In the next two weeks, the Armchair crew will be taking on the NBA Regular Season preview. We will be taking on each team individually and looking into what to expect from each.
Last Season: 51-31, Conference Quarterfinals (Grizzlies in 5)
Key Additions: Al-Farouq Aminu, Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, 2016 lottery picks (not technically, but inevitably)
Key Losses: LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo, any “don’t chuck” intincts Damian Lillard had left, familiarity with the concepts of happiness, success, and hope for several seasons
Fans of every other NBA team, take heart: no matter how bad your offseason was, you could have been a Blazers fan.
Last season, the Blazers raced to fourth place in the 82-game Deathball matchup that is the Western Conference, riding a solid offense and excellent defensive wing players to…an ignominious first-round exit at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies, who bullied them out of the playoffs in five games through a combination of harried defense and Marc Gasol abusing Robin Lopez in the low post. In the offseason, things went from bad to worse: Aldridge departed for the San Antonio Borg/Spurs, Wesley Matthews to the Achilles recovery wing/Dallas Mavericks, Robin Lopez for New York, and Nick Batum to Charlotte. Lillard has come back from summer vacation to an empty house – the Blazers starting 5 were one of the five best starting lineups (statistically) in the NBA last year. All of that is gone.
In their place, the Blazers have Damian Lillard, who committed to an enormous, long-term contract immediately before the entire rest of his starting linemates jumped ship, and a collection of young players who the panic-bought in their place: Aminu, Plumlee, CJ McCollum. They’re all functional players, but when you start considering who their third- and fourth-best players are, and then remember that they exist in one of the most brutal conferences in the history of sport, it slowly dawns on you again just how doomed their season is. Simply put, things are not looking good in Portland. We are looking at a team that could conceivably rival Minnesota for bottom-of-the-league accolades.
The Blazers will ride Lillard hard. He’s a player who’s already prone to hero-ball as-is, and his shot volume and usage rates will likely increase exponentially this season. He’s not really an all-star calibre player – though in his best form he is close to one, it’s just that he plays in the west – but he’s capable of having those kind of nights. Below is a rough graph that charts the Blazers season v. success (100 being last season’s division title):
The problem for Portland will be whether his high usage burns him out or leads to a lingering injury. If that does happen, the Blazers are doomed (see below).
It’s also plausible that, with playoff contention firmly outside the realm of possibility, the team might choose to sit Lillard for much of the back half of the season – better to avoid burnout and injury while vying with the Wolves and Sixers for the top spot in the draft. The last time Portland went into tank mode, it gave them LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, and an exciting team that could take on anybody on their best nights. The rebuild could conceivably pay dividends in the long run, but if you’re a fan of success and winning who lives in the Portland area, you may want to sit this season out and go watch a different sport.
Plausible best-case scenario: Portland finish at – or near- the bottom of the conference, but the team gels with Lillard’s most extreme tendencies, builds understanding and chemistry, and a favourable draft pick in 2016 puts them back into contention for a playoff spot.
Plausible worst-case scenario: Portland finish at – or near- the bottom of the conference, but the team’s chemistry is a nightmare, Lillard proves impossible to deal with as a lone wolf, gets injured, and the Wolves get the top draft pick.