51 Questions in 51 Days. PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:
WHICH TEAM WILL TAKE THE BIGGEST STEP BACK THIS SEASON?
Kurt Helin: Portland Trail Blazers
Portland is the clear and obvious choice — they lost or traded LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, and Nicolas Batum. That’s four starters out the door (plus guys like Arron Afflalo), and the guys they brought in are not of the same quality — many are not good jump shooters. When Aldridge chose to take his talents to San Antonio, the Blazers wisely decided to rebuild — and it’s a lot easier to rebuild when you start with a piece like Damian Lillard. But it’s going to be a process, at times a painful one. What they do offensively now must change — they loved the pick-and-pop with Aldridge, but now their big guys can’t shoot with range, so they are going to roll and that will draw defenders into the paint, meaning things will get clogged. It’s going to be a rough season in Portland.
One team that will push Portland for the crown? The Atlanta Hawks. They won 60 games last season and I expect a healthy step back for a few reasons: 1) They weren’t as good as their record last year, they had the point differential of a 56-win team; 2) They are going to miss DeMarre Carroll on the wing, especially with Thabo Sefolosha still trying to come back from injury; 3) Last season in the regular season they were fortunate to be largely healthy, odds say they will not be that lucky again. The Hawks are still a quality playoff team, they made some quality pickups in the offseason such as Tiago Splitter, but they will fall back to reality this season.
Dan Feldman: Portland Trail Blazers
Portland — largely by design, once LaMarcus Aldridge left — has chosen to take a step back. And it should be a large step. The Trail Blazers SLUMPED to a 51-31 finish last season. When everyone was healthy, they at least belonged in the championship-contender conversation. Now, it’d be a minor miracle if they won 51 games, let alone seriously enter the playoff race. They let Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo walk in free agency, and they traded Nicolas Batum. That’s just too much attrition from a team that values continuity, especially when the replacements are so young and unproven. I like what the Trail Blazers are doing. I just don’t expect them to win much this season.
Sean Highkin: Boston Celtics
Boston was the surprise of the second half of last season, going 20-11 after the All-Star break and sneaking into the playoffs as the seventh seed. It’s to Brad Stevens’ enormous credit that this roster of mostly spare parts played as well as it did down the stretch. And none of the moves they made this summer were bad, per se — it’s just hard to see where they got definitively better, at least to the point where they can definitely be penciled in as a definite playoff team. They re-signed Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko to good value contracts and signed Amir Johnson to fortify the paint, but they still lack an identity beyond “scrappy overachievers.” They have four point guards now, and none of them (save for maybe Marcus Smart) are the clear long-term answer. Danny Ainge is still waiting for the day when the years of asset collecting translate into a star. It’s certainly not anybody on this roster, which is full of players who are the fourth or fifth-best player on a good team. Boston should be right around where they were last season: in the mix for one of the final playoff spots in the East, but without a clear path forward.