Welcome to Hoop Dreams, a season preview unlike any other you’ll read before the 2016-17 season tips off. The premise is simple. We’ll be providing 30 of these fictional forays because it simply stinks that only one team can win the title each year. The list of contending teams seems to shrink with each campaign, and we wanted to provide something to those fans who only get to dream of Larry O’Brien during the offseason. Before October, every team can win the NBA title. Don’t believe us? Then keep reading. – Ed
Imagine for a moment that – in what was originally supposed to be a rebuilding year – your favorite NBA team rattled off 44 wins en route to a fifth seed in the ultra-competitive Western Conference playoffs. Imagine that a seldom-used, former bench player would come out of nowhere to win the Most Improved Player award. Then imagine that, in an opening-round series against a superior, more experienced team, the fickle basketball gods would send a plague of injuries to hobble that team’s best players and clear a path to a semifinals berth.
Now try to stretch your imagination to its outermost limits and consider the fact that in a second-round matchup, against the best regular-season team in NBA history, said team would be without its best player (i.e. the first ever unanimous league MVP) for much of the series, setting the stage for what could’ve been the greatest postseason upset of all-time.
If that all sounds a little far-fetched, then keep in mind that’s exactly what happened to the Portland Trail Blazers at the end of the 2015-2016 season. It didn’t result in a championship, but the organization rode a wave of goodwill and political capital into an offseason that saw them retain most of the core group that got them there.
It was a tall order to ask for that type of good fortune two years in a row, especially now that the other 29 teams would see them coming a mile away. But head coach Terry Stotts during his tenure had methodically engineered a sophisticated, high-octane, motion offense that’s quite simply demoralizing to try and defend.
So when the Blazers embarked on their 2016-2017 campaign with considerably loftier expectations in tow, they were the only ones who weren’t positively stunned by their 55-win season and a third-place finish in the West. It’d helped that they’d stormed out of the gates to a 17-1 start, thanks in part to a soft early-season schedule and all-around stellar play from their backcourt tandem of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, who picked up right where they left off the year before.