As we finally have gotten through the frantic opening weekend of NBA free agency, media outlets have begun putting together their offseason winners and losers lists. Near the top of most every one of those in the winners column are the Portland Trail Blazers, a team that has upgraded its roster through trades and free agency in a manner not many expected.
They started by trading two first round picks and Trevor Ariza to Houston for Robert Covington, addressing their most significant need: a defensive-minded wing player who can also space the floor. From there, they’ve brought back the likes of Rodney Hood and Carmelo Anthony, while trading for Enes Kanter and signing Derrick Jones Jr. and Harry Giles, further bolstering their wing and frontcourt rotations. The Blazers roster now looks like this, which, on paper, certainly looks like a significant upgrade over the group that was in the Bubble and made the charge for the 8-seed.
Gary Trent Jr.
Derrick Jones Jr.
The Blazers upgraded their starting five by adding Covington and also built out their depth to where they should feel comfortable going 10-deep on any given night, although backup point guard remains a question mark with Simons. They also have given themselves some interesting roster versatility and should be able to put their role players in better positions to succeed, particularly come playoff time if healthy.
For example, the emergence of Gary Trent Jr. in the Bubble was a welcome sight, but he’s far more likely to impact winning at this moment as a microwave off the bench in bursts rather than as a significant contributor because of the weaknesses on the defensive end of the floor. Having Hood back ahead of Trent in the rotation is big, and moving Anthony to a likely bench role — or at least a role with more limited minutes — will allow Terry Stotts to be more judicious with minutes and matchups than he was in the Bubble last season.
Offense was never the question for the Blazers last season, but their ceiling was capped by an inability to get consistent stops. Enter Covington and Jones, two players who are capable of switching and defending on the wing and smaller frontcourt players better than anyone the Blazers had on the roster previously. All of this coalesces around a team that should be eventually getting a healthy Zach Collins back into the frontcourt rotation — remember, the last time they had their core of Lillard, McCollum, Collins, and Nurkic healthy, they made it to the Western Conference Finals.
The task ahead for Stotts and this coaching staff is figuring out who fits where and what their best rotations look like, both for the regular season and adjusting for playoff matchups. That puzzle may take a little time to come together, but if it does, one has to think this is a team that has elevated itself into the conversation in the West for the tier behind the Lakers, who exist on their own plane of existence in the conference, and the Clippers, who, while facing questions, are the team that feels most solidly being a top-3 squad along with the Lakers of everyone else. From there, though, you can make a case that the third tier has at least six other teams, with a few sniffing to make their way into that conversation.
In the same tier as Portland you have Denver, which replaced Detroit-bound Jerami Grant with JaMychal Green and is otherwise mostly running things back, hoping Will Barton’s return and Michael Porter Jr.’s development account for a step forward. Utah is similarly bringing back mostly the same group plus Derrick Favors, hoping Bojan Bogdanovic being healthy is a difference maker in their quest to break through the second round barrier in the West.
Phoenix, like Portland, appears to be a team on the rise after a hot Bubble run and the addition of Chris Paul, who elevated OKC to a 5-seed a year ago, but are young and inexperienced otherwise. Dallas also has done some serious work this offseason to build around Luka Doncic by dealing for Josh Richardson and James Johnson and making some other signings on the fringes. And then you have the Golden State Warriors. While they won’t get the services of Klay Thompson back, they still have Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins, and now Kelly Oubre Jr. as a stopgap measure for at least a year until Thompson’s hopeful return from an Achilles tear. Houston meanwhile still exists in this realm so long as James Harden is in town, although things could get blown up at any moment for the Rockets.
Behind them, with the obvious caveat that one of the third tier teams could stumble and one of these could surprise, you find the Pelicans, which now have Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams anchoring things as veterans around their cavalcade of young stars. There’s the Grizzlies, last year’s big surprise which have mostly continued their stance as Draft Twitter’s favorite squad, adding more promising young players and locking down the likes of De’Anthony Melton and Jontay Porter to hopefully continue to build out their core. There’s the Spurs, which still have DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge (for now) and a quality supporting cast, and the Kings, which might be the biggest unknowns right now with Bogdan Bogdanovic’s offer sheet still in the ether and Buddy Hield’s future with the team also in doubt.
For the Blazers, that means you could very easily be looking at a team that falls anywhere from the 3-seed to the 8-seed in the West, with another season in which the gap separating those teams is very narrow. In a season in which the league is introducing the play-in tournament for teams in the 7-10 range of each conference, the imperative of landing a top-6 seed is more important than ever but the difficulty of doing so is also arguably as high as it’s ever been in the West.
Portland undoubtedly got better this offseason, even amid questions about the backup point guard spot where Simons gets the nod, but with so many teams occupying the same tier as them, we’ll get a really good understanding of exactly how much better they’ve gotten. This is a team that two years ago thought it had positioned itself in the position Denver now finds itself in as the next in line behind the favorites, and the chase to get back to that spot as the team capable of threatening the favorites is as crowded as ever.
Lillard’s presence has always given them a fighting chance as we saw in the Bubble, but they seem to, at least on paper, have given him one of the best supporting casts he’s ever had. The upside there is that it provides a chance for the Blazers to reassert themselves as a top four team in the conference, but if things don’t work out for non-health reasons, it might indicate it’s time to reconsider the core they’ve built.