Blazers Looking to Follow Trail Back to Playoffs in 2016-17


Teams that throw around money are commonplace in professional sports, but what happens when that money is thrown at Evan Turner? If that sounds familiar, you know the Portland Trail Blazers, a team that punched well above their weight in 2015-16. After a busy off-season, they have to feel like they can do it again in 2016-17.

This is the paragraph where the 2015-16 feel-good story of the Blazers sets the stage for discussing the Portland offseason and how that sets them up for next season. If you don’t know, the Trail Blazers lost four of their five starters, leaving Damian Lillard marooned in the Pacific Northwest with a crew of castoffs and high-potential, unproven young guns. The reasonable expectation for Portland was cashing in on the lottery and getting a just start on a rebuild with Lillard and that’s pretty much it.

Of course, looking back on the Blazers season, where they overachieved, reached the playoffs, won a playoff series and then gave Golden State a good contest, it is clear that Portland was more than their starting five in 2014-15.

In 2015, Portland had to gamble on players like Allen Crabbe, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh and some guy named C.J. McCollum. Vonleh might be one of the only players from that roster who didn’t emerge as a serious talent during the campaign. If he ever does take that next step with Portland, they will have a hill of straw that turned to gold.

Though the Blazers were a wonderful story to follow, led by the irresistible story that is Lillard as one of the most exciting, if not best, players in the league. There is absolutely zero reason to assume that there is a regression in the cards for the dynamic young point guard. In fact, there is reason to believe that he can actually get better than his already above-average level. The reasoning is that Lillard is an excellent volume scorer, but he shot just 41.9 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from 3-point range in 2015-16. Those numbers are on 31 percent usage, which indicates the number of possessions that the player uses for his team while on the floor. So, Lillard is using almost one-third of all Trail Blazers possessions and converting on less than half of those. If he were to improve his shooting numbers, say to 45 percent on field goals and 40.5 percent on 3-point attempts, Portland is adding serious wins to their yearly totals and Lillard gets that All-Star treatment he deserves.

After Lillard there were two other hot names, Allen Crabbe and C.J. McCollum, that garnered a lot of attention last season.  Crabbe was almost gone. Almost, as in the Blazers may have thought about letting him go for about six seconds, which is probably about four seconds shorter than the amount of time that new Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks thought he was really going to get Crabbe. Still, the offer sheet was signed and it guaranteed Crabbe the right to get paid. The four-year, $75 million deal locks up Crabbe long enough to find out if he’s the next big thing or just a well-paid seat warmer.

Crabbe played 81 games last year, but started just eight. Allen averaged 10.3 points and 1.2 assists, shooting 45.9 percent from the field on 26 minutes per game last year. Crabbe is going to be a solid player off the bench, working in with the first unit when he fits and leading the second unit when he doesn’t. The great news for Portland is, perhaps, bad news for Crabbe.

The Blazers also signed McCollum to a contract extension this summer that is worth $106 million over the next four years. McCollum plays the same position as Crabbe, but as a starter with starter minutes and starter stats next to Lillard.

C.J. started all 80 games that he played last season, getting 34.8 minutes per game, less than one minute short of the playing time awarded to Lillard. He averaged 20.8 points, 4.3 assists, 1.2 steals and shot 41.7 percent from 3-point range during those games, exceeding all expectations and guaranteeing himself both a big contract and a starting role for Portland going forward.

The backcourt is all but set, the long-term, big-money deals for Lillard, McCollum and Crabbe are done, and they traded for Shabazz Napier, adding some depth. They also beefed up the frontcourt in July.

Ed Davis is now the third man on the depth chart behind incumbent Mason Plumlee and newcomer Festus Ezeli. The Ezeli signing wasn’t a huge surprise, but it definitely gives them somewhere between one and three more centers than most NBA teams carry these days. Davis and Ezeli carry a better defensive rep than Plumlee, but where both will need to shine if they want to play serious minutes is in the pick-and-roll with either Lillard or McCollum. If the big men can’t set solid screens and roll to the rim, they will be a liability that forces the Blazers backcourt into ISO. Considering that Lillard is both a shooter and a below-average scorer from deep based on last season’s numbers, they’ll need to keep the threat of a rim-running big to create better looks for their No. 1 option.

Aminu is the projected starter at the four with Meyers Leonard still on ice, pending a return to action. Leonard had to be shut down after issues with his left shoulder required surgery. This is, perhaps, where the benefit of having a deep center rotation can help the Blazers fill out some minutes. Still, none of the big man options for the Blazers adequately replaces Leonard’s inside-outside game.

Maurice Harkless is back, and is a backup? Yes. But to whom does he serve as backup? Well, that would be Evan Turner. The Trail Blazers gave Turner four years, meaning he’ll be around as long as McCollum and Crabbe on their current deals, and $70 million. Seventy. Million. Dollars. For Evan Turner.

I’m pausing here for all Portland fans, or fans of good basketball in general, to retrieve their laptops from the other side of the room, where they were thrown after reading the figures on the Turner contract.

Turner has a role in the NBA, but it probably shouldn’t be starter or guy who gets paid more per year than a lot of guys that are as good or better than him. Gerald Green just signed a one-year deal for $1.4 million with the Boston Celtics. All I’m saying is that there were options for the Blazers. It didn’t have to be Turner, it didn’t have to be four years, it didn’t have to be $70 million. Unless it did.

Hopefully, this has given you a pretty good idea of how the Blazers have chosen to utilize their cap space, locking in a significant number of important players for somewhere between two and four years. Now that they’ve got this particular team set in place – Lillard, McCollum, Turner, Aminu and Plumlee starting – what can they do in the Western Conference?

To be honest, I’m really bad at this part of the evaluation. I’m pretty sure I picked the over on the Lakers last year for their Las Vegas line of wins. I think I put them at or above 32 wins, which is absolute insanity looking back. However, that Lakers team was a lot worse than this Blazers team. I’m not even sure that I know if anyone on the Blazers is engaged to an embarrassing, and famous, personality or has Snapchat. That’s already two huge things they have going in their favor.

The Blazers are probably marginally better than they were last year, though there are differing opinions on that. In one of his Locked On Blazers podcasts, Erik Gundersen shared that he felt confident in the future of the Blazers and believed in the majority of the moves they made during the offseason. Conversely, Nate Duncan and Danny Leroux of RealGM and the Dunc’d On podcast were much more critical of Portland and neither gave them a passing grade for their off-season. It seems to be a matter of perspective – Gundersen was the last Blazers beat writer at The Columbian, Duncan and Leroux hail from much less Blazers-centric origins.

“He’ll shoot it better for us.” This is what head coach Terry Stotts said about Turner in a great piece on the Blazers from Zach Lowe of ESPN.

This seems to be a great way of conceptualizing where the Trail Blazers go from here. After all, they moved Nicholas Batum, lost Robin Lopez and LaMarcus Aldridge and still grabbed 44 wins. They simply watched Aldridge walk out the door and then gave McCollum free rein to absorb all the mid-range scoring that they lost.

The team is coached well and plays better. They aren’t a better team, based on talent in the starting lineup, than the Clippers they beat in the first round of the playoffs last season. Indeed, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin had to go missing before Portland could put the series away. They aren’t going to be the San Antonio Spurs or Golden State Warriors next year.

The Blazers are just going to be the Blazers. Funny thing is, that was more than good enough last season and will probably be great again this season. There are at least three teams that finished below them last year who will make a push back up the standings – the Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, and Minnesota Timberwolves.

Things are getting harder for the mid-tier teams. However, with a backcourt of Lillard and McCollum (and Crabbe), the Trail Blazers are ahead of the curve, and optimism doesn’t seem out of place in Portland. There are really good arguments for each of the four teams who finished ahead of the Blazers to stay ahead of them, but lose ground. The Warriors had the best regular season record ever last year, winning 68 games this year would actually see them lose five games in the win column. They also added Kevin Durant, meaning that the Thunder, now without both Durant and Ibaka, are candidates to drop at least a few games. The Spurs lost Tim Duncan and retained a declining Tony Parker. Los Angeles is on the verge of a total collapse with Paul and Griffin both playing out the final season of their deals. A combined slide of 15-20 games between those four teams doesn’t seem unreasonable.

Portland should be able to keep pace with the likes of Memphis and Dallas while staying ahead of the bottom rung squads in Phoenix, Sacramento, and the Los Angeles Lakers. Portland has the coaching and the roster to continue to qualify for the postseason. If Crabbe improves and Turner successfully, magically becomes the shooter that Stotts hopes for, then the Blazers are a healthy Meyers Leonard away from challenging for home court in the playoffs for the next three or four years.

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