At least from a personnel standpoint, the 2017-18 Portland Trail Blazers won’t look all that much different from the 2016-17 team that finished the year 41-41 before losing to the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. While President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey reportedly made every attempt to acquire the likes of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony via trade, the Trail Blazers ended up with just two new players under contract — rookies Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan — and just one non-returning player — Allen Crabbe, who was traded to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for the since-waived Andrew Nicholson — from the team that finished out the 2016-17 regular season.
Though that’s not exactly unusual, as the Trail Blazers are one of six teams bringing back at least 12 players from their 2016-17 roster. Portland’s ranks eighth in terms of the number of minutes played last season by returning players, as in, of the 19,930 combined minutes played by the Trail Blazers last season, 18,081 of those minutes were played by players returning this season. That’s continuity, especially for a team with the second-youngest roster in the NBA.
Portland’s players and coaches are hoping that lack of turnover might result in the team getting off to a better start this season than they have in their last two, an especially important goal considering how front-loaded with home games their schedule is and the assumption that finishing with a .500 regular season record will leave you well short of a playoff berth in the Western Conference in 2018.
“You know how stacked the West is,” said Ed Davis. “I don’t think there’s no fighting back this year. If it’s January and you’re six, seven games below .500, you’re pretty much ready for the (draft) lottery. We know that. We feel like the schedule early on is in our favor and we’ve got to take advantage.”
But while the assumption might be that returning so many players could result in a faster start due to familiarity with Terry Stotts’ system, the players themselves say it’s more about knowing how you’ll be used rather than knowing the playbook.
“A lot of teams deal with ego problems, guys not accepting roles, but here, we know what it is,” said Davis. “It’s Dame’s team, we’ve got two guys who can close games out with Dame and CJ. We’ve got another guy with Evan who can take a lot of pressure off them and then we’ve got Nurk in the middle. Everyone knows their role so it’s not like guys are coming in here like ‘Alright, I need 20 shots.’ You know Dame, CJ will get their and everyone else get in where you fit in.”
That benefit also extends to players who have spent their entire careers thus far in Portland. It’s not as if Damian Lillard hasn’t known what his role is since starting all 82 games of his rookie season, but knowing what to expect from the relatively new additions, both in terms of the way they play and how they’ll be used, could help the team avoid some of the early-season struggles that have made late-season rallies a requirement.
“I think over time when you have so many guys coming back — usually a roster changes a little bit more than what we’ve had the last few years so you’re constantly trying to figure out what roles guys are going to play,” said Lillard. “Bringing in (Turner) last year, he had to figure it out. I think this year is a much better idea coming in where guys know what’s expected of them, what positions they’re going to be in over the course of the game. And they know their teammates, we know each other better so I think because of that we can flow better on offense, we can communicate better, we can know, we can be familiar with each other better on the court because of it. Hopefully this year it’ll click from the start and we won’t have so many ups and downs.”
Other than the hope that Jusuf Nurkić can be the same player for an entire season as he was in his first 20 games as a Trail Blazer, roster continuity might be the most realistic cause for optimism going into the 2017-18 season. But it’s still on the players to prove there was a good reason for remaining relatively unchanged, especially considering they were in much the same situation at this time last year.
“We learned last year that, even though we had 11 players coming back, I think we may have fallen into a little bit of that security,” said head coach Terry Stotts. “I think we learned that just because you have that many guys coming back doesn’t guarantee anything. Certainly there’s a familiarity, but it doesn’t mean you can’t start fresh and have a new approach. I read something from Coach (Popovich) about every year is a new year. And they’ve had continuity… but every year is a new year and they approach it like that. I think last year taught us that as well.”