season. After losing four starters in the summer of 2015, the Blazers reassembled themselves around star point guard Damian Lillard in the hopes that they could rebuild a playoff team without racing to the bottom. The plan worked as well as anyone could have anticipated. Lillard welcomed the pressure of his new role, third-year guard C.J. McCollum thrived as second scorer and playmaker to nab Most Improved Player honors, and additions like Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee contributed consistently at both ends in ways that should cement their reputations for years. Portland certainly got lucky in facing an injury-ravaged Los Angeles Clippers roster in the first round of the playoffs, but they earned their No. 5 seed and impressed with “one of the best five-game eliminations you’ll ever see against the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Semifinals.
Like many young, surprising teams, the Blazers now face the challenge of continuing to progress when they’re already past the point plenty of analysts thought they would reach. A group that many, including me, thought would cruise into the lottery after a fairly strong start kept winning and surged past several more experienced clubs into a strong seed. Did they just benefit from a down year for the rest of the West? Or are the Blazers ready to hold onto their position in the conference and improve enough to mount a more serious challenge against the elite?
There are decent arguments to be made for both sides. The biggest question mark on the court is definitely the defense, which ranked 20th in points allowed per possession and never really looked better than average despite second-half improvements. But there are also reasons to wonder if the Blazers are as good as their new reputation says. For one thing, Portland surely benefited from poor showings by hopeful contenders like the Houston Rockets and bad injury luck for the Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies. The Blazers’ 44 wins would have put them ninth in the West in 2014-15 (not including their own 51-win finish, which ranked fifth), and they appeared headed for a first-round exit before Chris Paul (and to a lesser extent the already limited Blake Griffin) was forced out of the postseason due to injury. Even their much-lauded final two losses to the Warriors came with a hobbled Stephen Curry still finding his way back into form.
At the same time, the Blazers deserve credit for taking advantage of the opportunities given to them. If nothing else, this team has shown that it knows how to seize the moment. Plenty of other teams had the same chances to fill the gaps left by the conference’s disappointments and accomplished little. With the intensely responsible Lillard leading the way, there’s reason to believe that Portland will build on the improvements made last season and continue their ascent.
The Blazers better hope they do, at least, because this roster figures to be together for some time. General manager Neil Olshey brought back restricted free agents Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard, and Mo Harkless on four-year deals; signed do-everything-OK wing Evan Turner to a big four-year contract; and extended McCollum on a four-year max deal that will keep him off the restricted free agent market next summer. Add in the huge five-year extension Lillard signed in July 2015 and the Blazers are already on the hook for at least $110 million in each of the next four seasons. Owner Paul Allen can afford to pay the luxury tax, but the bigger issue is that the roster cannot be changed barring some creative trading and stellar drafting. This team is probably going to have to figure out how to contend together, and they look like a perennial 50-win team if we’re being honest with ourselves.
The good news is that last season proved the Blazers know how to develop talent internally and find bargains in free agency. For that matter, the 2014-15 Warriors showed that a team doesn’t have to add big-name players over the summer to vault from “very good” to “great.” If Portland can continue to see improvement from a core in its mid-20s, there’s reason to think they can emerge as a first-tier challenger and perhaps eventually a true contender. But that process will have to move forward in some way this season lest the good vibes surrounding the franchise morph into something more mixed.
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
'Of course' Draymond Green believes the Blazers are done. https://t.co/ZAyISxuojm
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) May 10, 2016
“Looking at this series and seeing 4-1? It didn’t feel like that.” Draymond saying he gained a lot of respect for Blazers.
— Erik Malinowski (@erikmal) May 12, 2016
Did the summer help at all?
Yes, though not necessarily because the Blazers got appreciably better. Rather, most of the positives came from Portland holding onto key figures they could not afford to lose.
However, most impressions of the Blazers’ offseason have hinged on whatever people think of Evan Turner. The No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft signed for four years and $70 million on the first day of free agency in a move that caught many off guard, not least because Portland seemed more in need of an interior upgrade than a perimeter player who can’t make threes. For that matter, Turner is a divisive player who doesn’t seem like the kind of guy a playoff team should rush after in the opening hours of free agency.
Turner is frustrating for good reason. He will turn 29 a day after the Blazers’ opener and yet has never found a sensible role for his talents, perhaps because one does not exist. Turner has never topped a 14.0 PER, struggles to shoot from the perimeter so much that he called the out-of-fashion mid-range game “the future” of the league, and once answered his home crowd’s boos by comparing himself to Jesus. His best quality is that he does everything decently enough. Unfortunately, he’s basketball’s knockoff Swiss Army Knife — eventually you’ll just wish you had someone who did one thing well.
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Then again, Turner deserves some benefit of the doubt before his first extended run with his new teammates. A glass-half-full take says that he fills a need as another creator to take pressure off Lillard and McCollum, who took on virtually all playmaking responsibilities for Portland last season. It’s also possible to imagine Turner taking on a role as a gap-filler by using his many replacement-level talents to do whatever the more skill-specific secondary players cannot. Turner comes with plenty of risks, but his contract does not have to become a full-on albatross.
Portland’s other offseason additions were relatively minor by comparison. However, center Festus Ezeli could end up as something of a steal. A player some analysts tabbed as a max-contract candidate during the regular reason rode a poor postseason to a mere two-year, $15-million deal, a pittance in this summer’s market. Ezeli has a history of knee injuries and already had a surgery this offseason, so he’s not exactly the most dependable backup around. Yet Portland could have added similarly questionable players at higher prices without nearly the same kind of potential for growth. Several lottery teams, including the Los Angeles Lakers, probably would have been better off adding Ezeli instead of the players they got.
Turner and Ezeli aside, the bulk of Portland’s offseason movement involved keeping key pieces they already had. That includes head coach Terry Stotts, who inked a three-year extension to avoid a lame-duck season. Stotts has become one of the most respected coaches in the league and certainly did fine work getting his team to exceed expectations last year. This season will pose different challenges, but the Blazers would have had big problems if they hadn’t retained him.
The second no-brainer came in the four-year max extension for C.J. McCollum that will go into effect for the 2017-18 season. It’s fair to question why the Blazers didn’t wait to see if McCollum holds the same value after his fourth season, but there was also relatively little reason not to show faith in someone who established himself as their second franchise player. The Blazers can now proceed into the future with the confidence that often attends stability.
Plenty of others will be along for the ride, with the most controversial new deal going to backup shooter Allen Crabbe. The Blazers opted to match the Brooklyn Nets’ four-year, $75-million offer sheet to the 24-year-old, who shot 39.4 percent from deep in the regular season and 42.9 percent from that distance in the playoffs. Crabbe is a terrific role player, but his new salary is a steep price for a franchise that has to pay so many others on the same development curve. The Nets could afford it because they had few other options. Will it be worth it?
Elsewhere, Portland handed out four-year deals to stretch five Meyers Leonard ($41 million) and forward Mo Harkless ($40 million). Leonard holds potential as a matchup nightmare for paint-bound bigs but has never looked passable as a defender. Harkless figures to be moved to the bench to make room for Turner, but he could find his way back into the starting lineup if circumstances demand it. He and Aminu meshed well as dual combo forwards and were catalysts for the Blazers’ post-Christmas development into one of the West’s obvious playoff teams.
Potential breakout stud:
The Blazers clearly hope it’s Crabbe. While the Nets forced their hand in doling out his big new contract, the front office had already put lots of faith in the player they drafted (via the Cleveland Cavaliers) with the first pick of the second round in 2013. A bit player in his first two seasons, Crabbe took advantage of the openings in the rotation early last season and showed that he has lots of value as a spot-up shooter in this perimeter-heavy era. He was a weapon throughout the season and playoffs and boosted his profile substantially.
Whether he’s worth nearly $19 million per season for a team that already has several capable shooters is an open question. It’s possible that salary will look more normal as players continue to sign deals under the league’s higher salary cap, but Crabbe has still only really excelled as a shooter. A team with as many defensive holes as this one could use an ace at the end of the floor, especially given Lillard and McCollum’s shortcomings on the perimeter. Will Portland come to regret Crabbe’s contract even if only because it could have gone to someone else?
Whatever the answer to that question, Crabbe will have to show that the franchise’s faith in him has not been misplaced. He has put in the effort before. Stardom is not necessary, but he will need to show that he can be more than a shooting specialist.
Lillard continues to establish himself as one of the league’s top stars. McCollum adds to last year’s breakout campaign and emerges as an All-Star candidate. Turner settles into a role as a glue guy now that his place in his team’s hierarchy is clear. Crabbe takes the questions about his new contract as a chance to prove his value and becomes an outsider Most Improved Player candidate. Aminu, Plumlee, and Harkless prove that their contributions last year were no flukes. Several teams ahead of the Blazers take a step back. Portland enters the postseason with new confidence and makes it all the way to the conference finals.
If everything falls apart:
Lillard or McCollum misses more than 25 games with injury. Turner proves a poor fit with the existing roster. Aminu, Plumlee, and Harkless revert to their previous profiles and look more like bench pieces than capable starters. The Blazers sneak into the playoffs but are forced to reassess this roster’s ceiling.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
55-27, 4th in the West
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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