Instead of the usual snub treatment the Portland Trail Blazers typically receive, ESPN finally gave the squad some respect in their 2019-20 player rankings.
The Portland Trail Blazers received a lot of positive attention in ESPN’s most recent edition of their preseason player power rankings, placing three players in their top 100. Although Portland is accustomed to being slept on, that narrative seems to have been flipped on its head after this ranking was released.
Take a look at how things shook out as some of ESPN’s best writers tried to accurately pin down and rank what the best basketball league in the world has to offer this year.
9. Damian Lillard
“From the moment he entered the league as a mystery guest from Weber State, Lillard established himself as a fearless, durable floor general with an uncommon stage presence. His big-game shot-making rivals any of his contemporaries, and he’s a first-rate culture-setter who quietly agreed to a supermax extension over the summer that will keep him in Portland well into his 30s. Lillard has publicly stated that he’s uninterested in building a superteam or serving as a recruiter in a league where such machinations are bigger than the game itself. Yet Lillard’s independence poses a challenge: Without the concentration of star power present on the rosters of most NBA contenders, how far can Lillard lift the Trail Blazers in an unforgiving Western Conference?” — Kevin Arnovitz
While Arnovitz does his due diligence and offers credit to Lillard for the culture he’s helped cultivate here in Portland, the rest of his analysis seems rather lazy. Here’s a hot take: the NBA does not run on superteams.
If it did, why would it be such a big deal whenever they appear? They are the exception, not the rule. This century alone, teams like the Mavericks, Pistons, Raptors, Heat (2006), Spurs and the Warriors (pre-Kevin Durant) have all won championships by developing their team organically. And when healthy, this current iteration of the Portland Trail Blazers looks awfully similar to a lot of those aforementioned teams.
As Arnovitz himself said on the Zach Lowe podcast earlier this week, “The Blazers are the new Spurs”. With no clear-cut front-runner entering this upcoming season, this is a perfect opportunity for the Blazers to assert themselves into that void. And I can guarantee you Damian Lillard will be at the front of that charge, not some other superstar Portland bought off.
13. CJ McCollum
“Is McCollum ready to step up as a co-headliner with Damian Lillard for an entire season? McCollum has long been the secondary scoring Robin to Damian Lillard’s Batman for the Trail Blazers. The past two seasons, McCollum averaged 21.2 PPG in the regular season versus Lillard’s 26.3. However, that story changed during the past two playoffs, with McCollum upping his scoring to 24.8 PPG versus Lillard’s 25.2 PPG. If McCollum can maintain that raised level of shotmaking throughout the season, it would ease the load on Lillard and help Portland challenge for the top spot in the West.” — André Snellings
In this year’s edition of ESPN’s player rankings, CJ McCollum made a somewhat shocking jump from last year’s No. 30 ranking. That leap is second-best among all top 20 players (with sophomore Luka Doncic taking the top spot).
Snellings makes some great points in his analysis here. CJ has without a doubt played second fiddle to Lillard over the course of his career. However, the flashes of greatness he has displayed in the last two postseasons. This ranking seems to take into account the player CJ should be this year, not the player he has been in the past. And rightfully so, this is a player ranking for the 2019-20 season after all, it only makes sense to base it on how well McCollum projects to play following last year’s playoffs.
If McCollum can be that same player that picks up the slack when Lillard’s game is off and is good for 25 points a night, the Portland Trail Blazers will be a much more dangerous threat this time around. Although some will likely argue CJ doesn’t deserve to be ranked this high, he has performed at a higher level on a bigger stage than most every player behind him on this list.
83. Jusuf Nurkic
“Terry Stotts’ defensive scheme calls for the screener’s defender to drop back into the paint on pick-and-rolls, protecting the rim. The 7-foot Nurkic excelled in that scheme, using his size to intimidate in the paint. Per Second Spectrum tracking on NBA Advanced Stats, the 55.9% of shots inside 5 feet opponents have made with Nurkic as a primary defender ranks in the top 20 among players who have defended at least four such shots per game.” — Kevin Pelton
Apparently even with a broken leg, Jusuf Nurkic is still one of the 100 best basketball players on the planet. If that isn’t a testament to just how great the Bosnian Beast has become, I’m not sure what is. When healthy, Nurkic is debatably a top five center in the NBA. This is clear from the fact Jusuf was ranked No. 75 in ESPN’s ranking last year, and showed clear improvements in every facet of the game prior to his devastating injury.
He averaged career highs in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. His true shooting percentage improved 4.2 percent. Nurkic’s Box Plus/Minus (BPM) jumped from 0.3 to 5.1, indicating an incredible increase in production on both ends of the court. Jusuf looked far and away the best he ever had in his career.
Barring that injury, Nurkic probably enters this season as a top 50 player in the NBA and helps form a lethal trifecta in Portland. That internally formed ‘Big Three’ would be the perfect embodiment of Blazers’ basketball, in their pursuit to defeat the league’s superteams. Instead, we’ll just have punt on the regular season and hope Nurkic makes a full recovery before playoffs begin.