Last year, for the second-year in a row, the Portland Trail Blazers lost in the first round of the playoffs. It prompted a coaching change, with Terry Stotts exiting after nine years and Chauncey Billups taking over. It also prompted a summer of Damian Lillard trade speculation that, as of now, hasn’t led to Lillard actually demanding a trade or being seriously linked to another team.
Robert Covington III
Larry Nance Jr.
Patrick Patterson (non-guaranteed)
Dennis Smith Jr. (non-guaranteed)
Quinn Cook (non-guaranteed)
Marquese Chriss (non-guaranteed)
Projected Vegas Win Total: 44.5
Biggest Addition: Larry Nance Jr.
Effectively swapping out Derrick Jones Jr. for Nance is good business by Portland. Nance can play a few positions, can defend, can offer some secondary playmaking, and is a solid, if reluctant, three-pointer. He’s not a co-star for Damian Lillard, but he’s a reliable rotation player that Portland can actually play in the playoffs. They need more of that level of player.
Biggest Loss: Enes Kanter, Carmelo Anthony, and Zach Collins
Kanter, Anthony, and Collins are not irreplaceable. In fact, it’s probable that Nance and Cody Zeller are collectively better than them next year. It’s certainly better to have Nance than Collins, as Collins didn’t play at all last year due to injury. But it’s still an adjustment worth watching for a roster that is otherwise the same.
It’s also possible that Stotts is the biggest loss. Perhaps he was just at the end of his run in Portland and a chance was needed, but he seemingly got the most out of that team every year. Will Billups do the same?
Biggest Question: Are the Trail Blazers meaningfully better?
Portland has reason to think that it’s better now than it was last year, particularly if Billups succeeds as a coach. But are they so much better that they go from being the sixth seed last year — and just barely out of the play-in tournament — to one of the top-four teams in the Western Conference? Even if the Clippers take a step back with Kawhi Leonard out and the Nuggets aren’t at their best without Jamal Murray, the West is loaded. Portland has an uphill battle to fight.
What Makes This Season A Success: A deep playoff run
What Damian Lillard, at age 31, wants drives the Trail Blazers. What he seemingly wants right now to contend and make a real push for an NBA title while he’s still in his prime. If the Blazers cannot do that and at least make a Western Conference Finals run akin to what they did a few years back, then further change might be coming to Portland, whether they like it or not.
What Makes This Season A Failure: Missing the playoffs/only making the play-in
If Portland somehow misses the playoffs or finds itself in the 7-10 range as a play-in tournament team, then this season won’t be what they were hoping for. If the former happens, then everything has gone off the rails perhaps due to a Lillard injury or something else catastrophic. If the latter happens — which feels like a possibility considering how good the West is — then they face an uphill battle to even get out of the first round. Would anyone in Portland be happy with that outcome?