The Portland Trail Blazers went 53-29 in 2018-19, made the Western Conference Finals, then made sure Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum got paid the big bucks so their deep-playoff-running backcourt can keep doing that thing they do for years to come.
Vegas rewarded them by…penciling them in for a six-win regression at an over/under of 47.5.
My gut reaction is to say any team that subtracts Evan Turner automatically gets better at basketball, but I am (and was in 2014) a Pacers fan so of course I’d say that.
Is there any merit to that big a slap in the face by the oddsmakers? Or is this Blazers team about to grab the West by the horns again and possibly break through to the Finals in a post-Warriors future?
2018-19 record: 53-29
2019-20 over/under: 47.5
No Nurk? Call…not the Turk. Look on the Whiteside of life!
Jusuf Nurkic is out until February, according to Basketball Reference. In the meantime, Portland added a guy who is, let’s face it, worlds better than Kanter when he’s not complaining about his role or his coach or whatever other bug got up his butt that day.
You cannot tell me that Whiteside isn’t a huge upgrade on Kanter, and Kanter was pretty good when Portland needed him to be last year.
Whiteside’s stats are down from his beast-mode 2016-17 season, when he led the league in rebounds with 14.1 a game. But he was the league leader in defensive and total rebound percentage last year, posted the best Defensive Rating by Basketball Reference’s measure (on a Miami team that was 6th overall defensively), and continues to hold his own against guys like Rudy Gobert and Myles Turner on the list of the league’s best defensive centers.
He’s not a scorer. His finishing within 3 feet of the rim dropped to just 69.7 percent last year.
But you cannot tell me Whiteside isn’t a more than capable fill-in for Nurkic even as things will get real prickly after the All-Star break if Whiteside excels and wants to keep the starting spot.
Is Damian Lillard Underrated?
Everyone forgets to mention Dame when the discussions around the league’s very best point guards come up.
Lillard was one of only nine players in the NBA with greater than .200 WS/48 last year, at .205. If everyone on your team posts a .205, you should go 82-0. Anything over .200 is a true superstar, and while it’s true Lillard is not Stephen Curry, nobody is Steph. Lillard is a generational player, one of the guys who should absolutely be remembered as one of the pillars of his era, but his penchant for truly putrid shooting nights when his shot isn’t falling tends to mar his reputation.
Is CJ McCollum Overrated?
Now this is a bigger question. McCollum is a 37.5 percent—good but not great—3-point shooter. His advanced stats—.114 WS/48 and 1.3 VORP—suggest a decent but not spectacular starter, one of a million wing players with the same broad statistical profile.
And McCollum is a downright lousy defender.
So why is he making $27.56 million? That’s just a bad contract.
It’s this vexing dilemma that makes Blazers prognostication so annoying. Because on the one hand, anyone who actually watches the games knows that Portland wins when Dame shoots poorly because those always seem to be the nights that CJ steps it up and drops 35 on someone. He is, if nothing else, a safety valve.
He’s like Klay Thompson in that regard, another guy who the advanced stats say just isn’t that good but who puts up so many SportsCenter kind of nights that you kind of want to tell the stats to shut up.
I’m torn. Analyst Me wants to ding Portland for this. NBA Fan Me knows better. I’m going to stop pretending stats and shooting guards mix (and point you to Victor Oladipo‘s Basketball Reference page if you don’t believe me.)
The Ungodly Down-Roster Mess
Now, on the list of guys who are legit terrible, you have a few of Portland’s acquisitions.
Bazemore? A woeful .021 WS/48 and minus-0.1 VORP, even worse than his bad Hawks team.
Hezonja? Negative Win Shares (even on the Knicks, that’s bad) and a Wigginsish minus-0.6 VORP.
Gasol? So far over the hill he’s walking the plains on the other side at age 39.
Tolliver? After a surprising 1.5 VORP season in 2017-18 for Detroit, he crash-landed back to earth with the Timberwolves last year, posting a minus-0.1 VORP and (I know PER is a trash stat but still) an 8.6 PER.
Absolutely none of these guys are even passable NBA players. Four guys from the G-League could take their places and be statistically expected to post better numbers.
And That’s the Blazers’ Problem
This team is as deep as a glass of water in Vegas left out in the sun in July. Their bench just evaporated.
So they’ll have a fantastic starting lineup with the same explosiveness they’ve always gotten from Lillard and McCollum plus Whiteside’s defensive prowess keeping the rim protected at the other end.
But when the starters come out of the game, the bench will get eaten alive, and that’s where most of Portland’s losses—playing as they do in the more powerful conference against a division that includes two genuine contenders in Denver and Utah—will come from.
They have the same problem this year that the Warriors do.
But 47 wins? From a team that’s been consistently solid ever since Terry Stotts took over as coach after Nate McMillan got his walking papers?
I’m not buying a total that low. Portland’s better than that. They might not be much better—48 to 50 wins—but they’ll be better.
Are they good? It’s Plausible enough that I’m taking the over.
NEXT: Denver Nuggets.
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