No team in the West seemed to divide prognosticators and fans more than the Portland Trail Blazers.
Doubters have them as a seven or eight seed, if they make the playoffs at all, not trusting the backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to overcome a questionable frontcourt (one without Jusuf Nurkic for much of the season) and depth. Doubters see a team that has overachieved the past couple of seasons and will get smacked across the face by reality in a deep West.
Their backers see a team that has steadily improved year after year, which has been the three seed two seasons in a row, which won 53 games last season and made it to the Western Conference Finals. In Portland, fans see a team ready for the next step.
In a story he wrote for the Players’ Tribune, McCollum fueled the fire of those backers. He spoke of his love for Portland the city, and how this team was poised to compete with anyone in the West.
But the way we see it … [the West is] also wide open. It’s ours for the taking. I mean, if we start this season off the way we know we can, and then we get Nurk Fever back? There’s no telling where this team can go…
Our goal is to win a championship. Not to build toward it, but to make it to the NBA Finals, and win the whole thing. We’ve put the work in. We know what it takes, and we know what we have.
We have the right team, the right coach, the right mindset … and the right fans. We’ve got it all.
Nobody should want or expect McCollum to think any other way.
In Portland, the expectations are Finals or bust. Blazers fans see their team getting better every season (41 wins, then 49, then 53 and the conference finals) and expect another step. Portland has used team chemistry, good coaching, and some Lillard magic to outperform expectations for years. Why would that change?
In this West, however, the margins for error are razor thin, and missing Nurkic hurts more than most fans realize (Whiteside is not a replacement, particularly on offense). I expect Portland to be a team that makes an aggressive move at the trade deadline, likely for a power forward (Kevin Love, Danilo Gallinari, Serge Ibaka) to put them over the top. It’s a long season, but you can read it in what McCollum wrote, this is a win-now team.
And they know it.