Portland Trail Blazers: Three reasons to watch

What’s different? They added versatile forward Evan Turner from the Boston Celtics for a hefty four-year, $70 million price tag, as well as former Golden State Warriors backup center Festus Ezeli. Their only significant loss was Gerald Henderson.

C.J. McCollum: An unproven bench player with three career starts a year ago, McCollum, 24, burst onto the scene as one of the league’s top shooting guards last season and received the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award. He was compensated accordingly this summer with a four-year, $106 million extension, so now — with the spotlight on him to be the future of the franchise alongside Damian Lillard — it’s crucial that McCollum continues his ascent to All-Star status.

High-octane offense: The Blazers ranked in the top 10 last season in points scored (105.1; sixth), three-pointers made (10.5; fifth), three-pointers attempted (28.5; sixth), three-point shooting percentage (37.0%; fourth) and offensive rating (106.1; seventh). Nuff said.

No more Cinderella stories: Last year, with Lillard the only starter left from the 2014-15 season, the Blazers were deemed doomed from the get-go, projected by many to be bottom feeders in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. And those people were wrong. With Lillard playing the best basketball of his career and the emergence of McCollum and Allen Crabbe, the Blazers quickly became the surprise of the NBA, earning the fifth seed in the West and proving they could keep up with any of the NBA’s top dogs. Now, with high expectations and a lot more to lose, will they be able to pick up where they left off?

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP

(Statistics from 2015-16 season)

Damian Lillard - Points: 25.1, assists: 6.8, rebounds: 4.0, steals: 0.9, field goal percentage: 41.9%

C.J. McCollum - Points: 20.8, rebounds: 3.2, assists: 4.3, steals: 1.2, field goal percentage: 44.8%

Maurice Harkless - Points: 6.4, rebounds: 3.6, assists: 0.9, steals: 0.6, field goal percentage: 47.4%

Al-Farouq Aminu - Point: 10.2, rebounds: 6.1, assists: 1.7, steals: 0.9, field goal percentage: 41.6%

Mason Plumlee - Points: 9.1, rebounds: 7.7, assists: 2.8, blocks: 1.0, field goal percentage: 51.6%

How good can they be? With such a young and talented core group, the Blazers are here to stay. Expect them to fall into place somewhere behind the Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers.

USA TODAY’s projection: 46-36

 


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