Break out your Ben Simmons hand trackers—the NBA is back. We’re counting down the days until the 2018-19 season tips off on October 16 by taking a hard look at the floor and ceiling of every team in the league. This year, each Best Case, Worst Case capsule is also accompanied by The Ringer’s preseason ranking, our staff’s best guess about where that team will finish this season. We look forward to your emotionless, considered responses.
Ringer Preseason Ranking: 14
Last Season: 49-33
Notable Additions: Seth Curry (free agency)
Notable Subtractions: Ed Davis (free agency), Shabazz Napier (free agency)
Vegas Over/Under: 41.5
Team MVP: Damian Lillard
Best-Case Scenario: It looked like the Blazers were closing in on a best-case scenario last season. They finished third in the West in the regular season, which is the best any team could hope for considering the Warriors and Rockets are also in the conference. It was a surprisingly good result—followed by an equally surprising but deeply disappointing postseason that ended with the New Orleans Pelicans unceremoniously dispatching them from the playoffs in four games.
In his exit interview, Portland general manager Neil Olshey tried to reassure apoplectic Blazers fans. “You don’t take four games and overreact,” he said. And so the Blazers will run it back this season with largely the same cast they had a year ago. When you have one of the best backcourts in the NBA, there’s a good case to be made for that approach.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum combined to average 48.3 points and 10 assists per game a season ago. Lillard had an especially good season, making the All-Star team, being named first-team All-NBA, and finishing fourth in the MVP voting behind James Harden, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis. By all accounts, it was his best season as a pro. And yet he could probably still do more. As a team, the Blazers finished 16th in offensive rating. What we’ve learned from the Blazers in the past is that the complementary pieces can’t be counted on to consistently contribute. They’re hopeful that Zach Collins will change that. He showed flashes as a rookie—they particularly liked his ability to step outside offensively and help stretch the floor—and with Ed Davis gone there’s room for Collins (who averaged just 15.8 minutes per game) to assume a bigger role. Still, the offense will obviously sink or swim with Lillard and McCollum.
At the other end, Portland finished eighth in defensive rating last season. That’s where all the players not named Lillard and McCollum will have to earn their money—especially Jusuf Nurkic, who re-signed with the Blazers for four years and $48 million during the offseason. Among qualified centers, Nurkic was eighth in blocks per game and 10th in defensive rebounds per game last season. Opponents also shot 48.5 percent against him, according to NBA.com. That was well off the pace set by some of the league’s better defenders at the position. (For comparison, Anthony Davis was tops in the league among centers with a 39.8 defensive field goal percentage.)
If the Blazers can squeeze a little more offense out of their stars and keep the defense steady, they’re potentially looking at … a third-place finish in the West. There’s only so much you can do in the regular season with Golden State and Houston in the mix. Winning a round or two in the playoffs would represent the best possible outcome. Not getting swept again in the first round would be a good start.
Worst-Case Scenario: So about that last part ...
Im trying Jennifer— CJ McCollum (@CJMcCollum) August 15, 2018
Maybe the Pelicans were just a bad matchup for the Blazers last postseason. Perhaps, had they played the Jazz, Thunder, or Spurs instead of New Orleans, the outcome wouldn’t have been so grisly. In fairness, no one has an answer for Anthony Davis. But with much of the same personnel in place, can the Blazers reasonably expect to fix what broke during the playoffs in order to avoid a similar fate this season?
The Vegas odds don’t seem so optimistic about that. The over/under was set 7.5 wins below where Portland finished last season. That’s not a good sign. If the Blazers don’t figure out how to take the step from pretty good to contender—or, worse, if they actually slip as much as the over/under forecast suggests and end up in danger of not making the postseason at all—it’s not hard to image Olshey and Blazers management having second thoughts about keeping this roster together.
It’s hard to land players as talented as Lillard and McCollum, but they’re also the two guys who would fetch the biggest return if things crater and the Blazers finally decide to tinker with the roster. Lillard is eligible for a supermax extension next offseason, and he won’t be a free agent until the summer of 2021. He recently told The Athletic that it “would be an honor to be a lifetime Blazer.” But he’s also aware of what might happen if the Blazers slip in the standings.
“As we know, it’s a business,” Lillard said, “and a lot of times organizations have other plans.”
There’s potentially a lot at stake for the Blazers this season. If things go south, it’s possible that the team will look awfully different when it’s over.
TL;DR: This team is like MacGyver trying to defuse a bomb with a paperclip. If they don’t pull it off, there’s a chance everything will go boom.