One year ago, LaMarcus' departure covered the franchise with in an impending sense of doom. With only Damian Lillard returning as a starter, Vegas had Portland slated to only win 26 games. The team claimed from day one they were better than people thought and they would surprise everyone. After a slow start, Portland ended up in the playoffs and won their first round series against the Clippers and gave the Warriors a really hard time in round two. Those 44 wins and playoff run was so fun to watch and in the end they were right. It was definitely a surprise.
Last year was all about development. There's still room to grow, but the Blazers won't be able to surprise anyone now. Other teams are looking at Portland with suspicion and being on the league's radar will not make things easier. With that in mind, my projection is for Portland to have a strong winning record, beating out the Jazz for the division title with 48 wins and a first round playoff experience.
I'm looking forward to seeing next steps from this team. The usual rule of thumb, is that the 5th year is the last year of major changes to a players' game. This is Dame's 5th year, and my biggest hope for him is defense. CJ too. This guard duo can hang with anyone in the league for scoring, but making the jump to being contenders will take at least average level D.
The biggest strength on this team is culture. There is no question, this is Damian Lillard's team and everyone is good with that. Dame's friendship (w/CJ) & his leadership (initiating the annual trip to San Diego) are demonstrations of a culture full of comradery and team-orientation. Coach Terry Stotts has shown an uncanny ability to bring out the best in these young players. The great coaches of today's NBA change their style to best fit the roster. What the great coaches do best is create culture. Popovich, Kerr, and Stotts all have created environments of development and aren't telling their teams to, "Play my way." Great coaches bring out the best in their players and bring more to the table than just a good system.
A new feature this year is that Stotts has more depth than he's ever had. It'll be nice to see the second unit come in and not have an immediate drop in momentum (hopefully). The youth on this team is all lined up to hit their prime together. I believe Stotts is the coach to get the best out of this unit. The addition of Evan Turner & Nappier should shift the Blazers into a noticeably good passing team. Plumlee is a really great distributor for a big, and there's enough offensive weapons around to create good movement.
So, who'll be the most improved player? The four players I'm excited to watch grow this year are Myers, Moe, Plumlee, & Crabbe. For Myers, he looks like a guys who's finally comfortable with himself. His biggest issue pre-injury last year was his head. He just couldn't past his brain and overthought everything. At multiple moments during the playoffs last year, I thought having him stretching the floor for a 3 would've been very helpful. Now that he's got his paycheck, he can settle in and become a key dependable part of the rotation. Both Moe & Crabbe had a great run at the end of the year, seeing if they can consistently produce will be key moving forward. For Mason, word on the street is he's developed a mid-range jumper. Plumlee has never been able to score outside of 3 feet. If he does have that midrange J and can pull the shot blocker out just a little, it will open up lanes for Dame, CJ, & Turner to reek havoc.
Honestly, it wouldn't matter what was happening with this team, I'd be happy to have them playing again. However, there is some really good stuff going on and it will be a lot of fun to watch. Go Blazers!