The recent era of Portland Trail Blazers basketball has been dominated by unpredictability, horrendous cap management, and the treadmill of mediocrity. Whether they can escape that cycle is one of the most intriguing questions of the 2017-2018 NBA season.
The defining characteristic for this era of the Blazers is their ridiculous volatility, whether it’s manifested in player development or overall team performance. After 80% of their starters left in free agency, both Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum improved to a degree not many thought possible and were able to drag the team to the playoffs.
In that same year, Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless suddenly developed jumpers and looked like the wings of the future in Portland (they weren’t). Then last year, the only reason they made the playoffs was a late surge powered by an unexpected leap from newly acquired Jusuf Nurkic.
The Blazers desperately need some semblance of consistency if they want any hope of making real leaps in the Western Conference.
Volatility in Player Development
While teams do expect their players to improve and shore up their weaknesses, when a player does so dramatically, over the span of just one year, the legitimacy of said improvements can be called into question. For example, as anyone who watched the Nuggets closely since Jusuf Nurkic’s arrival will be quick to point out that he had the mental toughness of an infant.
After he was traded to Portland for Mason Plumlee, he was a force for the Blazers, averaging 15.2 PPG 10.4 RPG 3.2 APG and 1.9 BPG. Portland was resurgent after that 20 game stretch largely due to the enforcer that was Nurkic.
However, the caveats that come with it symbolize the dilemma Neil Olshey faces with this team. While Nurk was objectively awesome in Portland, character issues and concerns over his mental toughness go back to before he was drafted.
Attempting to build a team with almost zero certainty as to what your 1/3 of your players will provide on a season by season basis is near impossible.
On that note, Evan Turner still has one of the worst contracts in the league. After he became a super sixth man in Boston, he was rewarded with a large contract from Portland and was expected to be a point forward behind McCollum and Lillard.
The early results are less than flattering. Turner has always been a bad long range shooter, but was able to overcome it in the spacing that the Boston system provided. Upon his arrival in Portland, it quickly became clear that his production was at least slightly inflated by his situation.
Every team gives out bad contracts at some point, but with an already starved cap, the Blazers need Turner’s 2017 campaign to be an aberration.
The backcourt that can’t stop a nosebleed
Whether the backcourt comprised of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum can produce on the offensive end is not the question here. Rather, if they can do enough defensively to halt negation of that production, especially in the postseason.
Thus far, the answer has been a resounding no. Although they’ve faced the Death Star the last few years in the playoffs, Lillard and McCollum produced a -28.3 net rating in 115 minutes in last years playoffs. No one is asking them to have a positive net rating against a motivated Warriors team, but that low of a net rating is nearly unacceptable.
Defense doesn’t really carry the weight in the NBA, people claim it to carry but it’s still important. Usually, defense comes down to effort, but the concerning thing is that’s not really the problem here.
The Blazers’ two best players are undersized, average athletes who carry the weight of the offense in the West. No matter how much they produce offensively, that simply won’t cut it in the playoffs.
There’s not much Olshey can really do to alleviate that problem too. Trading Lillard would cause riots both in the streets and the locker rooms and McCollums trade value is not high enough to warrant trading him. Never mind the cap implications and the loss of leadership that trade would entail.
The Blazers are facing one of the weirdest futures in the league and the plan isn’t abundantly clear at the moment.
Are the Blazers good enough to avoid the Warriors?
Playing any iteration of the Warriors in the playoffs since 2014 has been a less than pleasant experience for any team. That applies painfully true to the Blazers, the least equipped team to face them. No one can stop the scoring exploits of Curry or Thompson, but few teams make it easier for them to score than the Blazers.
Portland has almost zero help for McCollum and Lillard offensively, so any excess energy the duo has is pumped directly into scoring. That strategy generally works in the dog days of the regular season when guys barely have the energy to put their shoes on. But when you’re playing the best team ever assembled, that strategy might not work very well.
The team has done an admirable job challenging the powers of the West thus far, but in order to warrant confidence in their future, they need to prove they have the juice to win a series. (And that’s not happening against the Warriors.)