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Friday, 20 October 2017 19:27

Portland Trailblazers vs. Boston Celtics: 2017-18 NBA Season Preview

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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Boston Celtics: 2017-18 NBA Season Preview | Powered by CLNS Media

 

2016-17 Round-up: The Trail Blazers finished exactly at exactly .500 last year, scraping past the Denver Nuggets for the 8 seed in the Western Conference. They were promptly swept by the super juggernaut Golden State Warriors team that would only lose one game the entire playoffs. This is a team just a year removed from an appearance in the Western Conference Semifinals where they once again lost to a clearly superior Warriors squad, albeit in 5 games as opposed to 4. Their 41-41 record tied the Bulls and Heat for the 15th best record in the league, which is pretty representative of the team as a whole- average. They finished 14th in the NBA in FG% and defensive rebounds per game, 15th in offensive boards and turnovers, 11th in blocks, and 18th in team plus/minus. The only major categories the Blazers finished in the top third of the league in were PPG (8th) and 3 point FG% (6th).

 

While Portland got off to a mediocre start to the season, General Manager made a move for Denver Nuggets’ big man Jusuf Nurkic, swapping out their only consistent big man at the time, Mason Plumlee, along with a 2018 second round pick to land the Bosnian center. While Nurkic dealt with knee and leg problems that caused him to miss a good deal of the second half of the regular season, he was an absolute force when healthy, as the Blazers went 14-6 with the 23 year old on the court. In addition to missing the last 7 games of the season, Nurkic was hardly a presence in their series against the Warriors, leaving for good after a short yet impressive stint in Game 3, totaling 11 rebounds and 4 assists in 16 minutes of action. While it remains to be seen what the Trail Blazers would look like with Nurkic playing a full game in the postseason, it is important to note they only lost by 6 points in Game 3, their smallest margin of defeat in the series.

 

While there is not a ton to be thrilled about after a winless postseason, it is impressive that a team with an average age under 25 years old (2nd youngest in the NBA) was able to make the playoffs at all. This is a trend that will continue this year as well, as Anthony Morrow (32) is the only player on the team aged 30 years or older.

 

Damian Lillard continued his progression towards becoming one of the league’s best guards, increasing his points per game for the 5th consecutive year to start his career. His 27 ppg average was good for 6th best in the league, and his 37% 3 point shooting clip was second only to Isaiah Thomas amongst the players who scored more than him last season. C.J. McCollum also finished as a top 20 scorer (20th) and has also failed to regress in his scoring average through 4 seasons. The other Jr. Splash Bro asserted himself as one of the most efficient 3 point shooters as well, finishing with a 42.4% mark good for 7th highest in the NBA.

 

Offseason Grade: C+

To be clear, this grade would have shot right up to an A if Carmelo Anthony didn’t halt trade talks that would have sent him to Portland because he hated the idea of moving to the Pacific Northwest. No one said building a roster in a small market was easy, after all.

 

Either way, the Blazers had an obvious shortage of talented big men in the 2016-17 season, and although Jusuf Nurkic did a lot to mend that issue, he still needs plenty of help. Noah Vonleh is entering his 4th year in the NBA and has yet to showcase any of his potential skills outside of rebounding and the small scoring bursts Meyers Leonard provides from time to time won’t cut it as a starter on an NBA playoff team. General Manager Neil Olshey failed to address that this offseason, as the team missed out on potential targets in Paul Millsap and Blake Griffin in free agency. Although to be fair, because the team decided to extend both Lillard and McCollum among others last year, they were already paying a $4.5 million luxury tax penalty this season, which would have risen exponentially had they signed either big man to the massive contracts they would have warranted.

 

The team instead went the route of the NBA Draft to fill their big man needs. On draft night, Olshey swapped two of his three first round selections (15 and 20) for the number 10 overall pick which he used to select Gonzaga forward Zach Collins. Purdue big man Caleb Swanigan would later be selected with the 26th pick of the first round. A clear effort was made by the team on draft night to acquire size and skill, and they appear to have accomplished that with the two collegiate studs. Collins’s per 40 stats in college lay out at 23.2 ppg, 13.7 rpg, and just over 4 blocks per game, while shooting nearly 50% from 3 point range. His skill is obvious, but will certainly require some time to develop, as he is only 19 years old and played just 17 minutes per game off the bench in his only year at Gonzaga. Meanwhile, Swanigan’s 6 foot 9 inch, 260 pound frame and range as a shooter (44.7% as a sophomore) bode very well for his fit on the Trail Blazers roster.

 

While no significant players were added through free agency, Olshey did manage to make one solid move for the team before the offseason ended, trading Allen Crabbe and the roughly $57 million left over the last three years of his contract to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for the lowly contract of Andrew Nicholson. This is at the very least a good start towards opening up some cap space for the team down the road.

 

Training Camp Questions: Which of the Blazers’ array of young big men will take hold of the starting spot in the front court opposite Jusuf Nurkic? Incumbent starter Noah Vonleh is entering the final year of his rookie deal and will need to show more of the massive potential that warranted his 9th overall selection in the 2014 NBA Draft if he wants to earn a lucrative deal this offseason, be it with the Trail Blazers or any team willing to pay up to pry him away from the team that traded Nic Batum for him 2 years ago. Meyers Leonard and Mo Harkless will each provide serious competition for minutes, along with the aforementioned rookies Collins and Swanigan making a push for time in the starting lineup as well. This will most likely be a fluid situation throughout the season unless one can really stand out during the preseason.

 

Next Move They Make: The Trail Blazers have stayed the path they started on by signing their two young star guards to massive extensions last offseason, and it appears they will continue to ride the duo until further notice. With that being said, this is an organization with championship aspirations in the next five years, so I don’t think Olshey will hesitate to make a big move if the team looks like they’re headed towards another good-but-not-great season in a progressively more difficult Western Conference. There were talks last season of trading either McCollum or Dame (the latter being far less likely) in order to focus the team around just one of the guards and create more balance on the team, given that the two stars have relatively redundant skill sets. It’s possible that the team would look to dump any of the contracts that belong to their overpaid role players such as Evan Turner or Mo Harkless in an effort to open up cap space to acquire another max contract player as well, although that seems unlikely at this point.

 

How They Beat The Celtics: The Blazers split the season series 1-1 with the Celtics last year, with both games going down to the wire, including an overtime thriller on January 21st. Portland took that OT game by a score of 127-123 behind 35 points from C.J. McCollum and 28 from Lillard, including a few clutch buckets down the stretch in overtime from the part time rapper. The Celtics took the second game 120-111 in a game led for the most part by the home team Blazers. IT got off to a slow start but finished with 34 points, 15 of which came in the 4th quarter. Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart each played rock solid games in replacement of Jae Crowder (personal matter) and Avery Bradley (Achilles).

 

While the Blazers will certainly offer solid competition this year, the new look Celtics offer an extremely difficult matchup for the similarly guard heavy squad. The C’s won’t hold up a matchup advantage in the paint against many teams this year, but it’s likely that Portland will be one of those teams. The additions of former Detroit big men Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris provide a level of toughness that will likely prove too difficult for Nurkic to handle unless Swanigan is able to develop quickly enough to offer a real contribution this year.

 

The two teams won’t meet until February 4th at the TD Garden, with their second and final matchup being played on March 23rd in Portland. Plenty could change by that point in the season, but the Celtics should have built up enough chemistry by that point in the season to be able to handle the Trail Blazers in both games.

 

Trending: Had three super stars not switched over to the Western Conference this offseason (Butler, George, Anthony) the Trail Blazers probably would have been an upward trending team in the NBA. They’ve made the playoffs in each of the last four seasons, but their win total has decreased each year as well. Given the stacked nature of the Western Conference right now I can’t see them breaking into the top 6 seeds for the playoffs, meaning they would likely have to beat either Golden State, San Antonio, Houston, or Oklahoma City in the first round, which does not bode well for their postseason aspirations, if they even get there at all. Portland is a middling team with no real direction right now, which leads me to believe they will finish around .500 once again. However, with Damian Lillard on the roster, there is always a chance that the team can over perform and grab a higher seed than expected. The Trail Blazers had issues closing out games throughout the season last year, and with the help of some young players playing up to their potential, they could surprise the league and compete with the “Super Teams” of the West for a top seed.

 

Final Record/Standings: 43-39, 7th in the Western Conference

 

Until further notice, the Trail Blazers should be expected to perform exactly how they did last year, because they really didn’t make any changes. To make matters worse, they did so in an offseason where almost every other team in the Conference made a major move. If they were playing in the East there’s a fair chance they could grab a top 4 seed, but unfortunately you can’t go much farther West than Portland. Until the playoff format changes to a straight 1-16 ranking system that disregards conferences, some excellent Western Conference teams will lose in early rounds as well as be omitted entirely, and Portland is certainly a candidate to be one of those teams this year, as they have been the last few years as well.

 

Barring a major move before the deadline, this team will be stuck in NBA purgatory for another year, with little to no cap space to sign a major free agent, and without a high enough draft pick to make a real impact any time soon. Expect the Trail Blazers to finish between seeds 7 and 10 in the loaded Western Conference.