PORTLAND, Ore. — Editor's note: The video above is from Media Day interviews on Monday, Sept. 31, 2019.
The first batch of NBA power rankings are starting to trickle in. ESPN and The Athletic released their first rankings of the season and both placed the Portland Trail Blazers in the Top 10.
Though a Top-10 ranking sounds nice, it's a bit of a slide for a team that made the Western Conference finals last season. The Athletic ranked six West teams — the Clippers (1), Nuggets (3), Jazz (5), Rockets (6), Lakers (7) and Warriors (8) — ahead of the Blazers. ESPN matched that number, with the Clippers (1), Lakers (4), Rockets (5), Nuggets (6), Jazz (7) and Warriors (8) ranked higher than Portland.
It's a continuation of the depressed expectations for the Blazers that we've seen from the national media all offseason. Most prognosticators have Portland either sneaking into the playoffs or missing the postseason altogether.
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On Friday, ESPN's Zach Lowe ranked NBA teams in tiers, and placed the Blazers in his group of "borderline playoff teams," alongside squads like the Chicago Bulls, Dallas Mavericks and Sacramento Kings. He acknowledged the low rankings, writing, "Yup, for the second straight year I'm doubting the Blazers. I'm a moron, obviously." He cited their "squishy" perimeter defense and "life in the West" as some of the reasons he's doubting the Blazers.
On Monday, the same day The Athletic released its power rankings, new hire John Hollinger, who invented Player Efficience Rating (PER) and worked in the Memphis Grizzlies' front office for years, predicted that the Blazers will be a lottery team, finishing 10th in the Western Conference with a 41-41 record. Hollinger said because the Blazers have three new starters and "many bench question marks," their "return to the postseason isn't assured."
Earlier in the offseason, ESPN's Kevin Pelton projected 40 wins for the Blazers, good enough for the eighth and final playoff seed. FiveThirtyEight projected 41 wins and an 11th place finish in the West for Portland.
Las Vegas is a bit more bullish on Portland, projecting 46.5 wins, though that's still just the eighth-highest win projection in the West, meaning Vegas expects Portland to barely sneak into the playoffs, too.
Portland won 53 games and finished as the third seed the past two seasons. Prior to the start of those seasons, prognosticators and odds makers projected far fewer wins and a much lower playoff seed. This team does have a lot of new faces, but it also returns its core in Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and head coach Terry Stotts. It expects to get Jusuf Nurkic back around the All-Star break. I'm not a betting man, but history indicates that the Blazers will probably exceed expectations again this season. It's just what they do.
Here's a look at how the Blazers fared in the season's first batch of power rankings.
THE ATHLETIC: BLAZERS RANK NO. 9
What they wrote: I’m not a believer in Hassan Whiteside. Admittedly, I wasn’t much of a believer in Jusuf Nurkic before the Trail Blazers traded for him, and I am happy to admit I was dead wrong about that move. However, Nurkic was just someone I didn’t think was going to develop into being good enough. Whiteside is someone we all know has talent, but his personality and priorities get in the way of him maximizing that for the team’s benefit. Miami couldn’t wait to get rid of him, and did a quiet little dance of joy when it finally unloaded him this summer.
The Whiteside factor is a lot easier to manage if you have guys like Mo Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu around to do the little things on both ends of the floor. Obviously, the Blazers couldn’t make it work with Whiteside and those two (Harkless was traded for Whiteside), but I don’t love the ways they’ll try to replace the departed forwards. Kent Bazemore came in for Evan Turner and will help quite a bit. A full season of Rodney Hood will help, although he plays smaller than a 3/4 hybrid. They’re really counting on Anthony Tolliver or Mario Hezonja to give them big, consistent, productive minutes. Maybe they think rookie Nassir Little will contribute right away. I understand why Portland did what it did this offseason, but I’m still looking to see who dominates those forward minutes. — Zach Harper
ESPN: BLAZERS RANK NO. 10
What they wrote: We got a glimpse of things in the 2019 playoffs, particularly in the Blazers' second-round series against the Nuggets during which Zach Collins became an X factor defending Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap. But as Jusuf Nurkic continues to recover and with the departures of Enes Kanter and Meyers Leonard, there's more opportunity for Collins. He needs more offensive consistency, but Collins is a savvy pick-and-roll player with elite defensive potential. — Royce Young