On the surface, it would appear this offseason brought little to no help to the Trail Blazers amid the NBA’s whirlwind summer of blockbuster trades and free agent acquisitions.
Aside from a salary-cap motivated move of Allen Crabbe to Brooklyn, and the drafting of 19-year-old center Zach Collins and Purdue big man Caleb Swanigan, the Blazers are largely the same group that went 41-41 and finished eighth in the Western Conference.
The Las Vegas betting line on Trail Blazers wins for the 2017-2018 season is 42.5 games, which would place them eighth in the West:
1. Golden State (67.5)
2. Houston (55.5)
3. San Antonio (54.5)
4. Oklahoma City (51.5)
5. Minnesota (48.5)
6. Denver (45.5)
7. LA Clippers (44.5)
8. Portland (42.5)
Of course, Las Vegas has been wrong before about the Blazers (remember 2015-2016 when the Blazers won 44 games after Vegas set the line at 26.5?), and it’s easy to get swept up in the headlines from an offseason that saw Chris Paul move to Houston, Paul George to Oklahoma City, Jimmy Butler to Minnesota and Paul Millsap to Denver.
But behind the sexy headlines and tumultuous turnover, the Blazers have been doing what has become a hallmark of this franchise: relying on improvement from within.
With that in mind, CSN this week will unveil five reasons the Blazers this season could exceed 42 wins and be better than people think:
Today: A full season of a more fit Jusuf Nurkic.
Monday: A healthy Ed Davis.
When it comes to explaining why center Jusuf Nurkic should be an object of optimism for the Trail Blazers’ season, pictures are more powerful than words.
When the Bosnian 7-footer arrived in Portland last February, he was 309 pounds, unconditioned and mostly, unknown.
Today, one week from the start of Trail Blazers training camp, Nurkic is 275 pounds, fit, and one of the centerpieces of a team that has once again adopted an attitude of proving naysayers wrong.
Through a series of offseason workouts that were closely monitored by the team, Nurkic not only shed 34 pounds, he became more agile. In the process, the lost weight should take pressure off his lower extremities, which became a concern last season after he suffered a non-displaced fracture in his right fibula that kept him out of the season’s final seven games and all but one of the Blazers’ four playoff games.
Nurkic this month has been playing full court pickup games and is expected to have no medical obstacles or restraints when training camp starts on Sept. 26.
The prospects of what a slimmer, more fit Nurkic can accomplish is one of the reasons the Blazers could be better than Las Vegas, for one, has projected.
In 20 games after Nurkic was traded from Denver along with a first-round pick for Mason Plumlee, he averaged 15.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists.
More importantly, the Blazers went 14-6 in those 20 games, prompting a late-season surge into the playoffs.
And much of the noise during that run was made by Nurkic. If he wasn’t hitting big fourth-quarter shots at Oklahoma City, he was coming through in the clutch at San Antonio. And if he wasn’t dazzling with a rolling hook, he was delighting with a nifty inside pass. And when it seemed like he couldn’t have a bigger game than against Philadelphia, when he had 28 points, 20 rebounds and eight assists, he went and burned his former team in a crucial March game with 33 points and 15 rebounds.
He was so good that “Nurkic Fever” became a craze, memorialized on t-shirts and signs.
Can it get better?
Word is, his new physique has afforded him even more agility, which he has utilized to expand his offensive arsenal, which now includes step-back jumpers and more spin moves.
And now, with a full training camp and the familiarity of what is almost the same roster returning, it seems reasonable to expect bigger and better things out of the 23-year-old center.