by Fox Doucette
Seattle, where this site is based, is not the hotbed of NBA activity it once was. Most of this city’s denizens hold nostalgia for the Sonics; the folks my age remember Payton and Kemp, while the grizzled old folks remember the ’79 title team that brought this city its first (and, until the Seahawks won Super Bowl 48, only) championship. Folks don’t follow today’s game, not since the team naffed off to Oklahoma City.
Still, there are Blazers fans in the midst, folks who decided that the dream of the ’90s is alive in Portland, at least in a sporting sort of way, and to them I dedicate this article.
It’s also a real good question in its own right; can a team with a fantastic offensive backcourt and jack squat else make the Western Conference playoffs again after sneaking in as the 8 seed when Denver imploded down the stretch last year?
After all, we know that Memphis, Utah, and possibly the Clippers are headed into the toilet and out of the top 8. We know three teams will come up from the depths (Minnesota? New Orleans? Denver?) The question then becomes whether Portland’s going to hold their ground or whether they too will get eaten by the churn monster.
Vegas likes them, penciling them in for 42.5 wins on the over/under. But do the cold, hard facts back this up? Stats via Basketball Reference. Over/unders via Sports Insights. Let’s do the thing, shall we?
2016-17 Record: 41-41.
2018 Over/Under: 42.5.
Thou Shalt Not Defense
Is Damian Lillard’s basketball IQ on defense so low that it can’t be redeemed? Or is Terry Stotts just an atrocious defensive coach?
Because Portland was 24th in the Association in Defensive Rating, and the defense of both Lillard and CJ McCollum was so utterly putrid that their games were all but guaranteed to degenerate into shootouts that the 11th-ranked offense wasn’t always in a position to win.
Late rotation on defense, terrible on-ball defense by Lillard, and Dame’s ability to get faked out by moves that wouldn’t pass muster on a playground? That’s how a team with an offensive rating over 111 ends up only winning 41 games.
And Speaking Of That “Great” Backcourt
What’s more, are we actually sure that Lillard is good? Because .444/.370/.895 is…well, OK, the free throws are fantastic, but that’s mediocre offense for a guy who can’t guard anyone. Why the hell is he a star?
McCollum’s .480/.421/.912 numbers, on the other hand…well, now we know who’s actually the best player on the team, don’t we?
Evan Turner Still Sucks
As a bench dynamo in Boston with Brad Stevens to moderate his case of Josh Smith Disease, Turner was almost decent.
As a bench guy who fired more bad shots than a blind man on a firing range? 26.3 percent from three, 42.5 overall, ladies and gentlemen, your $70 million man!
Longtime fans of this site remember when our man Zach d’Arbeloff killed Turner on the regular in these pages. That stuff was sadly lost to history in the redesign, but its spirit goes on as Evan Turner poisons everything he touches in a Blazer uniform.
I Am Jusuf’s Durability
Can 23-year-old Bosnian sensation Jusuf Nurkic stay healthy? Because if so, this team got a huge upgrade over Meyers Leonard in the low post. Nurkic, if he gives a full season of what he gave after the trade deadline last year, is a potential All-Star, and having that post presence opens up the perimeter for even more fireworks from the likes of McCollum, Lillard, and Allen Crabbe.
If he stays healthy. Don’t bet your life on it.
You know the craziest thing about this Portland roster? Nobody on it has been in the NBA more than seven seasons (Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Ed Davis), and Turner, who will be 29 on October 27, is the oldest player; there is not a soul on that team in their 30s.
Most of last year’s squad is back. Are we seeing the next big leap in homegrown talent? Nurkic is 23. Lillard is 27. McCollum turns 26 next week. Mo Harkless is 24. Noah Vonleh is 22. These guys are still growing into their abilities. Look out below if they keep raising the ceiling.
On the one hand, this is an atrocious defensive team with a lousy defensive coach that will struggle to keep points off the board for the enemy.
On the other hand, it’s a team of fantastic shooters and limitless potential if only they can reach out and grab it.
On February 28 of last season, the Blazers were 24-35 after a loss to Detroit. They went 17-6 the rest of the way, playing at a pace that would be good for 60 wins in an 82-game season.
Portland is not a 60-win team. But nor are they a 41-win team. I can’t say “confirmed” to any team with this many question marks and “if, as long as, provided that” situations, but I can damn sure say that this one is…Plausible. I’m predicting 47-35 and a playoff appearance.