The Blazers and Beast are back
Another season is upon the Trail Blazers, one in which they expect to achieve greater success than the national pundits are predicting.
Las Vegas oddsmakers have Portland's over/under for wins set at 42.5. Most prognosticators see the Blazers finishing anywhere from seventh to 10th in the NBA Western Conference.
Two years ago, after the roster was shuffled considerably from the 2014-15 season, Portland finished the regular season at 44-38 and beat the Los Angeles Clippers in the playoffs.
"They said we'd win 20 games, and we got the fifth seed," point guard Damian Lillard says.
Off of their 2015-16 performance, the Blazers were forecast in the 50-win range and a top-four finish in the West last season. Portland had to close strong to go 41-41.
"Everybody gave us credit, and we got only the eighth seed," Lillard said.
This season, the Blazers captain said, "We'll take it a game at a time and let our playing do the talking. We'll see."
Hamstrung by salary-cap limitations, president/general manager Neil Olshey made few moves in the offseason, shedding guard Allen Crabbe for salary purposes while adding no veterans. Rookie big men Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins were the major additions to what is still one of the youngest rosters in the league.
To Olshey, the biggest move for this season was the trade-deadline acquisition of center Jusuf Nurkic last season. The 7-foot "Bosnian Beast," who has added the perimeter shot to his offensive arsenal in the offseason, gives the Blazers a legitimate two-way post player for the first time since Arvydas Sabonis played his final season in 2002-03.
Beginning his sixth season as the Blazers' head coach — only Jack Ramsay (10) and Nate McMillan (six) had longer tenures — Terry Stotts has perhaps his deepest team.
"If you go the length of the roster, probably," Stotts said. "We have a lot of players who can contribute."
"There's a lot of great talent," Evan Turner said. "I'm very excited about the young guys. Jake (Layman) is getting better. Pat (Connaughton) getting better. Zach is stepping up; Caleb as well. When not necessarily your strongest links are strong and improving each day, that says a lot."
Lillard and CJ McCollum form one of the most potent backcourts in the NBA, and Nurkic is assured of a starting role at center. Stotts hasn't revealed who will start at forward, though it seems likely that last year's starters — Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu — will get the nod in Wednesday's opener at Phoenix.
Stotts also hasn't said who will form his rotation, but the candidates include swing men Turner and Connaughton and big men Swanigan, Collins, Ed Davis and Meyers Leonard. Eventually, another rotation candidate will be power forward Noah Vonleh, who started 41 games a year ago but is rehabbing from shoulder surgery and will be inactive to start the season.
"It could be nine, 10, 11 (players)," Stotts said. "Some of it might be situational.
"There are only so many minutes. You know that 'Dame' and CJ are going to get their minutes, and the other guys will be rotating in. I don't like playing a guy three or four minutes just to get him in the game."
McCollum won't get any time in the opener, the result of a one-game suspension levied by the league for coming off the bench during an altercation in last Wednesday's exhibition at Phoenix. As of Sunday, Stotts wasn't saying who would take McCollum's spot in the starting five.
"More than anything, it will be about managing the minutes when Dame is out of the game," Stotts said.
How will the Blazers replace McCollum's offense, which produced 23 points per game last season?
"I asked for eight of his 22 shots," Turner joked. "I think 'Nurk' might get a few. Dame asked for some. The last three or four will be split up amongst the guys.
"Nah, we're going to play the right way," Turner said. "We'll spread it out equally. Guys are going to fill in by committee."
During the Stotts era, the Blazers have fielded one of the strongest offensive groups in the NBA but one of the poorest playoff-caliber units at the defensive end.
"We're committed to being a better defensive team," Lillard said. "Each year, we come in, we compete in camp and our focus is always we want to be better defensively. Then the first preseason game, the principles go out the window. Then we get better at it, and it's up and down through the season.
"But this year, we hit the ground running. From the first day of camp to the end of the preseason, we defended really well. Now we have to make it translate to the regular season."
There is continuity to the Portland roster. Lillard and McCollum are in their third season together as the starting backcourt. Harkless, Aminu, Davis, Leonard, Vonleh and Connaughton all have been aboard at least that long. That should help at the defensive end.
"We're understanding concepts a little bit better, having been together for a few years," McCollum said. "With experience together, you gain camaraderie, understanding of angles and where guys are going to be. The more you can play together, the more years you get playing in a system, the more comfortable you'll be."
The favorites to finish among the top four teams in the West during the regular season are Golden State, Houston, San Antonio and Oklahoma City. That won't change the goals with which Stotts will enter the season.
"The goals are always the same," he said. "In order: Make the playoffs, get home-court (advantage) in the first round, win a series, win another series, win another series, win another series.
"It's never been about a number of wins. You want to be in the top eight (in the conference), then the top four, and have playoff success."