2018-2019 Portland Trail Blazers Preview: Break Through The Ceiling

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2017-18 Record: 49-33 (third in the Western Conference)

Players Added: Seth Curry (free agent), Nik Stauskas (free agent), Anfernee Simons (draft), Gary Trent Jr. (draft night trade)

Players Lost: Ed Davis (free agent), Shabazz Napier (free agent), Pat Connaughton (free agent)

Projected Team MVP: Damian Lillard

Damian Lillard was named first-team All-NBA last season and cracked the top-10 of ESPN’s annual ranking of the league’s best players. Backcourt running mate C.J. McCollum has really come into his own the past few years, but not even he can challenge the pecking order when it comes to the Blazers’ best and most important player.

Lillard is a nightmare for defenders. He has range like Steph Curry, he can take anyone off the dribble, and he’s made tremendous progress at both getting to the rim and finishing in traffic. His defense has long been a sore spot, but the Blazers were effectively able to hide that last season with a sound overall team defensive scheme that placed them among the best in the league on that side of the floor.

Lillard is one of the NBA’s deadliest players at his position, and it’s his shooting and playmaking skills that are the catalyst for everything the Blazers do.

X-Factor: Jusuf Nurkic

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Nurkic was a revelation when he first came over from Denver a year and a half ago. The Blazers thought they’d finally landed a post player who can score and defend, and he’s done both of those things admirably in stretches during his time in Portland. But sustained consistency over the course of a long season, and more importantly in the playoffs, remains to be seen as Nurk fizzled along with the rest of his teammates against New Orleans last spring.

Best Case Scenario:

The Blazers prove that their third-place finish in the West last season and their top-10 defense weren’t flukes. They lost some toughness this summer in Ed Davis, but they ostensibly added another perimeter threat in Nik Stauskas, along with Seth Curry, who could prove to be a reliable replacement for Napier. They’ll have to show that they can be at least as good as they were last year during the regular season to get where they want to be.

But the real test, of course, will come in the playoffs. Anything less than a second-round appearance will be considered a failure. They certainly won’t be competing for a championship — there are only one or two teams who qualify in that area during the Warriors era — but if they win a playoff series and prove that they can sniff the conference finals, there will be goodwill for all. Is that at all likely? We’ll see.

Worst Case Scenario:

The worst-case scenario is probably that the Blazers miss the playoffs entirely. Isn’t as crazy as it sounds given all the jockeying that will take place among bubble teams, and it might even be the nasty dose of medicine they need to spark some change. But my feeling is that they’re probably somewhere around a sixth or seventh seed, which is honestly where they should’ve been last season when you take into consideration the injuries that plagued teams like the Spurs and Pelicans, not to mention the season-long feeling-out process in OKC. Another first-round exit will bring up all the old questions about Stotts’ leadership, the Dame and CJ pairing, and whether Olshey will ever be able to assemble a roster that can actually compete in the West.