Better Luck Next Year: Portland Trail Blazers edition

As NBA teams are officially eliminated from title contention, theScore NBA freelance writer Andrew Unterberger takes a look back at the highs and lows of their season, along with the biggest questions ahead of 2018-19. The 15th edition focuses on the Portland Trail Blazers.

The Good

Damian Lillard, MVP candidate. The biggest cause of Blazers fans' griping most seasons is point guard Damian Lillard getting snubbed for an All-Star spot. This year, they actually have a semi-reasonable complaint if he doesn't get some MVP consideration. Lillard finished with averages around 27-7-5 and career highs in true shooting (59.4 percent) and PER (25.2), essentially played break-even defense, and led a mediocre-looking Portland team to a 49-33 record and the West's 3-seed. He may never get more than down-ballot consideration for the NBA's most prestigious award, but his status among the league's elite should no longer be doubted.

The win streak. Portland looked like it was heading for another .500-ish campaign before reaching escape velocity in early 2018. After a 22-21 start, the team went 9-5, then ripped off a stunning 13 wins in a row - including victories over the Jazz, Thunder, Cavs, and Warriors (twice) - and broke triple digits in every one after struggling to score earlier in the season. The run was convincing enough to provoke some questions about whether the Blazers were title contenders - questions that were answered decisively (and quickly) this postseason.

Shabazz Napier's breakout. He came back down to earth in a big way, only scoring in double figures once in his final 15 regular-season games, and didn't play at all in two of the team's four playoff contests. But Shabazz Napier's development was still one of the feel-good stories of the NBA season's first half - particularly after Lillard missed seven games in a nine-game stretch. Napier played a large role in the Blazers going 5-2 over that period, with about eight points a game on 48 percent shooting. His numbers on the season (around 9-2-2 on 54 percent true shooting, with just over a steal per game) are the best of his previously wayward career, proving there's a place for the former college superstar in the NBA.

Playoff Aminu. Not everyone exactly rose to the occasion against the New Orleans Pelicans in these playoffs, but the offensively inconsistent Al-Farouq Aminu proved surprisingly reliable. The versatile forward averaged about 17 and 9 in the four-game series, and after posting a career-high 37 percent rate from behind the arc in the regular season, upped that to 43 percent, including five triples as Portland nearly fought back to steal Game 4 on the road. The Blazers couldn't succeed in the playoffs without Al-Farouq stepping up, and while they didn't anyway, they must be heartened by the veteran's postseason performance.

Defense. After two years of sitting in the 20s in defensive rating, the Blazers jumped into the league's top five for much of the season before ultimately settling at eighth. A full season of Jusuf Nurkic in the middle, a strong complement of versatile and athletic forwards, solid rebounding, and improved effort and communication from the backcourt core produced arguably the best Portland defense of the Terry Stotts era - a major factor in the team's significantly improved record. The coach preached defense as a priority all preseason, and while that usually turns out to be lip service, the Blazers backed it up.

The Bad

Playoff Dame. Portland spent the team's first-round series against New Orleans waiting for the Lillard breakout that never came. His point totals are staggering in their relative mediocrity - 18, 17, 20, 19 - while his shooting (35 percent from the field, 30 percent from deep) and distributing numbers (19 assists and 16 turnovers for the series) don't paint a much prettier picture. Credit Jrue Holiday and the swarming Pelicans defense for putting him in cold storage, or blame a shooting slump that came at the worst possible time for an occasionally streaky star. Still, the fact that it never reached Dame O'Clock is one of the biggest surprises of the early postseason.

End-of-season sag. The Blazers didn't exactly enter the playoffs on a heater either. Despite winning their final game of the season against the Jazz, Portland ended the campaign by dropping four of five games, including a somewhat inexplicable L to the tanking Dallas Mavericks. The results might not have meant much to the Blazers, since they appeared to have the 3-seed sewn up, but who knows if cooling off to such a degree contributed to their playoff malaise.

Evan Turner clogging the books (and the offense). Though he played his part defensively and occasionally proved useful as a second-unit offensive anchor, the four-year, $70-million contract Evan Turner ​​​​​​got in summer 2016 grows more inexplicable by the day. He posted some of the worst numbers of his career in '17-18, with his lowest averages in points (8.2) and assists (2.2) per game since his rookie year, and failed to hit the PER Mendoza Line of 10.0 for the first time. He was even worse in the playoffs, shooting just 36 percent and only hitting two 3-pointers in 87 minutes on the floor. The advanced stats are even crueler: Turner ranked 87th of 89 small forwards in Real Plus-Minus this season. Two years into the ET experiment, there just doesn't seem to be a way for him to help Portland win basketball games.

Playoff defense. After Game 1, when the Blazers held the Pelicans to an impressive 97 points, their No. 8 regular-season defense evaporated in the playoffs as New Orleans put 111, 119, and 131 on the board. Portland gave up 52 percent shooting from the field for the series and 40 percent from three (up from 45 and 36 percent, respectively, in their first 82 games), essentially allowing Alvin Gentry's squad to run them out of the postseason. In Game 4, the Blazers finally broke out of their offensive mire to post 123 points, but gave up more than 40 to both Anthony Davis and Holiday. Not many teams are equipped to deal with AD, but this was a near-total breakdown.

Ball movement. One area where Portland proved slightly deficient was passing. The Blazers' 19.5 assists per game ranked last in the NBA, with much of their offense built around iso-ball for their potent backcourt of Lillard and C.J. McCollum. The Blazers worked hard to get those guys better looks, and it's not like their teammates had the scoring prowess to demand a larger piece of the offensive pie. But considering how free-flowing the Pelicans' attack looked in the first round - 26.5 assists a game, which would've put them in the regular-season top five - and their success at shutting down Lillard, it's hard not to wonder if Portland's offensive myopia played into the Pels' hands.

The Questions

How much is Jusuf Nurkic worth? The center's numbers were down a little from his white-hot 20-game sample with Portland after his February 2017 trade, but remained fairly exemplary - about 14 and 9 on 51 percent shooting in just 26 minutes a night. The 23-year-old was also instrumental in improving the team's defense from "passable" to "impressive." But now he's a restricted free agent, and he's about to get a lot more expensive. The former mid-first-rounder made just under $3 million in the final season of his rookie contract, but on the open market, he'll demand at least four or five times that annually.

Portland isn't exactly flush with available funds, and centers with limited offensive range don't have the same value they used to. Still, it's hard to imagine the Blazers being able to maintain their new identity if they let him walk.

Is Zach Collins ready to step up? One of the primary variables affecting how the Blazers deal with Nurkic could be their level of confidence in Zach Collins to fill his shoes sooner than later. Portland dealt two first-rounders to nab the Gonzaga big man at No. 10 in the 2017 draft, and he didn't have the strongest rookie season statistically (averaging about four points and three rebounds on 40 percent shooting). However, he showed flashes and came on late, earning consistent rotation minutes down the stretch and into the playoffs. He's still young and raw - and Meyers Leonard looms as a cautionary tale of how overextending such centers can wreak havoc on a team's cap - but Portland may need Collins to pop badly enough to give him every possible chance.

What to do about Turner? With Lillard and McCollum making over $50 million a year combined for the foreseeable future, the Blazers don't have a lot of room to whiff on the next tier of contracts - but they did, twice, in the summer of 2017. Portland was able to call a reset on the Allen Crabbe deal, but has not been so fortunate with Turner, who's still owed more than $36 million over the next two seasons. Unloading a positionally vague wing who doesn't do any one thing expertly and gets paid like an All-Star is no small challenge, and could cost a great deal in future assets. But if the Blazers are going to stay at this level, never mind figure out a way to leap to the next one, getting rid of Turner may be imperative.

How safe is Stotts? Perhaps not since George Karl won Coach of the Year with the 2012-13 Denver Nuggets and then got fired after a first-round loss to the Warriors has the momentum and narrative of a coach's season reversed so dramatically. Stotts was deservedly in the COTY discussion after the Blazers shored up their defense, maximized their offensive potential, played with their best chemistry in years, and won 49 games. But after getting summarily swept by the lower-seeded (though probably superior) Pelicans, making Stotts 0-10 in the team's last 10 postseason games, his abilities as a playoff coach have been called into question.

It's hard to imagine Stotts - a respected tactician who's overachieved in nearly every one of his six seasons with Portland - being dismissed for a small-sample playoff performance, no matter how dire. But many coaches have suffered exactly that fate, and someone may have to pay the price for the awful taste this particular Blazers exit left in people's mouths.

Can these Blazers be much better? If you had asked a Portland fan before the season whether they'd take 49 wins and the 3-seed, they'd jump at the offer before it even occurred to them to ask about the playoffs. The Blazers were the definition of mediocrity last year. With the rest of the West getting better and little reason to expect internal improvement besides a full season of Nurkic, this seemed the likely last stand for this version of the Blazers, which could have been dismantled as early as the 2018 trade deadline.

The team's overperformance appears to have pushed the window open a bit - but how much? Can Lillard and McCollum be much more productive than they were this season? Can Aminu or Maurice Harkless unlock new aspects of their offensive games so late in their careers? Does Collins have All-Star potential? How much magic is left in Stotts' bag of tricks? The West is always getting stronger, and the Blazers probably can't do much to bolster their roster this offseason. As currently constructed, does this squad still have untapped potential, or is it time to build toward whatever's next for the franchise?

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

Better Luck Next Year: Portland Trail Blazers edition
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