FLANNERY: Like everyone else, we undersold the Blazers last season. I don't feel bad about that because no one this side of Damian Lillard thought they were going to be a second-round playoff team last season. But now I get the sense that people are overrating the Rip City crew just a tad.
Their defense was barely adequate last season and they didn't get that paint-protecting game-changer in the middle. (Sorry, Festus.) It's hard to see them taking that next step until that issue is addressed.
I still like the Blazers upside an awful lot, and you know that I'm all in on Dame. There's currently a power vacuum in the West behind Golden State that a lot of teams are scrambling to fill. Where do you have Portland in the mix?
ZILLER: It's too bad that Festus Ezeli has such a long injury history, because I do think he'd help with interior defense. The problems on that end of the court are primarily caused out on the perimeter, though: Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have a long way to go and Al-Farouq Aminu, the team's best defender, isn't quite able to consistently check small, fast guards. That's obviously a problem in the current era.
I think Portland's ensconced in the West's second tier, a damn nice place to be. The good news for them is that two other teams (Spurs, Clippers) in that zone didn't improve a ton, and one, the Thunder, got much worse. The bad news is that two or three more teams, by my count, threaten the enter that tier (Utah, Memphis, and maybe Dallas). In other words, getting a solid fourth or fifth seed is going to be much more competitive. Do you think they are appreciably better than those other teams?
FLANNERY: Not appreciably better, no. I'll add Houston to that mix and New Orleans as well. That's 10 teams and the Timberwolves are coming, maybe even the Nuggets. It would be natural for the Blazers to take a small step back as those teams get better and, in some cases, healthier. The West is going through a massive transition as those old powers fade away and I like Portland's upward trajectory. I'm not sure where I would slot them in that current mix, though.
Curious to hear your thoughts on Dame at this point in his career. He's part of a group that's a tick or two behind who we consider the super-elite at his position: Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook. The next wave includes Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, and John Wall. Where do you think he rates at this point?
ZILLER: I think Wall is his contemporary. Kyrie has a step because of his bright role in the ultimate team success. Lowry I put in his own bucket due to his age. I talked about Wall vis-à-vis Kyrie in our Cavaliers conversation. You could easily make Dame a stand-in for Kyrie there, though Lillard is a better shooter and has that magical aura of leaderdom. In other words, he's really great! I don't think he'll ever be a defender on the level of CP3 or Wall, but he can and needs to get better.
The biggest addition for Portland this summer was Evan Turner. Which allows me to pose this most important of questions to you, sir: Evan Turner, your thoughts?
FLANNERY: I thoroughly enjoyed the Evan Turner Experience last season in Boston. He's capable of some amazing stretches of basketball and he emerged as a locker room leader. He's a fantastic quote, which is nice as far as it goes, but more than that he was a calming influence and a breath of fresh air. A little quirkiness goes a long way. Obviously his deal looks like an overpay, but for the role they're asking him to play, I think he can help.
The interesting thing is they have ton of money tied up on the perimeter between Lillard, Turner, F+Z favorite Allen Crabbe, and the extension for C.J. McCollum. Even factoring in internal improvement, how do they get better in the long run?
ZILLER: It's gotta be up front. They handed Meyers Leonard $41 million. It remains to be seen whether that's because Neil Olshey and Terry Stotts believe in Leonard's upside, or whether that happened because they didn't want to lose him for nothing in free agency. But it's a sizable investment, and Leonard's only 24. Ed Davis remains criminally underrated, and I think he needs to start games next to Aminu for this team to have a shot at an above-average defense. But yeah, the perimeter looks great. Growth needs to come up front.
FLANNERY: So, what's success for these guys? Another run at a playoff spot, or have they raised the bar for themselves to an unreachable height?
ZILLER: Not making the playoffs is a failure. Anything else depends. They shouldn't have been anywhere near the second round last year and that context matters. Let us be generous!