Last year was so much fun as a Portland Trail Blazer fan. Coming into the season a lot of the Vegas sports books had set the expectation for the Blazers to win about 26 games. We all saw what was to follow; a 44-win season, a 1st round playoff victory over the Clippers, and a rebirth of the spirit of Rip City.
This year has been quite different.
Injuries, close losses, and trade talks have dominated the first half of the season for the Blazers. Currently with a 24-35 record at 11th in the Western Conference and 3.0 games out of the 8th and final Playoff spot, a lot of fans are losing any kind of hope and interest in this team.
Let me give you three reasons to continue to tune in and root for the Blazers for the rest of the season, and moving forward.
1 – Jusuf Nurkic
A week before the trade deadline General Manager Neil Olshey worked a trade with Denver that sent Mason Plumlee, a 2018 2nd round draft pick, and cash for Jusuf Nurkic and a 2017 1st round draft pick. The initial reaction in Portland was very mixed. Plumlee had become a fan-favorite in Portland and lot of fans felt that Portland was trading him away for a player not many had heard of.
Nurkic came into Portland just before the All-Star break and has played very well for the Blazers. In his first 4 games in the red and black Nurkic is averaging 13 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.8 steals, and 1 block in 28 minutes per game. In comparison Plumlee had been averaging 11.1 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 0.9 steals, and 1.2 blocks in 28.1 minutes per game. Pretty similar, but there are some major differences when you dig further.
First, and foremost, Nukic is on a much more benefitial contract for the Blazers. Plumlee was going to be a restricted free agent this coming summer and was going to command a lot of money, upwards of $15 million a year. That was going to make Plumlee basically unsignable for the Blazers. Nurkic on the other hand has a full season left on his rookie contract, another season for the Blazers to test if Nurkic can be in their long-term plans.
Another major difference is the defensive potential of Nurkic vs. Plumlee. Nurkic is a 22 year old center that is a true 7-footer and weighs 280 pounds. He has the base and strength the battle in the paint and will only grow more with maturity. Plumlee, on the other hand, is 26 and weighs 235 pounds. He hasn’t demonstrated the rim-protecting ability that the Blazers need.
Third factor to keep in mind is that Plumlee played 136 games with the Blazers, Nurkic has played 4. Nurkic will only get better that longer he is on the floor with this team. Remember how long it took Evan Turner to fit in?
Watching Nurkic develop and build chemistry with this young team (the youngest in the NBA!) will be a lot of fun to watch the next couple months.
2 – Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum Under Contract
Remember the summer of 2015? Yeah, the summer when LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, and Robin Lopez all left in free agency. Nicolas Batum was traded away. That was a rough summer as a Blazer fan.
What about the summer of 2009? That summer Hedo Tukoglu pulled out of talks with Portland because his wife didn’t want to live here.
Portland’s troubles in getting, and keeping, free agents has been well documented by the media.
The good thing about the position Portland is in is that their franchise pillars of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are both under contract through the 2020-2021 season. That’s the next 4+ seasons that Portland fans don’t have to worry about these guys walking in free agency.
Now the big project is to build around these two pillars. A rim-protector, a few talented shooters, some perimeter defenders and the dynamic backcourt can reach their potential and possibly take Portland back to the upper-echelons of the Western Conference.
3 – Three 2017 First-Round Draft Picks
How this team is going to build for the future is going to be through the draft and through trades. The three first-round draft picks that the Blazers own are assets that can help continue to build the roster.
It’s kind of hard to believe but the last 1st round draft pick that Portland retained was McCollum in 2013! Since then they have traded the pick before or during the draft. Their 2015 pick of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was then flipped to Brooklyn for Plumlee and Steve Blake.
This season the Blazers are going to buck that trend and actually draft somebody in the 1st round that will help this team.
Now, I don’t expect this team to draft and retain all three picks that they currently have, there will be some movement before or during the draft, but they will bring in rookie talent this summer.
If the draft were to be held today, the Blazers would hold the 8th, 21st (Memphis), and 28th (Cleveland) picks in the draft. Those picks will hold significant value moving into the summer as teams really start to focus on scouting this talented crop of incoming rookies. The Blazers may be able to package their picks together to move up into the top-5, they may be able to trade them for veterans, or they might just stand pat and bring in three rookies to compete with the youngest team in the league.
But that is the beauty of it all, Neil Olshey has created that kind of flexibility for this franchise. This team will have very little available cap space for free agent contracts, but they will have trade assets. This team will get better this summer, one way or another.
Personally, as someone that absolutely loves the NBA Draft, I am getting extremely excited about the prospect of this team having these picks. I look forward to diving head first into scouting reports and seeing who they bring in for workouts. One of my top bucket list items is to cover an NBA Draft from behind the scenes. I think the tension and anticipation in an NBA “War Room” would be absolutely phenomenal.
With all of that said, this team has a bright future. Despite some of the disappointments this season, there have been bright spots, and there is a ton to look forward to in the future. When this team completely transformed less than 2 years ago, people realized that this was going to be a multiple year rebuild process, expectations just shifted a bit after last season.
Hold tight Blazer fans, things are going to get much better.