The 2016-17 Portland Trail Blazers face a task that has proved too difficult for many teams in the past: Prove they’re as good as last season’s record.
The Blazers were expected to finish in the bottom tier of the West, but on the backs of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and coach Terry Stotts, they exceeded by a mile. They made the playoffs and, with some injury luck, even managed to clear the first round.
The challenge this year to avoid the same blowback that hit the 2014-15 Suns or the 15-16 Bucks. Both those team blew expectations out of the water only to come back down to earth. Portland may be in a similar situation, or they may just be a playoff team as currently constructed.
WHAT HAPPENED LAST YEAR?
Portland lost starters LaMarcus Aldridge to the Spurs, Wes Matthews to the Mavericks and Robin Lopez to the Knicks in free agency. They then traded starting small forward Nic Batum to Charlotte for Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh. The group, which looked like a potential conference finalist before injuries hit, was fragmented. Portland was left scrambling to rebuild a starting lineup.
They stayed afloat, and eventually, a hot streak at the turn of the calendar set them up as a contender for a top-six seed in the playoffs. C.J. McCollum averaged 20.8 points per game while shooting 41.7 percent from three. Al-Farouq Aminu became a major defensive asset. Mason Plumlee gave them good minutes, starting all 82 games.
Overall, Portland also had great health. Nine of their top 10 players in minutes per game played in more than 70 contests.
The Blazers put together a Cinderella season, winning 44 games and putting up fights in the playoffs. Everything was great. They had young stars, a good coach, a solid supporting cast and cap space to build into a contender.
Now the bad news: Aside from going 18-7 in January and February, Portland was a below-.500 team. Their season wasn’t a consistent rollover of expectations. They were mediocre, got really hot, then cooled off again. Now, winning those games was an achievement, no doubt, but the results aren’t as encouraging when looked at more closely.
WHAT HAPPENED THIS SUMMER?
The Blazers had two directions they could go in the offseason: Stay pat and try this group for a second time, or go make a power move in free agency and try to jump to the next level.
Portland sort of played it both ways. They retained McCollum, Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard, but added Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli. The Evan Turner signing has been controversial, but Portland seems to really believe in him. They gave him a four-year, $70 million contract, even though his fit and value to the team are questionable.
The bigger issue for the Blazers: They almost completely tied themselves to what they have right now, to a pretty crazy degree.
Portland has around $119 million in payroll this season, per HoopsHype, putting them second in the NBA behind the Cavaliers. This puts them well over the tax line of about $113.3 million. While this team may be a playoff squad, it’s hard to justify spending that much on this roster, just judging by talent alone.
Even more problematic, the bill only gets larger. Next season, Portland has Mason Plumlee’s restricted free agency, as well as several team options for their bench players. The only bits of reprieve are Ezeli’s non-guaranteed deal and the money they owe from waiving Anderson Varejao coming finally coming off.
Unless Portland lets every player who could leave next season do so, they will have a payroll greater than $130 million, far above the projected $122 million tax line. They’re still already tied to $116 million in 2018-19 even with all their restricted free agents and non-guarantees potentially coming off the books. Plus they have to add draft pick salaries to that.
Paul Allen is pretty rich, so it’s very possible the tax isn’t a concern to him. Neil Olshey has proven to be a creative executive, and he may be able to balance this non-inviting spreadsheet.
Still, Portland’s offseason was a very strong commitment, at least tacitly, to this roster. The question for them: Is it good enough?
BEST CASE SCENARIO
Lillard and McCollum continue to lead the offense, and the surrounding group earns their big paychecks. The Blazers win 45-ish games and put up a competitive series (or win in the first round, depending on where they’re seeded). Evan Turner finds a clear role that makes him everything Portland paid for. Terry Stotts is in Coach of the Year conversation again, and Neil Olshey starts to help improve the long-term stability of the team’s finances without killing what they’ve built.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
The Blazers just can’t seem to find the same fire that kept them going. Lillard and McCollum do their best to shoot the team to victory, but there are more injuries and the depth just can’t get it done. Turner clogs up the floor and isn’t very helpful, and opposing teams just hone in on the two major offensive weapons. The Blazers fall fairly far under .500 and are left with no cap flexibility with which to fix a team that is more broken than it looked in 2015-16.