It’s time for our annual review of the fallen…so far three teams have been knocked out of the playoffs. Let’s take a look at each and see where the go from here:
1. Portland Trailblazers: The general perception of the Blazers is that they have really fallen from their solid playoff run of 2015-16. But not much has changed if you look at the general numbers:
-2015-16: 44-38 (expected W-L, 43-39), Offense 108.8 (6th), Defense 108.0 (20th)
-2016-17: 41-41 (expected W-L, 40-42), Offense 110.3 (11th), Defense 110.8 (24th)
The Blazers were a little worse this season but they are (and were) essentially an offense-first .500 team. But for injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the Blazers likely would’ve been one-and-done in the playoffs last year too. The Blazers desperately need more defense. Jusuf Nurkic certainly was pretty good (though not really a huge improvement over Mason Plumlee). On top of that, the Blazers have the second highest payroll in the NBA with millions invested in parts that aren’t really helpful. Allen Crabbe, Evan Turner, and Meyers Leonard were below average, Moe Harkless was solid but not cheap, and Festus Ezeli’s future is in question due to his chronic knee issues.
The Blazers have three possible paths to bust out of the .500 rut: (1) convince someone to take some of their overpaid youngsters, (2) flip Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum to achieve a bit better balance (both rated poorly defensively and both have a lot of balue), or (3) tank for a year and hope to get that impact defensive player. Of course this is all easier said than done. Few teams want any of the young overpaid players. As for trading Lillard or McCollum, the devil would be in the detail or the return. Unless the return is great, the Blazers may as well sit tight but they should, at least, be very open to exploring trades to see what the market is for either player. Finally, Portland has too much talent to tank unless Lillard or McCollum get injured. In short, Portland is looking .500ish again next year unless something unexpected happens.
2. Indiana Pacers: The Pacers are also a very average team. They were 42-40 and exactly average in offense and defense ratings and near average in pace. Unlike Portland, there are some glimmers of hope. Having Paul George locked in for a few years is a nice start and Myles Turner also looks like a potential star. The Pacers also have a good deal of cap room. Now, the Pacers have a few decisions to make.
At point guard, Jeff Teague will be a free agent and due to get a significant contract. Teague is a good-but-not-great point guard. At age-29, he isn’t going to get any better but should be solid for the next three years. This type of player could make near $20 million a season. If the Pacers think they can improve, they should pay him because it is unlikely Indiana will get anything better on the open market.
The big hole really is at shooting guard. Monta Ellis is locked in salary-wise but he was so terrible (10.0 PER, -2.3 BPM) that he killed the team. The Pacers were desparate enough that they brought back prodigal son Lance Stephenson, who played well against Cleveland (but was not so good in the regular season). Stephenson can’t really shoot, so the Pacers still have to find another body this off-season.
Despite these issues, the Pacers are not hopeless. There is a path to a four or five seed in the East and the second round. The East is not good, George is a very good player, Turner should continue to trend upwards, and Larry Bird (and Donnie Walsh) have historically done a nice job of finding value players in the draft. No titles are coming in Indiana but there is no reason that the Pacers can’t occupy Atlanta’s role of quasi-threat. I realize that isn’t a thrilling goal but it’s been four years since the Pacers won a playoff series and there is value and showing fans you can compete.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder: OKC’s season was a nice surprise fueled by Russell Westbrook’s insane stats. Putting Westbrook aside, the Thunder were a actually more of a defensively inclined group. They were pretty tough on D (10th) and had nice showings by Steven Adams and Andre Roberson. OKC was average on offense (16th) and only Russ and Enes Kanter had a positive OBPM. That means they really needed Westbrook to score to win. In fact, OKC was 14-4 when he scored more than 40 points (and 33-31 in other games).
As great as Westbrook was, it’s hard to imagine he can improve on these numbers. If anything, he may drop off. Assuming Westbrook only drops to about 85% of what he was, he is still a superstar but the Thunder might still drop to .500. It is imperative that OKC finds some more scorers but there are no obvious candidates on the roster and there is not much cap room to play with. The most likely outcome is a bit of regression for the Thunder next year.
Finally, it was flukey but it is worth pointing out how terrible Roberson’s free throw shooting was in the playoffs. Roberson somehow shot 3-21(!) from the line. In case you were wondering, that is the worse playoff foul shooting for any player with over 20 attempts:
- Andre Roberson, 2016-17: 4-21 (.190%)
- Ben Wallace, 2005-06: 18-66 (.273%)
- Lew Hitch, 1951-52: 6-21 (.286%)
- Jamaal Magloire, 2000-01: 7-23 (.304%)
- Dale Davis, 1993-94: 11-36 (.306%)
Roberson is the only player who couldn’t break 20% from the line. In addition, he is the only non-big man to struggle like this. To find another guard/wing to shoot so badly you have to go back to Paul Pressey, who somehow shot 8-20 from the line in 1982-83 (28th worst all-time).