The Portland Trail Blazers weren’t expected to make the postseason last year.
How would they?
At this time last year, the Blazers had lost four starters to free agency, including then-four-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, and seemed destined to compete with the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers for a high-percentage lottery pick.
Instead, the Blazers persevered, clawing their way to a 44-38 record, 5-seed out West, and conference semifinals appearance, where they lost in five games to the eventual conference champion Golden State Warriors.
Still, the season was a success.
Led by Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, the high-scoring backcourt tandem that helped the team shoot .370 from 3-point land (fourth-best in the league), the Blazers showed promise and potential, two things that can go a long way in the NBA.
With potential comes the desire for improvement, and with improvement comes the chance to become great.
Now, months after last season ended and days before the new season begins, Lillard thinks the Blazers will remain competitive in the West again in 2016-17.
“This year I want to get to the Western Conference finals and give ourselves a chance to get to the [NBA] Finals,” Lillard said Monday in an ESPN article. “I think it’s possible.”
Not only is it possible, it’s practical, so long as the Blazers finish the year with a good seed number.
Last year, as the 5-seed, the Blazers beat the Los Angeles Clippers, but were fortunate to win four-straight following injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Prior to those afflictions, they had their backs against the wall down 2-0 in the best-of-seven series.
Critics scorned the series win, attesting the Clippers’ injuries as the reason the Blazers advanced, rather than crediting Portland for making adjustments after falling behind two games.
In the next round, the Blazers met a more powerful, more talented, and more experienced Warriors team that took a 3-0 series lead before the Blazers won their only game of the series at home and on the brink of elimination.
Lillard reflected on the series and season-ending defeat by expressing gratification towards his team.
“We could’ve easily laid down, even against Golden State,” Lillard said in the same ESPN article. “We could’ve said: ‘All right, we got out of the first round… this [Warriors] team lost nine games.’ We could have laid down, but we didn’t.”
They didn’t, and this year, the Blazers added big man Festus Ezeli in free agency who is shifting straight from the Warriors roster onto Portand’s.
Ezeli has been a career-bench/role player, but he adds an element to the Blazers that no one else on the team has — a ring and Finals experience. That leadership will be crucial if Portland gets to the conference finals as Lillard hopes.
The problem for the Blazers is they will more than likely be facing that Warriors team again at some point in the postseason if they hope to advance. And the Warriors are fresh off of adding Kevin Durant to create a daunting starting lineup that already includes Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.
The Warriors will likely get a 1-seed in the postseason, and assuming they do, the Blazers will want a 2- or 3-seed to stay on the other side of the bracket. If they do that, they wouldn’t have to face Golden State until the conference finals.
A 2- or 3-seed seems lofty, but keep in mind the Clippers and San Antonio Spurs are the Blazers’ biggest competition in getting those slots. Portland only needs to finish better than one of them to avoid Golden State.
A challenge, of course, but improbable? Not as much as it may seem.
The Blazers have their entire core returning this season, including the trio of big men starters Mason Plumlee, Noah Vonleh, and Al-Farouq Aminu. They helped last year’s squad average 45.5 boards per game, fifth-most in the league.
They also added Evan Turner and his career 10.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game to add some depth to the wing.
The Spurs will be adjusting to using Pau Gasol as their center and will need to learn to play without Tim Duncan for the first time in two decades. The Clippers will be trying to remain healthy, something they have struggled to do in recent years.
The rest of the West will sort itself out as the season progresses, but the Blazers have as good a shot as any to become a force in the postseason.
Just like last season, they really have nothing to lose. No expectations, no big-name free agents that must perform up to their name, nothing.
And those types of teams can be dangerous. With a year of chemistry and experience now under their belts (or elastic bands), Lillard might be onto something. It’s possible the Blazers do big things this year.