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Best Case, Worst Case: Portland Trail Blazers

A full season with their core of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic will keep them viable in the playoff picture, but in a dramatically improved West, where does that take them?

Damian Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic Getty Images/Ringer illustration

NBA back! To prepare for a new season, we’re breaking down one team per day, each day, until tipoff on October 17.

Team: Portland Trail Blazers

Coach: Terry Stotts (sixth season)

Last Season: 41-41 (eighth in Western Conference)

Notable Additions: Zach Collins (draft), Caleb Swanigan (draft)

Notable Subtractions: Allen Crabbe (trade)

Vegas Over/Under: 42.5

Best-Case Scenario: The Blazers from two seasons ago.

Portland’s recovery from the end of the LaMarcus Aldridge era took, oh, an hour? While the last vestige of the once-promising Oden-Roy-LMA troika went on long walks with Gregg Popovich and threw shade at the Lakers (an annual offseason tradition like none other) in the summer of 2015, the Blazers reloaded by nabbing several intriguing young players with untapped upside. That, plus the emergence of the Dame-C.J. bomb squad, laid the groundwork for a more exciting Blazers team that flipped 31-win projections into an improbable run to the second round of the playoffs.

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Despite a lackluster encore, capped by a second consecutive playoff dismissal via Golden State, the guts of that team are still very much present. Damian Lillard’s snarl-and-shoot style is, on the right night, still one of the best watches in the league (especially when tracked by the dulcet sounds of tha gawd Kevin Calabro). Internet Public Editor C.J. McCollum can fill it up like few others in the league. And there are enough spry, young bodies on the roster—including two intriguing rookie bigs snared from the first round—for Terry Stotts to cobble together a top-10 offense.

The difference, one way or another, is Jusuf Nurkic. After an up-and-down two-plus seasons in Denver, Nurkic—an Ent with touch around the basket—looked like a modern George Mikan at times, even flirting with a quadruple-double in just his eighth game with the team. All told, the Blazers were 14-6 when Nurkic played (which wasn’t often after April 1), with a plus-9.6 net rating, per NBA.com/Stats, and, more importantly, a respectable defense (103.7 defensive rating, which would have been good for fifth-best in the league).

That still won’t be enough to crack the upper crust in a stacked Western Conference, or maybe even ensure another playoff berth, but what they have works. Enjoy the dagger shots and decided lack of morose overtones.

Worst-Case Scenario: The pre-Nurkic Blazers from last season.

Even as Portland was basking in its newly refurbished open-concept offense two seasons ago, stepping over an injury-tattered Clippers team in Round 1 and giving the Warriors a firm nudge in Round 2, it felt like the team was bumping up against its ceiling. That certainly came to bear last season, when a few injuries and a still-leaky defense put the Blazers on the brink of the lottery before the Nurkic trade helped lift them over the morass fighting for the West’s 8-spot.

In the worst of times, like when the Kings put 126 points on them in December, it’s hard not to wonder how much a do-over for the perplexing 2016 offseason would have changed the franchise’s trajectory. GM Neil Olshey has built a strong résumé from his time with the Clippers and Blazers; he nailed the draft picks that landed Eric Bledsoe, Lillard, and McCollum, and easily won the trades for Chris Paul and Nurkic. But breaking the bank to not lose assets for nothing looks more and more like a case of outsmarting yourself, especially with the salary cap leveling off last summer. Shelling out $57 million a year for Meyers Leonard, Maurice Harkless, Evan Turner, and Allen Crabbe—the latter of whom was surgically removed this offseason, for the price of $2.84 million in dead money for the next seven years—has the feel of buying high on Beanie Babies right before the market bottomed out.

Ultimately, it’s fine. The Blazers are still scrappy. The comments section of Blazer’s Edge is still, um, animated. But breaking back into the playoffs in a tough field already seems like little more than a moral victory for a team with heavy early-aughts Hawks vibes. Maybe Portland can build a contender with a Lillard-McCollum core, but the prospect of dealing one to take a big swing will loom over the team until it proves it doesn’t need to.

TL;DR: The Blazers’ moderate success is an NBA Rorschach test.