Everybody enjoyed the Portland Trail Blazers’ ahead-of-schedule arrival at Respectability Junction last year. 44 wins and a playoff series victory for a squad that tore itself down to the studs in the 2015 offseason was a rousing, unexpected success. There’s no way to label it anything else.
The danger now is assuming progress from this new and still somewhat surreal baseline is a given.
Just because Portland skipped a handful of steps in its rebuild, it doesn’t mean construction magically continues unabated.
Instead, this Blazers team is one with a razor-thin margin for error — both because the West figures to be more competitive with rising powers in Utah, Minnesota and even Denver, and also because so much of what went right last year could go wrong this time around.
Consider: Portland finished 17-11 after the All-Star break, posting the league’s No. 3 offense in that span and somehow surviving despite a defense that ranked 22nd in that same stretch. If we segment the season in the most favorable way possible, we can label this closing run (and not the 11-20 start or the .500 record at the break) as Portland’s true talent level.
It’ll be a hard thing to sustain.
C.J. McCollum shot almost incomprehensibly well from the mid-range area last season, hitting 44.3 percent of his shots from 16-23 feet. He took a full 20 percent of his attempts from that distance, more than any other zone inside the arc. And while it’s possible he’s uniquely skilled at the difficult shots most defenses happily concede, isn’t it safer to assume he’ll regress a bit? And isn’t it also prudent to view Al-Farouq Aminu’s career-best three-point shooting as an outlier?
If you really want to get critical about things, couldn’t we also look skeptically at Portland’s decision to entrust Evan Turner with a significant role and $70 million?
Those little steps back matter a ton for a team like the Blazers, who only outscored opponents by 1.4 points per 100 possessions in that season-ending run. If it took a No. 3 offense to offset that ghastly defense, what happens to the bottom line if that scoring attack checks in at No. 6…or No. 10?
If the Blazers don’t score like crazy, propped up by seemingly unsustainable performances, winning another 44 games will be a tall order.
Look, there are reasons to believe Portland can improve. Maybe Festus Ezeli stays healthy enough to defend the rim for half a season. Maybe Lillard and McCollum can build on the levels they set in simultaneous career years. Maybe Aminu is now a better-than-average three-point shooter for good.
And maybe adding Meyers Leonard back into the mix will supercharge an already dangerous offense with even more spacing and dialed-in marksmanship.
But if you’re projecting an improvement on Portland’s 2015-16 efforts, here’s what you’re really saying: Everything will either stay the same or get better. And when you’re dealing with a team that defined itself last year by outplaying individual and collective expectations, that’s just not a logically stable position to occupy.
Because even if we assume Lillard and McCollum play exactly as well as they did a year ago (a stretch), and even if we also decide they’ll be similarly healthy (perhaps an even bigger leap in McCollum’s case), we still have to talk ourselves into stasis or improvement for every incumbent and somehow also believe that every personnel change will be a net gain.
Gerald Henderson is gone, and though his and Turner’s skill sets are different, it’s completely reasonable to say the Blazers will miss Henderson’s athleticism and defensive versatility more than they’ll benefit from Turner’s facilitation. And reinserting Leonard into the mix (he missed 20 games in 2015-16 and another 67 in the previous two years combined) could provide more shooting at the cost of defense.
If the Blazers ranked 22nd on D in their strong closing stretch, can they afford to sacrifice anything on that end?
Portland earned its way to the playoffs last season, and it was fortunate to face an injury-hit Los Angeles Clippers team before falling to a similarly weakened Golden State Warriors club. The experience from those series will still be valuable, but glossing over that postseason success without appreciating the details is another mistake.
Teams exceed expectations all the time, though it’s rare for one to do it to the extent Portland did last season. The other thing that also happens all the time?
Teams come back to Earth.
While it’s possible the degree to which the Blazers crushed projections last year means they’re simply a special group and not subject to regression or worse luck, it may also be worth considering the alternative: Portland’s rapid rise was the product of some outlying performances.
The Trail Blazers’ climb last year was incredible. It’ll be even more impressive if they avoid falling from these new heights.