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2017 NBA Season Preview Series: Portland Trail Blazers

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Portland Trail Blazers

A much much closer poll this time around, the stoolies have spoken, so welcome to your 2017 Portland Trail Blazers Season Preview. To be honest, I probably shouldn’t have included them until we know FOR SURE what the hell is happening with Melo (more on this in a minute), but here we are. Let’s dive in.

2016-17 Season Highlights

How lucky were the Portland Trail Blazers last season? Well, if Russell Westbrook doesn’t make this shot

Portland most likely misses the playoffs. After finishing the 2016 season 41-41, this Blazers team is entering the 2017 season already looking different, and after their Nurkic trade last year, finished the season 18-10, so that’s certainly encouraging. As we stand right this second, this is what their roster looks like

Screen Shot 2017-07-26 at 9.16.38 AM

There’s one thing to note as you look at this group, and that’s Andrew Nicholson. After trading him for Allen Crabbe, reports are the Blazers are going to waive him, so subtract his money from the books, basically pretend he’s not even there. That means currently, there are 14 players under contract. Sure they were able to unload Crabbe’s bad deal (19M), but by no means is Portland in a position to add anything else barring a crazy trade. This move screams wanting to lower their tax bill, but theoretically they could say fuck it and get right back to that giant tax bill if they were to become a destination for someone like Melo, or part of a trade that nets them another salary dump. But my thoughts on that are simply, is Ryan Anderson worth the tax bill while also making your competition better? I’m not so sure.

As of now, the Blazers have the 5th highest total cap number at $125,787,145. They are about $6M over the luxury tax. For better or worse, this is most likely the group they enter the season with, and what does that get you in the West really? If you look at the teams around them in total salary, it’s teams like CLE/GS/OKC/WSH/HOU. I would say all of those teams are closer to contending than Portland is at the moment. As a Blazers fan this may depress you, but I promise there are reasons to be optimistic.

It starts with having Jusuf Nurkic for a full season. Some might say the traditional big is dying in today’s NBA, but don’t tell that to Portland. In 20 games as a Blazer last year, Nurkic poured in 15.2/10.4/3.2/1.3/1.9 in 29 minutes. Finally free from the logjam that was the DEN frontcourt, Nurkic was simply fantastic. He most definitely still has his turnover problems, but the proof is in the pudding. When Nurkic was on the floor, the Blazers were better in almost every area. Their offensive rating was better (112.9 vs 108.0), same with their defensive rating (103.5 vs 110.7). They rebound better (53.1% vs 48.7%), have a better assist ratio, and believe it or not, even play at a faster pace. When looking at his impact it’s clear he makes a difference, but I want to focus on one area in which he really helps Portland that is going to be the KEY to them improving this season.

The defensive end.

You see, as awesome as Dame and CJ are at scoring the basketball, as a team the Blazers defense in 2016 was absolutely abysmal. So bad in fact, they had a negative point differential on the year, which made them the ONLY team in the West that made the playoffs that had a negative differential. If they want to talk about moving up the ranks in the West, it starts on defense for me. This is why Nurkic for a full season is going to be so important. While on the floor, opponents saw their FG% drop (44.3% vs 46.8%), their 3p% drop (39.2% vs 33.0%), their points drop (74.7 vs 59.5), and rebounding drop (30.1 vs 23.6). I get that 20 games is an extremely small sample size, but it does show you what this team/lineup is capable of, and seeing as how all the teams around them in the West just got better, there is reason to believe that Portland will be better simply by having their ideal lineup for a full season.

It’s no secret that Dame has his defensive issues on the perimeter, which hurt Portland because they didn’t really have a legit rim protector as a second line of defense. Ed David isn’t that guy, and neither was Plumlee or Meyers Leonard. Now they are getting a full season of Nurkic along with two promising rookies in Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins. This Portland frontcourt is going to look drastically different from what fans saw for the first 60ish games last year, and that’s a good thing.

Another important area for the Blazers to focus on in 2017 is their performance on the road. Their 16-25 record on the road is shit teams like Orlando (16-25), Philly (17-24), and Sacramento (15-26) do. The lowest road wins of any playoff team in the West, this is only going to get harder, but it doesn’t take a drastic improvement to see them rise a few spots in terms of seeding. Remember, last year teams like Memphis and OKC won just 19 road games, and teams like Utah, LAC, MEM are good candidates to regress a little bit this season in that area. The main problem for Portland is that two teams in their own division just got a whole hell of a lot better this offseason. Minnesota and OKC are primed to move up a couple spots in the West next season, and you could argue if you throw in Utah, this is one of the most competitive divisions in the entire NBA. Could a division send four teams to the playoffs? That would be absolutely insane.

On the offensive side, things aren’t as dire. The Blazers had a top 8 scoring offense last year, and while they lost a good shooter in Crabbe, I think they’ll be OK. They still have one of the best offensive backcourts in the league, and as an offense they rank 5th in mid range FG%. That’s how Portland wants to kill you, with guys like Turner, Dame, and CJ, they are going to continue to feast in this area. So much of their offense is based off an initial high screen, and now that it’s going to be Nurkic & Co setting those screens, I think they are even better this year. They love to run their main scorers off numerous screens off the ball once they cross half court, whether it’s a pinch curl

to find a cutter, or one of their other very common sets where they set a consecutive high screens on the perimeter to help free up their guards.

So much of their offense relies on their big man to be able to make on time, accurate passes. That’s why Plumlee worked so good in their system, and why Nurkic and his 17% (Plumlee was 21.4% and 19.8% the year before) assist percentage is going to be so important. Plays like this are now going to fall on his shoulders

so it’ll be interesting to see if now that he’s more comfortable in this system, if he can help fill that passing big role.

From the outside, Portland looks stuck. Not a lottery team, but not a Top 5 seed in their own conference despite their hefty committed salary. They are in that 6-8 tier in the West, but if I were them I would just care about missing GS in the playoffs. In my opinion they are again going to be battling Denver in this same range, and with all the Kyrie rumors swirling and Denver maybe being an option, the bottom of the West could very well be just as drama filled as it was last year. It also wouldn’t shock me that of these teams: GS/SA/HOU/LAC/UTA/OKC/MEM/POR/DEN/MIN if they missed the playoffs. Two teams from that group are going to, as crazy as that seems.

Official Greenie Prediction: 44 wins*

*This obviously changes if they somehow acquire Melo or something of his caliber through trade