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3-on-3 Blazers: Where does Portland rank in the new Wild West?

After five consecutive NBA Finals appearances, the Warriors look mortal again, and there's no shortage of teams looking to take on the mantle of West supremacy.
Credit: Steve Dykes
Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum, left, and guard Damian Lillard.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Western Conference is wide open for the first time in years.

After five consecutive NBA Finals appearances, the Golden State Warriors look mortal again. They lost Kevin Durant in free agency, traded away Andre Iguodala, and will be playing most of the season without an injured Klay Thompson. With the Warriors diminished, there's no shortage of teams looking to take on the mantle of Western Conference supremacy.

It starts in Los Angeles, where Anthony Davis joined LeBron James and the Lakers, and Kawhi Leonard and Paul George teamed up on the Clippers.

The Jazz added Mike Conley. The Nuggets, Rockets, and Spurs, all playoff teams last season, will count on improvement via continuity and the progression of young talent. Up-and-coming teams like the Kings, Mavericks, Pelicans, Grizzlies, and Timberwolves are knocking on the door. And the Warriors, who added DeAngelo Russell, remain formidable.

Where does that leave the Blazers? Portland shuffled the deck this offseason, retaining its core in Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, while saying goodbye to three starters and two key reserves that helped last season's team reach the Western Conference finals.

Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons seem primed to accept increased roles with the team, and Portland has welcomed new players Hassan Whiteside, Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja, Anthony Tolliver and rookie Nassir Little. Will all the changes help lead Portland to new heights, or will the Blazers take a step back?

On this week's episode of the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast, we discuss where the Trail Blazers rank in the revamped Western Conference, what Portland needs to reach championship contender status, and debate how much of an impact Anfernee Simons will have this coming season.

LISTEN: 3-on-3 Blazers: Where does Portland rank in the Wild West?

Listen to the most recent episode of KGW's 3-on-3 Blazers podcast!

1. After the dust has (mostly) settled from a wild free agency season, how does the West stack up, from 1-8? And where do the Blazers rank?

Orlando: As soon as the Woj Bomb dropped and we found out Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were joining forces in LA, this is where my thoughts immediately went. Unlike the past few years, where it was the Warriors then everyone else, there are 5-7 teams you can make a legitimate case for winning the West right now. Most oddsmakers put the Clippers and Lakers on top of the conference, with the Clippers sporting the best odds to win the NBA Finals. I'm OK if you have those teams first or second in either order, but I don’t think there’s that much of a disparity between them and teams like the Warriors, Nuggets, Rockets, and Jazz. What’s funny is seeing the Blazers mentioned after those teams in the majority of discussions outside of Portland. It's the same old story and that’s gone well for the Blazers over the past few years. I expect them to be in the mix; I can see them finishing the regular season with the 3 seed again or even higher, but they could also be fighting for a 6 or 7 seed if they get out to a slow start with all the new additions and subtractions to the roster. This is going to be fun and I’m looking forward to it. It's too early for this, but here we go. Assuming everyone is healthy by the end of the season, this is how I would rank teams to win the West as of July 11, 2019:

  1. Warriors
  2. Lakers
  3. Clippers
  4. Nuggets
  5. Blazers
  6. Rockets
  7. Jazz
  8. Spurs

Jared: The Western Conference is deep and talented, but every one of the teams at the top has question marks and flaws. The Clippers are scary, with a superstar duo and depth, but there will always be health questions with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Lakers have Anthony Davis and LeBron James, but James is getting older and Davis was injury prone earlier in his career. There's also uncertainty about the quality of the roster around them. The Jazz look better, but they still lack a superstar who can take over when it matters. The Rockets are talented, for sure, but Chris Paul isn't getting any younger, and chemistry issues abound. The Nuggets are young, talented, and deep. But they also seem to be near the league leaders in games missed to injury each season. The Blazers are great, but there are doubts about how the new players will fit in and when and how Jusuf Nurkic will return. Trying to rank so many evenly matched teams is basically just throwing darts at a board right now, but here's my best guess:

  1. Clippers
  2. Jazz
  3. Nuggets
  4. Lakers
  5. Blazers
  6. Rockets
  7. Warriors
  8. Spurs

Nate: What a wild ride it's been this offseason. We've talked the past couple seasons about the Western Conference being stacked but I think it will be even more difficult to navigate through next season. While the conference isn’t as top-heavy, I think it's deeper than we've seen the past few seasons. But here's my list:

  1. Clippers
  2. Warriors
  3. Lakers
  4. Jazz
  5. Nuggets
  6. Blazers
  7. Rockets
  8. Spurs

Yes, I’m on the Los Angeles Clippers' bandwagon. They've got talent, lock-down defenders and depth. I'm still not ready to proclaim Golden State's run over so I’ve got them ranked second. The Lakers are 3 but I am concerned about how all the new pieces mesh together. I ranked the Jazz and Nuggets ahead of the Blazers because I have less questions about their rosters than I do the Blazers. Ranking the Blazers sixth is not a knock on the talent of this team or the job general manager Neil Olshey has done this offseason. The gap between 3 and 6 is very slim to me.

2. The Blazers have finished as the third seed the past two seasons. If you didn't rank them in your Top 3 in the West right now, why not? And what would it take for them to move into the top 3 (or higher)?

Jared: Several things need to happen. The Blazers need most of their question marks to resolve themselves in positive ways. They need Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons to continue to progress and play well in their expanded roles. They need Hassan Whiteside to excel on the court and be a positive presence in the locker room. They need Rodney Hood and Kent Bazemore to fill their roles effectively as 3-and-D wings. They need to find depth at power forward and center, either through the players they already have (Anthony Tolliver, Mario Hezonja, Skal Labissiere) or through adding players via free agency or trade. They need Jusuf Nurkic to come back healthy and play as well as he did last season. I think it's very possible all of those things happen. If they do, Portland is as good or better than last season. But if the Blazers want to take it even further than that and be an NBA Finals contender, they need an All-Star caliber forward. That needs to happen either through internal development (Collins), or the more likely scenario, through the acquisition of such a player at the trade deadline.

RELATED: Spotted in downtown Portland: Hassan Whiteside yelling 'Rip City!' and handing out Voodoo Doughnuts

Nate: I didn’t have the Blazers ranked in the top 3 because I have concerns about the frontcourt and their depth. As I said last week, I think the duo of Whiteside and Collins has the potential to be an upgrade for the Blazers, but I need to see both players live up to their potential before calling it an upgrade. As the roster is currently constructed, the Blazers appear to be relying on unproven players to fill minutes off the bench, namely Anfernee Simons, Mario Hezonja and perhaps even Skal Labissiere. So, that's why they weren’t in my top 3. But it wouldn't take much for them to rise to that level. I'm high on Simons and think he will provide scoring on the Blazers' bench. And if Collins and Whiteside live up to their potential, the Blazers should have a dominant starting five. Those two things coupled with an injury or another top team not meshing could land the Blazers in the top 3. As I said in my first answer, the margin is slim.

Orlando: The Blazers have a seat at the table. They’ve gotten a taste of what it's like to make a deep playoff run. That type of experience matters. They were able to improve the roster and address some needs, but I think there will be some growing pains with seven players gone from a season ago. I expect the race in the West to be tight and they could be playing catch-up. For them to move into the Top 3, Jusuf Nurkic has to be healthy and be the player he was before he got hurt. That alone puts them in the discussion. If they don’t end up with another star player on this roster, depth will be a concern. Portland has to get reliable and consistent production from Zach Collins. He has to take that next step as a starter in this league. It wouldn’t hurt to have Anfernee Simons develop quicker than expected either.

3. In three summer-league games, Anfernee Simons has scored 66 points in 79 minutes, making 24 of 43 field goals (55.8%), including 11 of 17 3 pointers (64.7%). How much do you think the Blazers can rely on Simons next season?

Nate: I'm as confident as you can be for a player who hasn't played meaningful NBA minutes against regular rotation players (yes, I understand that’s a lot of hedging). Neil Olshey, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have all praised Simons' skill and talked about how bright his future is. I’m going to trust that if they feel he should get minutes right now, then he's ready to step in and produce off the bench. I think he has a feel for the game offensively and will be able to get buckets. How he performs on defense and running the offense will have to be seen. There will be ups and downs as there are with any young player getting their first dose of regular playing time. But I think it's realistic that Simons could be a regular backup guard and average 7 points and a couple assists per game.

RELATED: Anfernee Simons scores 35 points, suffers ankle injury in Blazers Summer League loss

Orlando: It’s hard not to get caught up in the Summer League hype when Rip City’s heir to the PG throne lights it up in Vegas. He continues to show promise and seeing those ridiculous numbers helps back up what the Blazers have been saying about Anfernee Simons all along. I think he’s got the potential to be a star and the future of this team, but I also feel like it’s going to take some time before we see him do it on a regular basis when the games matter. I think he’ll have his moments this season where he helps the Blazers win, but I’m not banking on him being a consistent threat off the bench this season. He’s going to get there, eventually. He’s got all the tools and he’s got one of the best in the business to learn from. He’ll get playing time this year, but I would pump the brakes a little on what to expect out of him this season as he develops.

Jared: I think Simons is ready to play 20 minutes per game right now as a scorer off the bench. I think he has the tools on offense to get to his spots and make shots against NBA defenders. I'm a little less certain about the other parts of his game, especially playmaking. Simons had 9 assists in his stunning performance against the Kings at the end of the regular season, but prior to that, he had only four assists in 93 regular-season minutes, and had zero assists in 12 minutes in the playoffs. In summer league, he has just five assists and 12 turnovers in 79 minutes. I don't think Portland can rely on Simons to run the second-unit offense yet. I think he needs to play off the ball. If Terry Stotts goes back to staggering the minutes of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, I think it can work with Simons. Whenever either of those players are on the court with Simons, they run the offense and Simons plays off the ball. I still think the Blazers would do well to find a veteran point guard who can mentor Simons, and fill in and play backup minutes if necessary.



Jared Cowley is a digital media producer who writes about the Blazers and other topics for KGW.com. Jared has written about the Jazz and Warriors as a sports editor at two daily newspapers.

Nate Hanson is a digital producer who contributes to KGW.com’s coverage of the Blazers, Ducks, Beavers and high school sports.

Orlando Sanchez is the sports anchor and reporter for KGW News, Sports Sunday and Friday Night Flights. Orlando has covered multiple NBA Finals, NCAA Basketball Tournaments and World Series.