ESPN predicts the Blazers will finish 12 games below .500 with a record of 35-47. That record places the Blazers in the fourth and final spot in the play-in group in ESPN's projections, though it's by a razor-thin margin — ESPN has the 11th-place Sacramento Kings just a game behind the 10th-place Blazers.
Andrew Lopez wrote the analysis of the four teams in the play-in group, which along with the Blazers, includes the Timberwolves, Pelicans and Lakers. Of the Blazers, Lopez writes that Portland is "looking to rebuild from an off year" and after noting the additions of Jerami Grant, Gary Payton II and rookie Shaedon Sharpe, Lopez writes that "the hope in Portland is that the moves equate to more than the 10-win jump the panel is predicting."
Is this a fair projection?
To be fair to ESPN and its panel of NBA insiders, while the win projection surely seems low to Blazers fans, it's not surprising that pundits are treating Portland with caution this offseason. The Blazers are coming off a 27-win season.
It's true that last season's win total was a product of superstar guard Damian Lillard missing the final 46 games after abdominal surgery and the team's decision to prioritize draft position over winning the second half of the season. But it's also true that the team wasn't very good before Lillard's surgery. When Lillard played his last game of the season, a 33-point loss to the Lakers on New Year's Eve, the Blazers' record was 13-22, a 30-win pace.
There is reason to be optimistic this season. Lillard, the team and the fan base expect he'll return at full strength, as good (or better?) than he was two seasons ago, when he averaged 30 points per game and finished eighth in MVP voting. And the Blazers did add some impressive talent this summer. Grant is the best power forward the team has had since LaMarcus Aldridge. And Payton is the first legitimate point-of-attack defender the Blazers have had since Nicolas Batum.
But there are many question marks. Despite optimism in Portland, there's no way to know how Lillard will perform this season until he takes the court. The Blazers are also working some new players into the rotation, and they're counting on young players like Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little to continue developing into quality starters (or better).
Like every year, Portland is reliant on Jusuf Nurkic staying healthy. Throughout his career, he's been the key to the Blazers having a league-average-or-better defense. When he plays, Portland is good on defense. When he sits, they've been terrible. The problem is the Blazers big man has missed 127 games over the past three seasons. And this season, barring another move, Portland's center depth behind Nurkic is shallow.
If Portland stays healthy, the team should win more than 35 games. If the Blazers stay healthy AND most of those question marks are answered in a positive way, Portland could win a lot more games than that. But people making preseason predictions have to weigh those question marks. The Blazers have quite a few, so it’s fair for ESPN (and Las Vegas and other pundits) to be cautious when projecting Portland's performance this season.
Also, ESPN's track record is pretty good. Over the past five seasons, ESPN has projected an average of 41 wins per season for the Blazers and Portland has averaged 41.2 wins. While the Blazers exceeded ESPN's projections by seven wins in 2017 and 11 wins in 2018, they've won fewer games than ESPN's projection two of the past three seasons.
Here's a look at ESPN's win projections for the Blazers over the past five seasons, with the Blazers' actual win total in parentheses:
- 2021: 43 (27)
- 2020: 38 (42)
- 2019: 41 (35)
- 2018: 41 (53)
- 2017: 42 (49)