The Portland Trail Blazers have been in the Western Conference mix for the past few seasons, but as the 2015-16 campaign draws closer, there is less optimism than usual with regard to Rip City's chances of contending.
Despite the obvious challenges that await the Blazers, their most ardent fans likely found a way to get excited Wednesday, as the schedule for the upcoming regular season was officially released, as seen here, courtesy of NBA.com.
This offseason has been a tough one for Portland, to say the least, as it lost a number of top contributors through free agency and trades, including LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez and Nicolas Batum.
Superstar guard Damian Lillard is the last man standing, which is likely why Portland is only a 100-1 long shot to win the 2016 NBA title, according to Odds Shark, although that may be a bit generous considering how ravaged the Blazers roster is.
With that said, Portland will have a chance to prove that its new-look roster is comparable to the previous one even without the services of some talented players.
Here is a look at some of the Blazers' most highly anticipated matchups entering the season, as well as predictions for how their year will play out.
Analyzing Top Matchups
San Antonio Spurs vs. Blazers
Date: Wednesday, Nov. 11 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Aldridge has been among the best power forwards in the game since the Chicago Bulls selected him with the No. 2 overall selection in the 2006 NBA draft and traded him to Portland shortly after, but Blazers fans will no longer get to enjoy the skill set of the four-time All-Star on a regular basis.
The 30-year-old big man had his pick of the litter in free agency, and rather than continuing to build toward something special in Portland, he decided to chase a title by signing with the San Antonio Spurs.
Some have speculated that deeply rooted issues between Aldridge and Lillard caused the former University of Texas standout to leave town, but Aldridge insisted to ESPN Radio's The Russillo Show there was never a problem with regard to their dynamic, per Sacha Pisani of NBA Australia:
We have no issue with each other, no animosity.
We got along very well during the season. I thought we played well off of each other. So, all of that stuff is just rumours that I've dealt with before. Me leaving had nothing to do with any of that.
It was just me feeling like being close to home, by my family, being able to see them more and just a change of scenery. I had been in Portland for nine years. I had been through a couple of rebuilds. So it was just time to try something new. It wasn't anything toward Damian or the organisation.
Despite Aldridge's claim that he left Portland on fairly good terms, he is aware that the reception at the Moda Center is likely to be icy at best, according to ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright.
"I think going back [to Portland] my first time might be boos because I think people are really hurt by my decision," he said. "They don't understand why I left. So I think my first game back, I probably will be booed."
Some may view such a reaction as petty, but Aaron J. Fentress of CSNNW.com understands it considering the position Aldridge has left the Blazers in:
He averaged over 23 points and 10 rebounds per game last season, and Portland won't be able to replace that production despite bringing in the likes of Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis.
Those close to the Blazers organization have every right to be upset, and they'll let Aldridge know about it when he returns.
Charlotte Hornets vs. Blazers
Date: Friday, Jan. 29, 2016 at 10 p.m. ET
Many criticized the Blazers when they traded Batum to the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh because it was viewed as the beginning of the rebuilding process. While that may be true, it could prove to be a big win for Portland.
Not only did the Trail Blazers move a player who likely would have departed the following offseason, but they received a comparable player in Henderson and a prospect oozing with potential in Vonleh.
Following the deal, Hornets general manager Rich Cho couldn't have been happier to have landed a player of Batum's caliber, according to ESPN.com.
"He provides a three-point shooting threat and he's good versatile defender who can guard multiple positions," Cho said. "He has been in the league for seven years, so he gives us experience. But yet he is still in his prime. He is going to be a great addition to this team."
The Frenchman had a down year in 2014-15, as he averaged just 9.4 points per game, although he was limited by injuries. He previously showed the ability to be far more productive in prior years.
He became a fan favorite in Portland, but unlike Aldridge, there almost won't be a negative response when he returns. Blazers management decided to move him, whereas Aldridge made a conscious decision to leave.
The demeanor of Blazers fans will also be positive if Henderson or Vonleh (or both) ends up being a solid contributor. Vonleh is particularly intriguing since he was the No. 9 overall selection in last year's draft.
He appeared in only 25 games, but Jonathan Tjarks of RealGM seems to believe Charlotte may have given up on him too soon:
Vonleh's excellent performance in the summer league bolstered that notion, although he still has to show that he can get the job done when the games truly count.
Both the Blazers and Hornets took a leap of faith when they made the trade, and it should make for an interesting clash when Charlotte makes the trip to Portland.
Even the slightest reduction in talent can prove catastrophic in the competitive Western Conference, so considering what the Blazers lost this offseason, it is unrealistic to expect them to return to the playoffs.
Portland went 51-31 last season, which was good enough for fourth place in the conference. Losing the services of Aldridge alone figures to knock the Blazers out of the top eight, and adding the likes of Matthews, Lopez and Batum to that list could put them near the basement.
Not surprisingly, Blazers general manager Neil Olshey has attempted to frame the team's offseason positively. Following last season's first-round exit, he claimed sweeping changes needed to be made, according to Casey Holdahl of the team's official website:
Portland also brought in a number of new additions, including Plumlee, Davis, Henderson, Vonleh, Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless.
Olshey believes those players will mesh well with the team's cornerstone star in Lillard, per Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders:
While the Blazers do have some depth, their top-flight talent has been depleted. Lillard is the only sure thing on the roster, but he is in a tough spot since he'll have to shoulder essentially all of the scoring load without a viable No. 2 offensive option on the roster.
In a conference that boasts legitimate title contenders such as the Golden State Warriors, Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder, along with several other quality teams as well, the Blazers are in for a rapid fall from grace.
Lillard alone will be enough to keep them competitive on many occasions, but the overall result certainly won't be what Trail Blazers fans have grown accustomed to in recent years.
Projected record: 32-50
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