The Portland Trail Blazers have their work cut out for them in the NBA season, especially in the revamped Western Conference.
After finishing the regular season in eighth place last year in the Western Conference, Portland remains basically the same team. Unlike most of the Western foes who improved by picking up stars during the offseason.
Portland traded away Allen Crabbe, which should help its salary cap situation and provide more flexibility in the future. The Blazers added promising young rookies Caleb Swanigan (Purdue) and Zach Collins (Gonzaga).
The Houston Rockets picked up Chris Paul, pairing him with James Harden and the rest of the run and gun system Mike D’Antoni has instituted. This helps solidify them as a top four team in the West.
The Oklahoma City Thunder picked up Paul George, which was a big upgrade for them after losing Kevin Durant the previous summer. They also traded for Carmelo Anthony, a 10-time All-Star with an NCAA championship and three gold medals. But an NBA title still eludes him.
This elevates OKC to a higher level, with three legitimate stars who are able to score. Coupled with the reigning MVP Russell Westbrook they could move up.
The Minnesota Timberwolves picked up Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford to go along with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. This is an intriguing team that could really make some noise in the West as they have a very young talented group that can score. Coach Tom Thibodeau, who coached Butler in Chicago, will be pushing this team to defend.
The Denver Nuggets picked up Paul Millsap, which doesn’t seem like much but he will make them better. Those last three teams all are in the Northwest Division and will test Portland’s resolve.
Let’s not forget the New Orleans Pelicans, who added DeMarcus Cousins last year to go along with Anthony Davis at post. They should be improved with more time and experience together.
The San Antonio Spurs added Rudy Gay to go along with their already veteran-laden roster who consistently wins at a high level.
Finally, the Golden State Warriors, the reigning NBA champions, are still above everyone in the West, although they added Nick Young to give them more depth off the bench.
So how does a Portland team that struggled last season navigate the West this year?
The star-studded combo of Damian Lillard and C.J McCollum will carry this team to wins like it has in years past. But Portland lacks depth and consistency at the small forward and power forward positions. Jusuf Nurkic is a bright spot looking ahead, but hasn’t played in more than 65 games in his three NBA seasons so durability is a worry.
As it is now, Portland seems to still be waiting to make a run at the Western Conference crown. Lillard is now 27 and McCollum is 26. But the rest of the West continues to pass them by. The Warriors are all in their prime and OKC is also in the midst of its best years.
As some point Portland will have to make a run with their two stars by making a trade or picking up a big-time free agent to help them contend in the West. It looks like the 2017-18 campaign will be another year of mediocrity for the Blazers, as I project them to be the No. 6 seed come playoff time.
Portland opens its season tonight at Phoenix.