With the advent of real, actual NBA preseason basketball, fans get to flip their calendars to the 2017-2018 season and start gearing up for one of the more anticipated campaigns of the last decade. As always, at Knicks at Night, we look ahead and break down the upcoming year, not by the quality of each team’s roster, but by how entertaining each should be to watch on a nightly basis. With nearly half the league’s All-Stars changing homes over the summer, there’s a lot more variability in these rankings and a lot of exciting, new situations to monitor. There’s never been a better time to plunk down that 100 bucks or so for the league’s premier subscription service, but also never a harder time choosing who to watch on a given night. To help answer that question… here are your Fourth Annual League Pass Watchability Rankings!
What makes this group any different than the Washingtons or Miamis from the last three teams posted? At their peak, the Trailblazers should be right up there as one of the best, most explosive offenses in the league with a supercharged backcourt. In fact, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum can easily claim to compete with either of those teams to field the league’s best second-tier guard rotation with the kind of fill-it-up, step-back shooting that makes Portland one of the tougher covers in the league. The key difference between the Trail Blazers and those squads, though, is the massive question these guys are facing down low.
Portland acquired “The Bosnian Bear” Jusuf Nurkic at the trade deadline last year for their starting center Mason Plumlee at a time when the team looked completely listless. Nurkic had been supplanted by Nikola Jokic in Denver’s starting lineup and had become disgruntled and unmotivated. Gambling that all the center needed was a change of scenery, Portland’s front office pulled the trigger and then watched as their team absolutely exploded. Bolstered by a strong interior presence, the Trailblazers went 14-6 in the games Nurkic played with the NBA’s 4th best offense and 9th best defense. Nurk practically dragged these guys into the postseason, completely obliterating his former team (and the Blazers’ chief competition for the 8th seed) before breaking his leg at the worst possible time and serving Portland up to the Warriors on a silver plate for a rough first round sweep.
So, can the Blazers expect to get back that same Nurkic this year? For how big the center is, he’s surprisingly mobile and showed he can absolutely anchor a defense that features two pretty big sieves in the backcourt. Unfortunately, he’s also spent huge stretches of his career either hurt or disengaged, and might move past the honeymoon stage with Portland. While he’ll be the unquestioned starter this year, and likely given every incentive to play hard for a contract extension, the Blazers are definitely aware they’ll need to keep the big man happy, particularly if they look to close games with the smaller Noah Vonleh at center.
There are similar questions surrounding Evan Turner, who the Blazers lavished a ridiculous contract on during the summer of 2015 after he had a career year in Boston. Turner should ideally be able to use his size and passing vision as the primary creator off the bench, but he’s been a woefully poor shooter in Portland and hasn’t been able to mesh with their starting guards at all. With Maurice Harkless and Al Farouq-Aminu set as solid, if unspectacular, starters on the wing, and last year’s third-leading Blazer in minutes played Allen Crabbe leaving in free agency, Turner needs to show that he can at least anchor the second unit to begin to approach what he’s getting paid.
Ultimately, though this all comes back to Dame and CJ. The two players have improved every year they’ve been in the league with Lillard starting to resemble a Curry-lite offensive dynamo and CJ flirting with the 50-40-90 club in lights out shooting. The two have had to weather endless questions about their size and their fit together and their porous backcourt defense and yet they’re still the linchpin of what has been a full-stop top 10 offense every year they’ve been together. While they may not ever be able to live up to the billing of the Splash Brothers, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is one of the 2 or 3 most lethal offenses outside of the Bay this year.