Going into the 2015-2016 season, the Portland Trailblazers looked like Damian Lillard and a bunch of rec-league players who were headed straight to the lottery. Much to the surprise of everyone, the Blazers finished the season with a record of 44-38, ending the season on a high note by giving the Warriors a very close five-game series in the second round of the playoffs. The Blazers accomplished this by becoming an offensive juggernaut through crisp passing, terrific outside shooting, and a back court that was able to get shots off at will.
After catching the league by surprise once, the Blazers' front office faced the hard decision of which players to re-sign without overspending. Thanks to a salary cap that skyrocketed around the league, the Blazers opened the vault and weren’t afraid to spend every penny they had. Handing out a contract extension to C.J. McCollum for $106 million was the best move GM Neil Olshey pulled off this off-season. Next up, Evan Turner pulled down a four-year, $70 million extension to play small forward. Don’t worry, Blazer believers, Turner can do it all; he can distribute the ball like a point guard, has a very nice mid-range jumper, plays above-average perimeter defense, and he's an a unselfish player who can act as a main ball handler in case of an injury to McCollum or Lillard. Last but not least on the good signings is bench player Maurice Harkless, who received a 4 year 40 million contract. Harkless emerged as a great energy option and has improved his three-point shooting. Not bad for giving up a second-round pick to get him last off-season.
However, with every good signing comes bad ones. Allen Crabbe is a nice piece who can shoot the three at a good percentage, runs the floor well, has good-enough passing abilities, and can defend the second units guard with confidence. In fact, Crabbe looks like a young Trevor Ariza. During this off-season, the Blazers were forced to make a decision: do they match the four-year, $74 million offer for a bench player that still needs playing time to improve in multiple facets of his game, or does the team let the worst team in the league sign him? Olshey elected to match, and that creates a problem that doesn’t look like it will end well with Lillard, McCollum, Turner, and Crabbe will duke it out for shots, looks, and minutes. Portland head coach Terry Stotts will have a tough time with this at the end of games.
One more topic that must be addressed is Meyers Leonard. How does an NBA team actually think that Meyers Leonard even deserves to be in the league? Literally the only thing Leonard has proven since he entered the league is that he can run the floor. After that, he has shown that he isn’t strong enough to guard centers in the post, doesn’t have post moves to move or shake defenders to get a good shoot off, and he doesn't have enough of a sample size to determine if he should be guarded when he is left alone at the three-point line. Add it all up, and Leonard is a useless lottery pick who will be lucky to be in the league in two years.
Five things to look forward to for the 2016-2017 season
1. Watching C.J. McCollum play offense each night. When McCollum picks up his dribble, he is a wizard who's able to get himself in perfect position to get off a high-percentage shot. It’s like watching a less-selfish version of Kobe Bryant.
2. That moment public dress announcer Mark Mason does pre-game introductions. This guy is so good, even if you’re not a Blazer fan, he makes you want to cheer for Portland’s starting five.
3. Being at the game during a timeout when the Moda Center is rocking and rolling. This a sight to see when the Blazers go on a run to blow the game open or tie it after coming back from a big deficit. You will never see this as the result of Meyers Leonard going off on a random eastern-conference team.
4. Witnessing Lillard play "olé" defense all game, then proceed to hit a game-tying three or a game-winner, and on cue points to his wrist. This guy is clutch, but as long as Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, and Chris Paul are in the west, Lillard will be an all-star snub, barring injury.
5. Tracking the over/under on the amount of times during a game Pat Connaughton stands up to wave his towel or is the first player off the bench after a timeout to run up and high five everyone. Connaughton makes Robert Sacre of the Lakers look like a ball boy with how pumped he is to ride the bench. If you make a drinking game out of this, you'll be passed out by halftime, guaranteed.
With the unfortunate circumstance that the Blazers play in the hardest division in the NBA, it's hard to predict who will emerge out of this four-team log jam at the top. Considering this team’s depth, expect somewhere around a 51-31 record barely win the Northwest division and a #4 seed in the playoffs.
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