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Northwest Division preview: Will the Portland Trail Blazers challenge for OKC’s crown?

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Entering a new season, the Portland Trail Blazers venture to build upon surprise success from a year ago.

Can Portland dethrone OKC as Northwest Divsion Champion?

WTLC continues our preview of the Northwest Division teams. Following Minnesota yesterday, today is the Portland Trail Blazers.

Following a stunning post-season run, great expectations lay heavy upon Portland’s shoulders. The Trail Blazers’ precipitous 15’-16’ turnaround was highlighted by a first-round upset of the Los Angeles Clippers and ensuing fire-fight with Western Conference Champion Golden State.

However, amid a summer of unprecedented league wide free-agency moves, the upstart Blazers achieved little more than replenishing their coffers — at a premium.

This off-season, Portland retained incumbents C.J. McCollum, Allan Crabbe, and Meyers Leonard, to the tune of $222 million over four years. To enhance this collection, Rip-City acquired veterans Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli, along with second-year guard Shabazz Napier.

In an evolving Northwest Division, will General Manager Neil Olshey's disputed off-season strategy thrust the Blazers atop the division's crest? If not, many Portlanders will decry their team’s lavish payroll.

2015/16 Record

44-38 (.537), 5th in the Western Conference

Offensive Rating

106.1 (7th in NBA)

Defensive Rating

105.6 (21st in NBA)

Net Rating

+0.6 (13th in NBA)

Departures

Gerald Henderson (Philadelphia, Free Agency), Brian Roberts (New Orleans, Free Agency), Cliff Alexander (Waived)

Arrivals

Evan Turner (Free Agent), Festus Ezeli (Free Agent), Greg Stiemsma (Free Agent), Shabazz Napier (Trade), Grant Jerrett (Free Agent), Jake Layman (Rookie), Tim Quarterman (Rookie)

Retained Free Agents

C.J. McCollum (Four years, $106 million), Meyers Leonard (Four Years, $41 million), Allen Crabbe (Four years, $75 million)

Projected Starting Lineup

(C) Mason Plumlee, (PF) Ed Davis (SF) Al-Farouq Aminu, (SG) C.J. McCollum (PG) Damian Lillard

2016-2017 Salaries

$119,595,973 (1st in NBA)

X-Factors

Front-court offensive production and overall team defense. While Portland sports an elite offensive back-court tandem of Damian Lillard (25.1 points) and C.J. McCollum (20.8 points), the team’s top-five returning front-court players contributed a meager total of 35.8 ppg last season.

Perhaps if a front-line offensive option emerged for the Blazers, both Lillard (-2.2 DBPM) and McCollum (-2.0 DBPM) could exert more energy toward securing perimeter stops.

Among Portland players to log 1,000 minutes last season, Damian Lillard’s defensive rating of 107.3 was a team worst. Overall, Lillard’s porous defense allowed opponents to shoot 2% above their usual field-goal percentage.

As the league’s 21st ranked defense, in a three-point oriented league, Portland was fifth-worst at guarding their opponents’ three-point attempts (37.1%). Furthermore, the Blazers exhibited faulty defensive mechanics in placing their opposition on the free-throw line 26 times per game (3rd worst).

If the Trail Blazers are to take the next step, defensive improvement is imperative.

Projected Performance & Team Record

43-39, 3rd in the Northwest Division. While it’s easy to envision a performance decline from a team comprised of young core players who recently signed lucrative contracts, the 16’-17’ Trail Blazers should still approach last year’s win total.

The main reason for such optimism: Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum’s combined scoring average (45.9 ppg). Among starting NBA backcourts, only the vaunted Splash Brothers score at a higher clip.

Another key factor in Portland’s Northwest Division title hopes is the emergence of Al-Farouq Aminu. During last season’s playoffs Aminu upped his averages to 14.6 points and 8.6 rebounds, with a defensive box plus/minus of -plus 2.3, and a shooting line of 43/40/72.

It’s also worthy to note that Portland amassed a record of 34-20 from Jan. 10 through their final playoff game.

And what a playoff game that was.

How will the Thunder fare against them?

Last season, with Kevin Durant, the Thunder split its series with Portland 2-2. Each team prevailed at home. It will come as no comfort to Thunder Nation that Damian Lillard outscored Russell Westbrook in the duo’s three head-to-head 15’-16’ meetings.

Even less comforting is the fact Kevin Durant led OKC in scoring against pesky Portland.

The teams’ first 16’-17’ meeting occurs Tuesday, Dec. 13 from the Moda Center in Portland. OKC hosts Portland Sunday, Feb. 5 from Chesapeake Energy Arena.

In total, this season, the Northwest Division foes face each other four times. Due to Portland’s potent backcourt, a 2-2 split would serve as a reasonable estimation of this season-series’ outcome.

Be sure to check out SB Nation's great Portland Trail Blazers site Blazer’s Edge to get the best coverage and community for Portland fans.