Well if there’s one team to feel worse for on this list than Dallas, you’re looking at them.
There’s really no way to understate how completely Portland fell apart following the injury to Wesley Matthews or how thoroughly the management was able to rip down every single vestige of a 54 win team that produced arguably my single favorite youtube highlight of all time. For a while, the Blazers had achieved a kind of Pacers level continuity where their 5 starters were able to blitz the league with the number of minutes they played together, developing some stellar chemistry and actually building one of the league’s toughest defenses this season to go along with their high powered Lillard-Aldridge led offense.
Four of those five guys are gone now. And for one of the league’s most exciting teams to absolutely crater like that and throw out the baby with the bathwater after some unfortunate injury luck is beyond upsetting. It’s gonna be hard for me to even turn on the channel for this Portland team, simply because I’ll be reminded of how captivating they were a year ago and know that they’re now entering the first of at least three more seasons of serious rebuilding until they can even expect to contend for a low playoff spot in the West. Still, though, I think there’s some good stuff to like here.
First and foremost, I have been on the Damian Lillard bandwagon since absolutely day 1. I think I watched some Vlog style workout video of him leaving Weber State and preparing for the NBA draft and was immediately impressed by his seriousness and work ethic. I picked him as the ROY (got heem), drafted him on my fantasy team (got heeeem) and have never once looked back. Dude can flat out ball and will be more than able to pick up the scoring slack this team is going to have without the 23 points per game of Lamarcus Aldridge. Plus, 4 Bar Fridays!!
Dame should also benefit from third year player and Lehigh graduate CJ McCollum, who had an incredibly impressive showing in their playoff series against Memphis last year, despite playing only 15 minutes per game during the regular season. McCollum should be an effective scorer for the Trailblazers this year; he has a nifty off-the-dribble game to go along with a strong percentage in spot-up shooting. The Portland organization has mentioned they would like McCollum to play as a backup for Lillard, but with Gerald Henderson missing some time to start the year and CJ doing pretty much nothing but crushing it, I wouldn’t be surprised if this guy ends up starting, or at least playing some serious 6th man of the year type minutes.
Other than that, the Blazers have put together a few intriguing pieces on offense. Myers Leonard flew under the radar a little bit last year but ended up being the rare 7 footer able to accomplish the 50-40-90 shooting split (FG, 3pt %, FT %) that Kyle Korver came up just short of. Portland also made a draft day trade to send their pick, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, to the Nets in exchange for Mason Plumlee. The Plumlee trade is very intriguing for the Blazers as it gives Lillard the kind of big-time athletic, roll to the rim big man that they never really had in Robin Lopez and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see those two together on Sports Center as they develop a little pick and roll chemistry and start crushing rims. Plus, the shooting of Leonard means that these two could spend a lot of time playing together in a way that Plumlee was never able to do with the other Lopez in Brooklyn.
On defense? These guys are going to be just terrible. Lillard and McCollum are both undersized for their positions, with Lillard in particular already having the reputation of a horrible defender. Plumlee is alright as a rim protector and individual defender, but got exposed badly in pick-and-roll situations last year and will force Leonard to play the 4, which he is not nearly quick enough for. The Blazers did make an attempt to shore up their wing defense in signing Al-Farouq Aminu to a four year $30 million contract (jeeez), but again, Aminu is more of a fascimile of checking all the boxes in a tall, rangy athlete than a true lockdown stopper like Kawhi Leonard of Paul George. Plus, and arguably worst of all, there’s only one starter left on this team from last year! And all of these young guys are going to have to learn Terry Stotts’ defensive schemes awful quick in that no-prisoners Western Conference.
But again, just cause it’s going to get ugly doesn’t mean these guys aren’t going to be fun to watch. Lillard is a truly electric player, with big-time clutch shooting from deep along with an uncanny Kyrie Irving-like knack in finishing around the basket for a smaller guard. McCollum is poised to take a big step forward this year and the Moda Center is absolutely rocking. There are going to be a ton of games where this team drops 120 points with multiple Blazers heating up and they blitz the competition. There are going to be games where both teams are in it right up to the very last minute and stone-cold Dame just takes over and brings it home in the clutch. And, yeah, there will be games where their defensive shortcomings are exposed in a big way and they look like the young pups trying to hang with some grown men.
But who cares about those? This is league pass and I wanna watch some BUCKETS!!