Welcome back friends to the third annual installment of my NBA League Pass Rankings. For those new to the process, forget power rankings. Forget Vegas Over-Unders and salary cap gymnastics. Here at Knicks at Night we dive into the teams one by one to answer one simple question. If you’re shelling out the money for a League Pass subscription, which of these teams are worth that top 5 night-in, night-out slot and which of these guys are absolute, unwatchable garbage people?
Too high of a spot for last year’s surprise NBA darlings? Are these Trail Blazers really going to be more captivating than the reigning champions hunting a repeat or the Russell Westbrook scorched earth campaign? Well, for a team that lost four starters last offseason (including All-Star franchise cornerstone LaMarcus Aldridge) these guys were pretty much labeled dead in the water before they cobbled together one of the most entertaining, egalitarian 44 win seasons in recent memory. And now, with another year of continuity in coach Terry Stotts’ constant motion offense and a host of newly-paid high caliber role players surrounding their unquestioned alpha dog, I think the expectations (and the excitement) should be on the next level for these guys.
Let’s start with Damian Lillard who is quickly becoming my third or fourth favorite player in the league. In some ways, it has almost nothing to do with his “Video Game Dame” scoring numbers or his ridiculous, Curry-like ability to pull up and hit 3s from anywhere in this galaxy. With this guy it’s attitude: an absolute fearless, dead-eyed staring contest into the abyss that leaves him saying he would never join a superteam, It’s more fun to take take down the monsters. I don’t know how to make the emoji with the heart eyes on my keyboard and I don’t know if he deserves it more for this kind of killer instinct, his Sam Cassell big shot balls, or the way he’s become an absolute veteran and locker room leader with only four years in the league. It’s hard not to go on.
Joining Lillard in the backcourt is last year’s Most Improved Player and knockdown midrange artist CJ McCollum. McCollum came out of nowhere in the playoffs in 2015 when the team lost both its shooting guards Wesley Matthews and Aron Afflalo to injury and the dude has not looked back since. He may be a little undersized, which can tend to exacerbate Lillard’s defensive issues as also being a small, minus defender, but the two on offense are a nearly unstoppable blur of shooting, dribble hand-offs, and constant off-ball movement. Seriously, go watch a few minutes of the Blazers offense clicking and whirring along then come back to this article. It’s okay, I’ll wait.
Surrounding this explosive backcourt is a young crew of versatile, improving role players. This team went on an absolute tear during February when they retooled their starting line-up to include the switchy, combo guards Mo Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu instead of the still raw Noah Vonleh. While neither of those two has been a particularly knock-down three point shooter for their careers, they’re talented defenders who were able to make the most out of all the open space Lillard and McCollum generated for them. This is the NBA, everyone should have a corner 3! And, rounding out the roster are the sixth man scoring talents of Allen Crabbe and the myriad forms of imperfect center the Blazers rolled out in Mason Plumlee, Myers Leonard, and Ed Davis.
Well, add one more odd-fitting, imperfect piece as this team threw down horrible, disgusting money in the offseason for Evan Turner. Turner had a career year in Boston after washing out of Philadelphia and Indiana in somewhat knuckleheaded fashion, and operated best as a kind of super-sized, Shaun Livingston back-up point guard who could not, would not shoot outside of 5 feet. It’s an odd move as this team already has two excellent ball handlers (and REALLY could have used a rim protecting center) but in some ways it makes sense. McCollum did an adequate job at backup point guard last season whenever Lillard sat, but this way the Blazers should always have two creators on the floor for their somewhat limited wings and can actually utilize their backcourt more as off-ball shooting threats.
The team still does have to decide what they want to be at center, whether it be Plumlee acting as a hypermobile facilitator or Davis rocking to the rim in the pick and roll. Leonard is another interesting piece as a 7 foot 3 point shooter, but he’s been so terrible defensively this season we should probably only see him in brief spurts or if the Blazers have a lot of ground to catch up. They signed Festus Ezeli away from the Warriors on a very reasonable contract, who would actually do a great job of shoring up this team’s porous front-line, but he’s been so injured over the last year it’s uncertain what they’ll get out of him.
The Trailblazers are a flawed team, to be sure, and it’s worth wondering whether or not they overperformed their talent level last year. Lillard is a phenomenal player but the team does a lot of damage from somewhat unsustainable long jumpers and featured a lot of players who had careers last year (and got PAID, don’t overlook that). Still, for a fun young team with a lot of quirky pieces that has absolutely no fear going up against the league’s best, you could do a lot worse in picking a Western Conference underdog to root for. And, if this team surprises us again in the way they did last year, they won’t be an underdog for very long.
Last year’s rating: 21 (+19)