6. How do the Blazers bounce back?
The Portland Trail Blazers were the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference last year, but a humbling first-round sweep at the hands of the Pelicans brought them plummeting back to earth.
While the rest of the West engaged in the arms race to end all arms races this summer, Portland largely sat out of free agency. Tied down by the horrendous contracts they handed out in 2016 to Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard and Moe Harkless, the Blazers instead made minor alterations to their roster, swapping out Ed Davis, Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton with Seth Curry and Nik “Shoots Like Steph and Big Like Klay” Stauskas.
So long as the Blazers have Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, they’ll be a threat to win 45-plus games, but they aren’t a lock for the playoffs this season. They needed a sizzling post-All-Star-break surge — fueled by Jusuf Nurkic’s arrival in Portland — to make the playoffs in 2016-17, and they were remarkably fortunate in terms of injuries last year. If Lillard or McCollum are forced to miss extended time, the Blazers’ postseason hopes will be on life support.
Outside of their star-studded backcourt going supernova all year, the Blazers’ best chance to rebound from their demoralizing playoff loss may be second-year big man Zach Collins. Whereas Nurkic is a more traditional back-to-the-basket center, Collins could give Portland more flexibility as a stretch 5. Being able to flip between conventional lineups and small-ball units would help the Blazers match up better against anything thrown at them.
If Portland does wind up missing the playoffs, it could spell the end of the Lillard-McCollum backcourt, as general manager Neil Olshey may decide a drastic shakeup is in order. Until then, the Blazers will have to hope their playoff sweep didn’t expose a fatal flaw that opponents relentlessly exploit all year.