Trail Blazers Questions: Can They Exceed Expectations (Again)?

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PORTLAND, OR – APRIL 23: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers reacts to shooting a … [+]

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The Portland Trail Blazers are about to officially go back to work with training camp starting Tuesday. Ahead of Monday’s media session that will serve as the kickoff for the 2019-20 season, we’ll ponder a few questions that face the 50 th anniversary version of the team. Today we ponder:

Can the Blazers exceed expectations (again)?

The off-season roster churn in the NBA has dramatically changed the league, especially the Western Conference. Through blockbuster trades and free agent signings, the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets have added All-Star or All-Star caliber players.

Where does that leave the Blazers, one season after reaching the Western Conference Finals? If we are to believe the national reaction – in power rankings, predictions and all the other guessing gimmicks that make up so much of sports coverage these days – the Blazers are back in a familiar position as an afterthought as a title contender.

The data-driven NBA predictions of the fivethirtyeight.com website gives the Blazers a 33 percent chance – not of winning a championship, getting to the NBA Finals, getting to the conference finals or even just winning a playoff series. Nope, the site’s formula gives Portland 33 percent chance of just making the playoffs.

The Blazers’ odds of makings the NBA Finals according to the site: 1 percent. Of winning a title? So low, there is no number. The site predicts Portland will finish 40-42 in the regular season.

In some ways that is understandable as fivethirtyeight.com is based on existing numbers to form predictions, with no real human element – that is, guessing by “experts” based on potential and chemistry and other immeasurable qualities. Existing, consistent numbers for such players as Zach Collins, Anfernee Simons and Mario Hezonja – who could all play big roles for the Blazers – just don’t exist.

The gambling sites are a little more optimistic, with a compilation of betting odds on actionnetwork.com showing five sites predicting the Blazers getting between 45.5 and 47.5 wins.

Most of the post-free agency power rankings have the Blazers out of the top four in the Western Conference. ESPN had Portland eighth in the league, but fifth among West teams. NBA.com’s John Schuhmann had the Blazers seventh among West teams, as did BleacherReport.com.

The Blazers themselves? As we’ll likely see at media day Monday, they’ll probably shrug off the lowered expectations as simple business as usual. The current iteration led by Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and coach Terry Stotts has regularly outperformed predications. Last seson, for example, ESPN.com predicted Portland would finish 43-39 and in 10 th place in the West, meaning out of the playoffs. The Blazers, of course, finished 10 wins better.

The Blazers’ recent culture has had a strong underdog mentality to it, with Lillard and McCollum proudly wearing the mid-major college chip on their shoulders, something newcomer Kent Bazemore, who was an undrafted player out of Old Dominion, referenced when he was introduced after joining Portland via trade from Atlanta.

“I think we all have that chip,” he said.

The Blazers also are full of players looking for a chance to resurrect their careers in the way Seth Curry did with them last season. Hezonja, center Jusuf Nurkic and even Rodney Hood had up-and-down stints with other teams, but under Stotts – who has a remarkable touch in getting the best out of his players – could find, or have found, a comfortable fit in Portland.

Add in players who develop into major contributors after being drafted and developed by the Blazers – with Collins and Simons figuring to fit that bill this season – and you have an alternate approach to shelling out for All-Star free agents or mortgaging the future in a trade.

It’s an approach that doesn’t register in data predictions or in the minds of “experts,” but it’s one that has been able to defy expectations.