The Portland Trail Blazers hope the 2021-22 season was just a blip.
After reaching the playoffs eight years in a row and advancing as far as the Western Conference Finals during that span, they stumbled on their way to a 27-55 record. Damian Lillard played just 29 games because of injuries, CJ McCollum was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans, and the team fell well short of expectations.
Things figure to look a bit different in 2022-23.
The Trail Blazers' biggest offseason move came when they acquired Jerami Grant in a trade with the Detroit Pistons. They also added Gary Payton II in free agency after he helped lead the Golden State Warriors to the title and took a chance on Shaedon Sharpe with the No. 7 pick in the draft even though he never played a game for Kentucky.
The end result likely won't be a title, but it isn't a stretch to suggest Portland will be fighting for a postseason spot again with a healthy Lillard leading the way.
Here is a look at some of the details for the schedule it will have to face while attempting to do so.
2022-23 Trail Blazers Schedule Details
Season Opener: Oct. 19, at Sacramento Kings, 10 p.m. ET
Championship Odds: 120-1 (FanDuel)
Full Schedule: NBA.com
Los Angeles Lakers (First game: Oct. 23)
Portland will always circle matchups with the rival Los Angeles Lakers on its schedule, and this season is no different.
While the history of playoff matchups between the two franchises and the star power that will be inside the building with LeBron James, Lillard, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook jumps out, these are important games for the Trail Blazers for more than just that context.
The Lakers are trying to do exactly what they are this season and go from missing the playoffs and play-in tournament entirely to being a factor near the top of the Western Conference standings.
Los Angeles entered the 2021-22 campaign with championship-or-bust expectations, and the word "bust" doesn't even begin to encapsulate what happened.
Westbrook was a less-than-ideal fit at best, Davis and James each dealt with injuries, and it was a struggle to remain afloat even in the play-in picture. Head coach Frank Vogel was fired after the season, and no team will be under more of a spotlight to bounce back in 2022-23 than the Purple and Gold.
From Portland's perspective, it has to leapfrog teams that made the Western Conference playoffs and worry about keeping the Lakers at bay so they don't take one of the coveted postseason spots.
There is no better way to do just that than by winning these head-to-head matchups.
New Orleans Pelicans (First game: Nov. 10)
There are some similarities between the New Orleans Pelicans and Trail Blazers this season, and they go beyond the mere presence of McCollum.
Both teams will be looking to challenge the presumed contenders atop the Western Conference standings with the return of a healthy star. Zion Williamson did not play a single game in 2021-22, but the Pelicans still managed to emerge from the play-in tournament and challenge the top-seeded Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs.
New Orleans is a candidate to take a significant leap this season with the return of Williamson, McCollum on the roster for an entire season and Brandon Ingram, 24, being firmly in the middle of his prime.
That makes this something of a measuring-stick matchup for the Trail Blazers.
While they may not be able to challenge the defending champion Golden State Warriors or some of the other top-notch contenders, figuring out a way to best other playoff threats like the Pelicans will be key if they are going to position themselves for a postseason appearance and run.
Add that to the intrigue of McCollum going up against his former team and the list of headline players who will participate in these matchups and they become appointment viewing.
They also might be playoff previews.
As it has throughout his career, Portland's outlook ultimately begins and ends with Lillard.
This offseason, the six-time All-Star agreed to a two-year extension that will keep him under contract through the 2026-27 season. It was another example of the loyalty he has shown to the only NBA team he has known, and he drove that point home when he told reporters "it wouldn't be as fulfilling to me" to win a championship elsewhere.
Unfortunately for the 32-year-old, that championship isn't going to come in 2022-23.
Even with that ceiling, there is still plenty to like about the Trail Blazers working under the assumption that their star point guard is healthy and returns to form.
Grant can be a 20-plus point scorer on a nightly basis after he averaged 22.3 in 2020-21 and 19.2 last season for the Pistons. The presence of Lillard alone should open him up for easier opportunities because opposing defenses always have to shift toward No. 0 whether the ball is in his hands or not.
Anfernee Simons is also a candidate to make an All-Star leap and help replace the lost production of McCollum after he posted a career-best 17.3 points per game with a larger role last season.
Throw in a solid group of secondary contributors in Jusuf Nurkic, Payton, Josh Hart and Justise Winslow, and Portland has a formidable core regardless of whether Sharpe needs some time to develop during his rookie season after not playing in a collegiate game.
While there still isn't enough talent to match up with the elite teams in the Western Conference, there are enough pieces in place around a healthy Lillard for the Trail Blazers to return to the playoffs.
Record Prediction: 43-39
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