Are the 2018-19 Portland Trail Blazers Good?

The difference between third and ninth in the Western Conference in 2017-18 was three games, and it was the same difference between first and last in the Northwest Division.

The Portland Trail Blazers beat the Utah Jazz on the last day of the season to wrap up the division title, and even though they summarily got smoked by the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round of the playoffs, the Blazers were a 49-win team and are getting their Big Three of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic back intact for another crack at NBA glory.

The question remains, however, did their window close on them last year? They had a 13-game winning streak that started just before the All-Star Game, but then limped to a 5-11 finish between the last 12 games of the regular season and the sweep at the hands of Anthony Davis and friends in the Big Easy.

Lillard is a bona fide superstar, a nearly six-VORP player and a guy with a 25.2 PER.

McCollum is a classic scoring guard who scored 21.4 a game and who was a pretty good offensive force in his own right.

And Nurkic is one of two guys on this year’s roster—with Ed Davis gone, Al-Farouq Aminu is the only other—who is a legitimate force on defense.

Then again, the backcourt couldn’t guard my dead grandmother.

The West got stronger. Portland looked shaky down the stretch. Is a massive regression coming?

2017-18 record: 49-33
2018-19 over/under: 41.5

Wait, 41.5? WHAT?

Yeah, the defense is likely headed into the toilet with Davis gone, but do the oddsmakers seriously believe that so many other teams have gotten better in the West that it’s going to drop a team with an electric offensive backcourt all the way to mediocrity and likely missing the playoffs?

Calm yourselves, people. Ed Davis was worth two wins (0.7 VORP), not eight.

They still have Evan Turner‘s gods-awful contract. They won’t finish eighth in Defensive Rating again without Davis. And they’re still injury-prone (a few too many guys missed a few too many games with little nagging injuries as the season went on.)

But eight wins worse? No.

About Turner

Way back in dinosaur days, our man Zach d’Arbeloff wrote a scathing takedown of Turner when he was on the Celtics and Boston fans had to talk themselves into enjoying it in the basketball equivalent of being married to someone who’s terrible in the bedroom.

Further back than that, I had to watch Turner stink the joint out on a 2014 Pacers team that at one point in the season looked like they were going to eat LeBron’s lunch.

Now he’s making almost $36 million over the next two years despite a career VORP of 0.0. He’s already pocketed $61 million. For the same production level as a G-League replacement. Nice work if you can get it!

VORPal Blade

I just want to highlight five numbers for you: 5.9, 1.8, 1.6, 1.2, 1.2.

Those are the VORP totals in 2017-18 for Lillard, McCollum, Aminu, Nurkic, and Maurice Harkless, respectively.

Converted to wins added, that’s 31.6 wins over a G-Leaguer, and Basketball Reference has a G-League replacement’s net rating set at -2.0, suggesting that a team made up entirely of such players that played at a league-average pace would . And that’s before the bench players are folded into the equation.

You see where this is going? This is not a .500 or worse team!

One Other Thing…

Dear Meyers Leonard,

Your Ivan Drago haircut is one of the coolest looks in the whole league. Play it up for laughs, please. Give interviews about your matchup that night saying “I must break you.” and “If he dies, he dies.”

You have been blessed by the gods with the Rocky IV Gene. Express it!

Love,

Everyone’s Favorite Breakfast Highlight Guy

THE VERDICT!

I love this Blazers team. They’re on the list of must-watch League Pass squads even when they’re not playing the Pacers. I try to get down to Portland every year from the base here in Seattle to see them play when Indiana’s in town.

And even without Davis’s defense and with the West getting better, this isn’t a 41-or-fewer wins team.

Are they going to threaten the West and get home court in the playoffs? Ehhh…that’s far from certain. I’ll even downgrade the rating to Plausible because injuries and defensive regression could make this team worse than they look—and they look like a largely intact 49-win team.

So let’s figure on 45-37, still over 41.5, and take the over.