May 3, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) reacts against the Golden State Warriors during the third quarter in game two of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Trail Blazers 110-99. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
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Fresh off a breakout season by their stars Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, the Portland Trail Blazers are looking to hit their stride in 2016-17
The Portland Trail Blazers bursted into a crowded Western Conference last season, establishing Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum as stars and the entire team as a legitimate playoff threat.
They capped off a successful season by beating the (admittedly shorthanded) Los Angeles Clippers, before eventually losing to the Golden State Warriors in the Conference Semifinals.
While finishing as the fifth-seed in the West is a strong accomplishment on its own, Portland wildly outplayed most expectations to get there. Nobody predicted that either Lillard or McCollum to play this well, and these two form a strong core to build off of.
Given the team’s massive free agency spending this summer, to say that the leadership “built off of” their two stars almost seems like an understatement. Taking advantage of the new salary cap, the team notably added Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli, while re-sigining Allen Crabbe.
Oct 7, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Allen Crabbe (23) shoots despite being fouled by Phoenix Suns guard Brandon Knight (11) in the second half at Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports
As of right now, the starting lineup projects to be Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Evan Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee. This should be solid lineup. It should also be a lineup that is tailored for the offensive side of the ball, which won’t be much of a change from last season.
The mindset behind Portland’s offseason moves was to create the most seamless rotation possible. Lillard and McCollum are both capable of controlling ball movement on the offensive end, and adding Turner should allow both stars to expend less energy when one of them is sitting. Turner’s lack of shooting could hurt spacing, but his primary ball-handling ability will be an important boost to the offense.
The other interesting rotation piece will be Festus Ezeli. While his injury concerns limit his upside, the big man could add valuable rim protection to this team if he plays extended minutes. Ezeli got a lot of ridicule after a lackluster finals performance in June, but can still easily be a valuable rotation player for the Trail Blazers.
Oct 7, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum (3) shoots the ball against Phoenix Suns center Alex Len (21) in the second half at Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports
The Portland Trail Blazers, at their best, is a Warriors-lite offensive juggernaut. Fans may dislike this comparison, but it is accurate. The three-point shooting ability alone warrants comparing the Trail Blazers to their elite counterparts, and it’s impossible to not see traces of Stephen Curry in Lillard’s style and execution.
Defensively, however, this team could struggle. Much of this is personnel-based, since Lillard and McCollum are too small to play defense at a high level. Plumlee – despite his strengths – suffers at the defensive end from time to time as well. None of the offseason signings (with the possible exception of Ezeli) do much to remedy this situation, either.
This is a team that knows its identity, and will play to those strengths. There aren’t many defenses in the league that will fully be able to contain all of Portland’s offensive threats, and this alone provides a clear path to 44-plus wins.
Oct 7, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) shoots a jump shot despite being fouled by Phoenix Suns forward T.J. Warren (12) in the second half at Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports
In Order For The Blazers To Be Successful…
Damian Lillard is the team’s best player. He’s also in his prime; a few years older than many may notice. From that mindset, it’s fair to compare him to players like Curry, or James Harden. Although Lillard isn’t quite at these players’ level, he’s still a wildly talented point guard and the rightful focal point of Portland’s offense.
To have success, the Portland Trail Blazers need to maximize his potential. They did that last year, and are clearly hoping that the new signees can free Lillard and McCollum up to play even better. This is a magnified version of what the team did last year: plan around these two players and win games through offense and shooting.
It will be interesting to see just how well Lillard plays. Even if he has reached his ceiling, he ranks among the league’s best players. If he can improve any more, though, his team’s prospects will rise accordingly.
Oct 3, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum (3) drives to the basket against Utah Jazz guard Rodney Hood (5) during the first quarter at the Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports
The Portland Trail Blazers are not as young as most people may think. Lillard and McCollum are in their primes, and most of the rest of the roster is in a similar situation. This isn’t bad by any means, but should lower expectations for future growth at least a little.
The reason that this is important is that the top of the West looks as impenetrable as ever. Golden State is in a league of its own, and San Antonio and the Clippers seem to be a tier above most other West team as well. Portland may be the fourth-best team in the conference, but even that isn’t guaranteed.