By: Scott Brock-Wilson and Justin Lynch
Teams 28 and 27.
Click on the first set of rankings to view them:
#30 and #29
28. Portland Trail Blazers
Last Season: 51-31, First Round Loss
Key Offseason Acquisitions: Gerald Henderson, Al Farouq-Aminu, Mason Plumlee, Maurice Harkless, Noah Vonleh, Ed Davis
Key Offseason Losses: LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez, Nicolas Batum, Arron Afflalo, Wesley Matthews
Projected Starting 5:
PG: Damian Lillard
SG: Gerald Henderson
SF: Al-Farouq Aminu
PF: Meyers Leonard
C: Mason Plumlee
Key Role Players:
1. C.J. McCollum
2. Maurice Harkless
3. Ed Davis
SBW Season Outlook:
The Blazers lost everyone. They lost four of their five starters from last year and their sixth man. Last year’s performance earned them the 4th seed in the West, but they were bounced from the playoffs by the Grizzlies after only one win. Lillard is a top seven point guard posting 21/6/5 stat line. He struggles defensively, as he has yet to post a positive DBPM (Defensive Box Plus/Minus) in his first three seasons. His Win Shares will continue to go up as Portland’s offense becomes even more dependant on him.
With Lillard and a bunch of role players, the Blazers will be looking for one of those role players to step up. McCollum will provide a boost off the bench as the sixth man. He averaged 17 points points off the bench in the playoffs last year when going against one of the better wing defenses in Memphis. Yes, he needs to improve on his defense (a DBPM teetering back on forth around 0 all season), but that is not what is required from a sixth man primarily responsible for scoring. Expect the majority of the Blazers’ points to come from the backcourt combination of Lillard, Henderson and McCollum.
In terms of the frontcourt, Leonard and Plumlee could go either way. Plumlee’s pick and roll abilities may perfectly compliment Leonard’s shooting, or two slow seven-footers could be holding the entire team back. The Blazers know what they have in the backcourt, but the question marks remain up front, especially defensively. The lack of rim protection will not only hurt the team more, but without Robin Lopez behind him, Lillard’s defense will be exposed even more.
With their torn down roster, the Blazers will be as far from the playoffs as possible this year. They will be competing for the prestigious award of worst in the West and the League. At the beginning of next season they won’t be in much better position than they are this year.
JL Best-case scenario:
The pastiche of young talent melds together in a perfect collage. Leonard improves on his 43% from three last season, opening up the paint for Plumlee-Lillard pick-n-rolls. Al-Farouq Aminu lives up to his big payday, and ups his corner three to the mid-30’s in both corners. Lillard comes into his own, averaging 25+ points and 8-10 assists, while taking huge strides on the defensive end. Noah Vonleh proves he has potential, and even puts his smooth stroke on display throughout the season. Moe Harkless finally gets under control and uses his athleticism to become a useful rotation guy. The team loses and loses, but is competitive every night. They win the lottery and draft Ben Simmons to be Lillard’s new co-star.
JL Worst-case scenario:
Gambling on Aminu proves to be wasted money, as his three point shot plateaus and he fails to keep his defensive prowess in more minutes. Plumlee continues to be a very sub-par rim protector, which is put on display every night as every point guard eats up Lillard on the defensive end. Noah Vonleh turns out to be a bust, and we find out Meyers Leonard can’t do anything but shoot. The Blazers get rid of Tim Frazier, upsetting his good friend Damian Lillard, which causes tension between Lillard and the front office. The Blazers finish with the worst record in the league, but lose the battle of ping pong balls and lose out on Simmons.
Projected Record: 24-58
27. Denver Nuggets
Last Season: 30-52, Missed Playoffs (12th in West)
Key Offseason Acquisitions: Mike Malone (coach), Emmanuel Mudiay, Nikola Jokic (coming over from Serbia)
Key Offseason Losses: Ty Lawson
Projected Starting 5:
PG: Emmanuel Mudiay
SG: Wilson Chandler
SF: Danilo Gallinari
PF: Kenneth Faried
C: Jusuf Nurkic
Key Role Players:
1. Randy Foye
2. Jameer Nelson
3. Nikola Jokic
JL Season Outlook:
The Nuggets current roster reflects a lot of similarities to the Lakers situation, to a lesser degree. The frontcourt duo of Kenneth Faried and Jusuf Nurkic, like Hibbert and Randle, is disastrous for spacing offensively, and any attempt to play Faried at small-ball five to relieve these issues results in serious struggles defensively. However, Nurkic is a strong rim-protector, and Faried is a monster, for his size, on the boards. Nikola Jokic signed for cheap this offseason (4 years/$5.5 million), and the Nuggets are intrigued by what the 20-year-old Serbian can do alongside his Bosnian teammate.
On the wing, the Nuggets don’t have Kobe, obviously, but both Gallinari (2/$34 million) and Chandler (4/$46.5) signed extensions this summer. Gallinari is 27 and coming off knee surgery, while Chandler is 28 and may be starting the downturn of his career. The juxtaposition of such veteran wing players to young bigs and a rookie point guard is interesting when considering the future of this team. Both Chandler and Gallinari have very tradeable contracts, and both would be of interest to contenders, should the Nuggets decide to bottom out. However, the Nuggets have to right to swap picks with the Knicks, so if the Knicks are struggling, there is no reason to unload Chandler and Gallinari. Besides, Chandler and Gallinari have the shooting you need if your starting point guard is Emmanuel Mudiay.
Mudiay comes back to the States after spending a year in China, and by a year, I mean 12 games. Mudiay brings oodles of potential to Denver, but is not as NBA-ready as the Lakers, D’Angelo Russell. A point guard made out of the John Wall-mode, might end up being closer to Jrue Holiday when it is all said and done, but regardless, he will take time to develop. And the biggest thing he needs to develop is his shot. Mudiay stands 6’5” with a 6’8.5” wingspan and has NBA athleticism right now. He is agile and big-time leaper. He showed flashes in China of being a good passer, but he tries to do too much sometimes. Mudiay thrives at getting to the basket, but his shaky shot causes defenses to sag off, making it more difficult more him to get into the paint. Having Chandler and Gallinari around him will enable defenses with less luxury to help on pick-n-rolls. Anyone who plays the Nuggets will have to deal with Mudiay coming off a screen, having Gallinari and Chandler as spot-up shooters (and sometimes Randy Foye), while Faried charges the lane, ready to dunk on any poor soul who gets in the way.
This sounds all fine and dandy, but the Nuggets had this for part of last year with Lawson. Lawson had the second-most drives in the league last season, and I doubt Mudiay will be able to come in and run the offense as well as Lawson right away. However, the Nuggets gave up the third-most points last season (105/game) and that should change with Mudiay now matching up against the West’s elite group of guards. Nurkic should be able to further his rim-protection, and with a new coach, this team should be able to improve defensively, while benefitting from Gallinari’s return on the other end. This team could be interesting, and will surely be fun to watch, but when it is all said and done, don’t expect much in the win column, and keep an eye on them to blow it all up after the year and build around Nurkic and Mudiay.
SBW Best-case scenario: Mudiay turns out to be the steal of the draft as he not only is good defensively, driving and passing, but he also develops a shot. Chandler is a steady and consistent scorer, especially from three as Gallinari returns to form and continues to improve. Nurkic follows up his impressive rookie year with an even better sophomore campaign by getting more physical down low and better defensively. Faried will continue to get board, play hard, and be the energizer for the team. Even with this, the Nuggets will not see the playoffs, but the overall improvement among the younger talent is what is important.
SBW Worst-case scenario: Mudiay is not as NBA ready as the scouts said he was. Matter of fact, he doesn’t seem to be the defensive player that was expected of him, and his shot has yet to improve. Gallinari struggles and even finds himself on the pine once again due to injury. Nurkic cannot match the output from his rookie season as opposing teams figure him out more. The Nuggets then go into full tank mode and trade Faried without getting much back. The lottery is unkind and the Nuggets find themselves searching for answers.
Projected Record: 25-57