Another NBA season is upon us, and the narrative for the Portland Trail Blazers to start the year is the same as it has been since LaMarcus Aldridge left town in 2015: they are being overlooked. This is the year they are correctly being overlooked, though.
The Trail Blazers seemed poised for a rebuild around superstar point guard, Damian Lillard, after losing all of their starters except for Lillard in the summer of 2015. Preseason projections had the Trail Blazers winning only 33 games in the 2015-16 season. Through the great play and leadership of the aforementioned Lillard, stellar coaching by head man Terry Stotts, and a fiery cast of role players headlined by rising scorer and sharpshooter, CJ McCollum, the Trail Blazers defied all expectations and ended the season as the 5th seed in the Western Conference.
They were able to beat the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the playoffs where injuries to star players Chris Paul and Blake Griffin certainly played a pivotal role. The eventual Western Conference Champion Golden State Warriors defeated the Trail Blazers in 5 games in the Conference Semifinals.
The previous two seasons have seen similar fates for the Portland Trail Blazers. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum make up one of the league’s greatest backcourt pairings, being able to score at will from anywhere on the court and also possessing the powers to create for their teammates. The perennial problem with the Portland Trail Blazers is that they are too good to acquire high draft picks, they’re not good enough to advance past the elite teams in the Western Conference, and they do not have the large market appeal for marquee free agents.
With the failure of the front office for years to put the right pieces around Lillard and McCollum to mask their defensive deficiencies, it is easy to assume the Trail Blazers are a prime candidate to fall out of the playoff picture every year.
But somehow, someway, the Trail Blazers always seem to find their way into the postseason.
This can be attributed to the star play of the Portland Trail Blazers’ backcourt and a team chemistry that not a lot of teams have, but their past two trips to the postseason have resulted in first round sweeps to the Golden State Warriors and most recently, the New Orleans Pelicans. When the referees become a little bit more lenient and the defense gets more intense in the playoffs, the Trail Blazers simply do not have the necessary options to bail out Lillard and McCollum. Facing multiple double teams and lockdown perimeter defense neutralizes all of the offensive options the Trail Blazers have and there is no reason to think that changes this year.
The Trail Blazers did add to their depth over the summer, adding guards Nik Stauskas and Seth Curry for much-needed shooting off of the bench. However, they had to let go of team and fan favorite center, defensive enforcer, Ed Davis, who signed a 1 year, $4.4 million deal with the Brooklyn Nets. Even with the moves made, nothing stands out about this Portland Trail Blazers squad and they are multiple pieces away from being considered a contender for an NBA Championship.
Usually it would be unrealistic to say a team who finished 3rd in the superior conference a year before would be completely ousted from the playoff picture this year. But keep in mind that the difference between the 3rd seed Blazers and the 9th seed Denver Nuggets was only 3 games; the Western Conference was an absolute dog fight.
And it only got tougher.
The Warriors are still the Warriors and they added top 3 center in the league, DeMarcus Cousins. The Houston Rockets may have lost some of their defensive depth, but they acquired forward Carmelo Anthony and are led by two of the greatest basketball minds in the game today.
The Utah Jazz figure to be improved behind a stellar defense, continuity, youth, and great coaching. The Denver Nuggets are a team many are pegging to be the breakout team of the NBA season. The San Antonio Spurs, who have arguably the best coach in the NBA, Gregg Popovich, made the playoffs last year without their best player, Kawhi Leonard, and now have added star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have former NBA MVP, Russell Westbrook, and another top 15 player in Paul George, backed up by a stout defense. The Minnesota Timberwolves, for the time being, have a superstar in shooting guard Jimmy Butler and two former number one overall picks on their roster. And of course, the best basketball player in the world, LeBron James, has come to the Western Conference for the first time ever to join the Los Angeles Lakers, figuring to catapult the franchise back into glory.
The Portland Trail Blazers are not a bad team by any means, but year in and year out they lack the ability to improve their roster enough to overcome the stalwarts in the Western Conference. History tells us that the Trail Blazers have a knack of defying the odds and squeaking their way into the postseason, but this is the year they are finally stopped short.