June 7, 2018, 12:56 pm
The Portland Trail Blazers’ 2017-18 season was one of highs and lows. The team started the season at 22-21 before making one of their patented second half runs to finish with the Northwest Division title and the third seed in the Western Conference at 49-33. Despite the positive end to the regular season the Blazers were swept 4-0 by the Pelicans in the first round.
The Blazers came into 2017-18 with limited expectations after they finished last year with a 41-41 record, good for the 8th seed and a first-round rout by the Golden State Warriors. During the preseason ESPN’s RPM projected the Blazers to finish 10th overall in the Western Conference. Instead the Blazers continued to show their moxie while growing key players to finish the season at 49-33, good for the third seed in the West.
With the Blazers returning the majority of their roster, their top nine contributors in 2017-18 (on a per minute basis) all had experience playing together. Rookies Zach Collins (10th overall) and Caleb Swanigan (26th overall) were the main additions to the roster that only had two rotational players Allen Crabbe and Noah Vonleh jettisoned. In moving Crabbe and Vonleh the Blazers created two trade exceptions, of which GM Neil Oshley recently highlighted the benefit.
“We’ve got a $13 million trade exception from the Allen Crabbe trade, we’ve got one at $3.5 (million) from the Noah Vonleh trade and we’re viewing those trade exceptions as if they’re room when it comes to making deals and acquiring players.”
With the Blazers having the 24th overall selection in the draft and these trade exceptions it’s likely that this offseason will see the Blazers look to improve on their roster. Despite the regular season 13-game winning streak Oshley and the Blazers brass realize that the roster doesn’t have the veteran talent and know how to compete in the playoffs against the top teams out West. They were flat out dominated by the Pelicans, who aren’t quite top-tier contenders themselves despite an edge over Portland in terms of elite talent. Look for the team to focus on bringing in a few veterans who can make shots under duress while still providing solid defensive skills.
Terry Stotts has built a close relationship with his two stars in Portland and has made a roster devoid depth into a yearly threat for a top-four seed out West. When comparing the talent on the Blazers to squads like the Wolves, Denver or the Spurs it’s easy to spot the depth that Portland is lacking. Despite that reality, coach Stotts has created a system that leverages his team’s strengths resulting in the Blazers being third overall in field goal percentage difference at plus-1.3%.
Some other interesting insights include that the Blazers are top-eight in the league in blocks and limiting turnovers while being a top-3 squad for rebounds and free throw percentage. Surprisingly the Blazers also rank last in the league in assists, which points to their elite ability to isolate. That said the Blazers rank second in the Association in the percentage of threes scored unassisted while having the largest percentage (over 50%) of their field goals unassisted.
Unpacking these numbers highlights how the Blazers’ regular-season success possibly led to their struggles in the playoffs. Relying on your team to score unassisted buckets becomes a much riskier proposition during the postseason. Your opponents are able to fully scout tendencies and prepare for individual strengths and weaknesses, which is exactly what the Blazers ran into.
Throughout the regular season Stotts was able to find a role player or two who would give the Blazers their nightly push above and beyond what Damian and C.J. brought. Players like Pat Connaughton, Shabazz Napier and Zach Collins were all able to step into larger roles for the first time in their careers to meaningfully contribute in multiple games this season. Stotts is far from the upper echelon of coaches but he repeatedly puts a roster with less talent in a position to win. As a fan of the team and as a player there’s not much more you can ask for.
Besides looking to bring in new talent the Portland roster also has four key cogs who will be free agents this Summer. Starter Jusuf Nurkic headlines the restricted free agent group that also includes Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton. Veteran Ed Davis is also hitting the open market so the Blazers will likely be back in the luxury tax when you realize they’ll likely want to retain two or more of these players. It’s a tough pill to swallow but a team that lacks the ability to sign a free agent often times needs to retain their restricted free agents to continue to stockpile assets. The Blazers seem to likely keep some combination of Nurkic and a guard while acquiring replacements for Davis and the other guard via trade or the draft.
ADP: 17/17 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 4/7 (8/9-cat), Per Game Value: 8/9 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 73
Stats: 36.6 MPG 26.9 PTS 3.1 3PM 4.5 REB 6.6 AST 1.1 STL 0.4 BLK .439 FG% .916 FT%
Lillard is the man in Portland and he’s got the accolades to back him up. After being named to the All-NBA First team Lillard also brought home the NBPA Mr. Clutch Award. While there’s space to argue if Lillard deserves a spot in the NBA’s top-5 players it’s clear that based on his fantasy production alone he’s a top-10 lock. Lillard finished fourth overall in total value in 8-cat leagues while finishing in the top-9 any way you slice the data.
Looking at Lillard’s career arc it’s not a stretch to expect the 28-year-old to continue to drive home first round returns for his fantasy owners while continuing to bring durability to a position that has a lot of injuries. Speaking of injury, Lillard did miss nine games this season with a variety of lower body injuries. The injury report mentioned plantar fasciitis, a strained right hamstring and calf as well as a sprained left ankle. Lillard has dealt with plantar fasciitis in his left foot since 2015 and has learned how to play through most of the pain. The fact that he missed nine games this season really spoke to the combinations of injuries Lillard was suffering from at the same time.
Consider Dame a safe bet to play 72-plus games next season as he’s constantly playing banged up and slightly injured but one of the toughest guys around.
ADP: 20/26 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 35/34 (8/9-cat), Per Game Value: 53/50 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 81
Stats: 36.1 MPG 21.4 PTS 2.3 3PM 4.0 REB 3.4 AST 1.0 STL 0.4 BLK .443 FG% .836 FT%
C.J. McCollum only missed one game this season, Game 1 when he was suspended for an incident from the preseason when he entered the court during an altercation in a game against the Suns. Even without McCollum the Blazers plastered the Suns in the first game of the season, winning by 48 points and contributing to head coach Earl Watson being dismissed after a 0-3 start to the season.
Besides this footnote, McCollum had another solid season as the Blazers’ second option. While McCollum didn’t take any noticeable leaps forward in his production, his field goal percentage actually fell and the Blazers had a 5-4 record in the nine games Lillard missed this season. This included victories against the Sixers, Spurs and Thunder. McCollum also had his career-high game this season, dropping a 50-whopper on the Bulls on January 31st while hitting a career-best 14-of-14 free throws in the game against the Sixers. Considering that McCollum has missed a total of five games in three seasons it’s no surprise why his total season value saved him this season. Many expected that McCollum could continue to improve on his 48 percent shooting season in 2016-17 but he ended up regressing back to his 2015-16 shooting numbers.
Some of this may have to do with the Blazers losing a high post option in Mason Plumlee last season as well as the shift to a more iso-heavy offense. That said McCollum has the talent to be productive in either system and should be a lock for a top-40 pick next season with upside for a top-25 finish if his percentages rebound.
ADP: 42/56 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 57/73 (8/9-cat), Per Game Value: 77/104 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 79
Stats: 26.4 MPG 14.3 PTS 0.0 3PM 9.0 REB 1.8 AST 0.8 STL 1.4 BLK .505 FG% .630 FT%
Jusuf Nurkic had a solid but underwhelming season with the Blazers. This was his first opportunity to play as a starter from the start of the season. Based on what we saw during Nurk Fever in 2016-17 many projected The Bosnian Beast as a top-50 asset that could possibly push for top-30 consideration. What ended up happening was Nurkic had his best year as a pro but due to the nature of today’s NBA, he only saw 26.4 mpg. Nurk definitely put himself in a bit of a hole early in the year by attempting to make a name for himself from deep. He attempted five threes in his first 14 games and ended the season 0-of-7 from deep while missing countless other deep jumpers that defenses gave him. As a fan, it’s disheartening to see your starting center drift out but luckily Nurkic figured it out and reestablished himself as a post presence.
Given the coaching staff’s willingness to have Nurk take these shots, one would assume he started to hit them with regularity in practices and scrimmages. Hopefully, after another summer of working on his catch-and-shoot threes, Nurkic can add this to his arsenal. The young Bosnian had 21 games this season where he had three or more blocks and 30 games with 10 or more boards, making him the most imposing figure on a team that finished in the top-eight in defensive rating.
Given these performances, it will be interesting to see what happens in free agency with Nurkic. The Blazers have expressed interest in re-signing the big man but they may choose to maintain flexibility by choosing to grow with 10th overall selection Zach Collins. Collins fits the modern day NBA a bit better — he’s agile and already has an outside jumper. For now, it sounds like the Blazers will take a wait-and-see approach to the types of offers Nurk garners.
ADP: NA/NA (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 116/92 (8/9-cat), Per Game Value: 110/88 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 69
Stats: 30.0 MPG 9.3 PTS 1.8 3PM 7.6 REB 1.2 AST 1.2 STL 0.6 BLK .395 FG% .738 FT%
Al-Farouq Aminu had the best fantasy season of his career in 2017-18. Thanks to long bouts of good health, a career-high percentage from beyond the arc and all the minutes he could handle Aminu finished as the Blazers’ fourth best fantasy player. Aminu did deal with one injury, a right ankle sprain on November 1st that forced him to miss the next 13 games. Within three games of returning from the injury, Aminu was back in the starting lineup and a key cog when the Blazers reeled off 13 straight wins.
Aminu found most of his minutes as the starting power forward this season. This consistency helped him develop a rhythm and understanding of what the team needed from him on a nightly basis. While his field goal percentage was still a downer Aminu did show signs of improvement, hitting 44.3 percent of his shots over the last 18 games of the regular season and over the course of four playoff games. Aminu will be 28 when next season starts and should be able to maintain his top-100 value as long as the Blazers don’t make any drastic changes. Unfortunately for Aminu if the Blazers have any hope of passing the Warriors they’ll need to make multiple improvements, likely pushing him into a role off the bench.
ADP: 146/NA (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 229/204 (8/9-cat), Per Game Value: 215/185 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 59
Stats: 21.4 MPG 6.5 PTS 0.8 3PM 2.7 REB 0.9 AST 0.8 STL 0.7 BLK .495 FG% .712 FT%
Maurice Harkless had a frustrating season for the Blazers. After starting the first 18 games of the season Harkless was pulled from the starting lineup in favor of Pat Connaughton due to his poor shooting. Over the course of the first 18 games, Harkless shot 24.2 percent from three and 40.6 percent from the field. His body language was not helping his squad out and coach Stotts had to make a change to get the season turned around. Harkless would go on to average 11.8 minutes over the next nine games, including two games where he didn’t enter the game. This is a far cry from the production the Blazers expected when they signed Harkless for a four-year deal for over $40 million.
Over time Harkless realized he was sulking and not supporting his team and had a change of attitude After realizing that he was scowling as his team as they made great plays and that he was no longer engaged at timeouts while he rode the pine, Harkless made the decision to apologize to his team for his mood and lack of support. He didn’t play in four of the next six games but by the time February rolled around the Blazers needed Moe to step up due to injuries. Harkless did that and more. Over a six-game stretch in March Harkless averaged 14.8 points, 3.8 boards, 1.8 assists, 2.2 triples, 1.2 blocks and 0.8 steals on 66.0 percent shooting and 61.9 percent from deep. Unfortunately, the last game of that streak was also when Harkless injured his left knee and missed the next 10 games including Game 1 of the playoffs. If the Blazers are lucky Harkless will keep his psychological learnings from this season front and center as he looks to have a bounce-back season in 2018-19. He was a solid fantasy play in 2016-17, so hopefully he can at least split the difference between that season and this one.
ADP: NA/NA (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 166/166 (8/9-cat), Per Game Value: 202/205 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 74
Stats: 20.7 MPG 8.7 PTS 1.1 3PM 2.3 REB 2.0 AST 1.1 STL 0.2 BLK .420 FG% .841 FT%
If you told Blazers fans that Shabazz Napier would be their most effective option off the bench and their fifth most effective fantasy player in 2017-18 they might have given you a weird look. While Napier has yet to live up to his NCAA legend he showed real improvement this season. In the 10 games that Napier started this season he showed off his playmaking and scoring abilities, averaging 15.0 points, 4.2 assists, 4.4 boards, 1.6 steals and 40.8 percent shooting. He ended up being a plus-4.5 which was huge for the Blazers as they were missing Damian Lillard in each of these contests.
Unfortunately for the Blazers Napier will be a free agent this season and will likely draw an offer that the Blazers will pass on. If this does occur the Blazers will need to work as a committee to replace their top bench scorer, with the draft and holdovers like Wade Baldwin IV being the clearest options.
ADP: 139/183 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 178/188 (8/9-cat), Per Game Value: 235/256 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 79
Stats: 25.7 MPG 8.3 PTS 0.5 3PM 3.1 REB 2.2 AST 0.6 STL 0.4 BLK .447 FG% .850 FT%
Turner is the third-highest paid player on the Blazers at over $17 million this season and next season. Unfortunately, Turner has struggled to be as productive as his paycheck would indicate, falling outside the top-200 on a per game basis. Turner is likely the biggest mistake that Neil Olshey has made so far in his tenure as GM, although contracts at over $10 million over the next two years for Moe Harkless and Meyers Leonard are also up for debate. It’s not Turner’s fault and he let fans know just as much earlier this season.
Contract aside Turner isn’t a seamless fit with the roster the way it’s constructed. Dame and C.J. have the height to make an effective post entry pass, something the Celtics used Turner for. Turner struggles to create off the ball while shooting 31.8 percent from three. This was his best season from deep since he was on his rookie contract yet Turner was highly selective and mostly open when taking these shots. Ultimately the Blazers found success by running Turner as a big point guard when one of the stars was resting, allowing the other to play off the ball while Turner found his spots in the mid-range and his teammates all over the court. As far as fantasy is concerned it’s hard to trust Turner moving forward. If he was on a team that necessitated him initiating the offense on every play he might have some juice but for now, Turner should only be viewed as a flier when he’s hot or when injury necessitates that he plays more.
ADP: NA/NA (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 177/171 (8/9-cat), Per Game Value: 233/223 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 78
Stats: 18.9 MPG 5.3 PTS 0.0 3PM 7.4 REB 0.5 AST 0.4 STL 0.7 BLK .582 FG% .667 FT%
Ed Davis is a throwback player. I wouldn’t be surprised if he showed up to games with a construction helmet and a metal lunch pail after wrapping up his “other job.” Jokes aside, Davis is a blue-collar banger in a league that seems to be moving further and further from the rim. He’ll be a free agent this season and its likely that the Blazers will only retain one of Nurkic or Davis. This likely means that Davis will have to wait and see how negotiations go with the young center before getting clear indications from Blazers brass. Besides a single ankle injury, Davis was healthy this year and shouldn’t have any restrictions heading into free agency.
The real benefit of players like Davis is their ability to seamlessly contribute to stars like Lillard and McCollum without being touch-needy. Whereas coach Stotts had to make a concerted effort to get Nurkic involved early in game, Davis always comes in locked and loaded. Make no mistake, Davis is limited in many facets of the game but ultimately his contributions fit well on a team with two ball-dominant guards.
ADP: NA/NA (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 295/307 (8/9-cat), Per Game Value: 375/390 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 66
Stats: 15.8 MPG 4.4 PTS 0.5 3PM 3.3 REB 0.8 AST 0.3 STL 0.5 BLK .397 FG% .643 FT%
Zach Collins was drafted 10th overall and early on it became apparent he was a project. 26th pick Caleb Swanigan was the more impressive rookie during the summer and early in the season but Collins came around post All-Star break. He had two double-digit scoring games before the break and six in the second half of the season. Collins finished the year with highs of 15 points, two triples, 10 boards, four assists, three steals and three blocks. While all of these highs were across different games it shows Collins’ ability to fill the box score while giving the Blazers a different look from many of their players.
Collins has similar abilities to Meyers Leonard but moves on the court like a gazelle instead of like a confused and tense G.I. Joe. Expect that the Blazers ask Collins to work on his post-game and comfort making dribble drives to the bucket if he’s able to get by his recovering man by using a pump fake. With Jusuf Nurkic wrapping up the last year of his rookie contract the Blazers will likely try to retain their starting center. That said it could happen that Collins is looking at a starting role as early as next season if the price gets too steep for the team.
ADP: NA/NA (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 259/251 (8/9-cat), Per Game Value: 349/350 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 82
Stats: 18.1 MPG 5.4 PTS 0.9 3PM 2.0 REB 1.1 AST 0.3 STL 0.3 BLK .423 FG% .841 FT%
Pat Connaughton turned his NBA career around this year. He was the only Blazer to play in all 82 games this season and had multiple explosive performances with a dozen games with double-digit scoring. Project Pat scored a career-high 24 points against the Suns early in the season and had multiple games where he scored close to 20 points which were huge for a team that lacked a consistent third option. Connaughton is a restricted free agent this summer and will likely be looking at a contract around $5 million a season from the Blazers or another team. Expect the Blazers to attempt to retain Pat but if the price gets steep they’ll likely move on.
ADP: NA/NA (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 427/443 (8/9-cat), Per Game Value: 472/487 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 27
Stats: 7.0 MPG 2.3 PTS 0.0 3PM 2.0 REB 0.5 AST 0.2 STL 0.1 BLK .400 FG% .667 FT%
Swanigan has an interesting story and an interesting season by all accounts. Biggie, as he’s fondly nicknamed, started the season in the rotation and even made three early starts after Aminu suffered an ankle injury in early October. That said Swanigan’s season was a disappointment after a solid Summer League and preseason ballooned expectations. Swanigan possesses skills on both sides of the ball but failed to convert that potential in his first season.
Theoretically, Swanigan has the strength to bang down low while providing help defense to swat shots away at the rim. Unfortunately, it seemed like the rookie became too enthralled with shooting jumpers and scoring early in the season to continue to earn consistent playing time. Hopefully the Blazers keep Swanigan away from Meyers Leonard this offseason and have him focus on getting his percentages up. If Swanigan wants to play more in his second season he’ll have to improve on his 40 percent field goal percentage while being a positive influence on defense. After Swanigan is able to positively influence the game with his hustle and energy he’ll have more freedom on offense to take threes and deep jumpers.
The Blazers have a complex roster situation to figure out with three restricted free agents and the ability to use their trade exceptions. It will be paramount that the Blazers increase the overall talent with the goal of having players like Aminu, Harkless and Turner acting as the 6th-8th most talented players on the roster. Some of this growth could come internally, as Zach Collins showed promise during his rookie year and Caleb Swanigan has his own flashes at times. The Blazers could also look to make a trade of an existing contract, with Meyers Leonard’s $10 million dollar deal looking like a great piece to move.
The reality is that the Blazers’ most moveable and valuable asset is their 24th overall pick. This coupled with an existing contract or a trade exception could bring a difference-maker into the fold. That said rookie contracts are worth more than their weight in gold in today’s NBA. A solid rookie will outperform his pay scale before it’s all said and done, and that’s exactly why Connaughton, Napier and Nurkic will all be getting substantial raises.
If the Blazers strike out once again this offseason don’t be surprised if owner Paul Allen moves on from GM Neil Oshley. Oshley has been mentioned as the architect of wrapping up over $38 million in cap space on Turner, Harkless and Leonard next season. The Harkless contract might still end up being a fair deal but the other two are gross miscalculations of value and create room for concern. This will be the most important year in Oshley’s career as a GM.