2013-2014 Trail Blazers Season Preview
Around this time last year, the Portland Trail Blazers were in a state of flux. They had just parted ways with Gerald Wallace, Marcus Camby, Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford, Greg Oden and Nate McMillan, and were preparing to rebuild. It wasn’t long ago that the future of the franchise was up in the air, but now it looks as if Portland’s rebuilding process will be relatively short thanks to the emergence of point guard Damian Lillard, continued dominance of power forward LaMarcus Aldridge and excellent work of general manager Neil Olshey. Lillard and Aldridge are Portland’s cornerstones, and Olshey surrounded them with more talent this offseason by acquiring C.J. McCollum, Robin Lopez, Dorrell Wright, Earl Watson and Thomas Robinson among others. The Blazers certainly seem to be heading in the right direction.
- Alex Kennedy
In & Out
Additions: C.J. McCollum, Robin Lopez, Dorell Wright, Mo Williams, Thomas Robinson, Allen Crabbe, Earl Watson
Subtractions: J.J. Hickson, Eric Maynor, Jared Jeffries, Luke Babbitt, Nolan Smith
Five Guys Think…
Last season, Portland had arguably the worst bench rotation in the entire NBA, which is very likely why the LaMarcus Aldridge trade rumors swirled so furiously at the start of the summer. After a very productive offseason in which that bench was completely restocked, however, Aldridge appears to be back on board for another go-round with a young team that all of a sudden looks pretty formidable. The starting lineup is still strong thanks to Aldridge, Nic Batum, and last season’s Rookie of the Year, Damian Lillard. They’ve even got a real starting center now in Robin Lopez, but it’s that brand new bench consisting of Mo Williams, Earl Watson, Thomas Robinson, C.J. McCollum, Dorell Wright, and Meyers Leonard that is going to put them back in playoff contention.
2nd place – Northwest Division
– Joel Brigham
Last season, LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum had to do everything for the Blazers. After those three, there was a significant drop-off in talent. Terry Stotts tried to get around this by playing his stars as many minutes as their bodies could handle, but it was clear that Portland needed some role players around their three core pieces. This offseason, Neil Olshey did a great job of surrounding his core with talent, bringing in C.J. McCollum, Dorell Wright, Robin Lopez, Mo Williams, Thomas Robinson, Earl Watson and Allen Crabbe among others. Portland’s second unit may have been their biggest weakness last year, but now it’s arguably one of their biggest strengths. With an improved supporting cast, a year of experience together for Lillard, Batum and Aldridge, and the internal development that’s expected from a team that relies so heavily on young pieces, it’s not hard to imagine the Blazers sneaking into the playoffs as one of the final seeds in the Western Conference.
4th place – Northwest Division
- Alex Kennedy
Damian Lillard burst on the scene last season and surprisingly, to many, garnered Rookie of the Year honors. But despite how good Lillard was as a rookie the team’s lack of bench depth was ultimately the reason for their late season collapse. The Blazers spent the offseason shoring up their second unit and did a very solid job improving the overall talent level. Portland added Mo Williams, C.J. McCollum, Robin Lopez, Earl Watson, Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson. Even with the new additions, the wildcard for the 2013-14 campaign is the status of two-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge with the franchise. Rumors swirled throughout the offseason centering around Aldridge desiring a trade. The forward has publicly denied those reports and says he’s committed to Portland. With that being said, it’s still a situation worth watching. With Aldridge onboard Portland should be in the hunt for a playoff spot. Without him they may have to endure another lottery bound season.
4th place – Northwest Division
- Lang Greene
The Trail Blazers have a strong case for the number two spot in the Northwest Division. Rather than using most of the team’s cap space on a big name free agent, general manager Neil Olshey split it up to address every need they had. After it already looked like he had a stellar offseason with the drafting of C.J. McCollum, trades for Thomas Robinson and Robin Lopez and the signing of Dorrell Wright, he landed one of the best bargains of the of summer in former All-Star Mo Williams. LaMarcus Aldridge has dismissed rumors that he wants a trade, but has voiced frustration over not making the playoffs. Winning cures all woes, though, and this Blazers team looks poised to crack the top eight in the Western Conference thanks to Olshey’s offseason moves and Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard proving to be an immediate star.
3rd place – Northwest Division
- Yannis Koutroupis
The word is out that LaMarcus Aldridge has grown weary of the recent losing ways of the proud Portland franchise. With a contract that expires after the 2014-15 season, the front office has some additional pressure to make some positive movement. With reigning Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard and a talented team that also features Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum, the Trailblazers have surrounded those four with what many believe is one of the most talented benches in the entire league. The Blazers were in the right place at the right time and ended up acquiring Thomas Robinson for cents on the dollar. Mo Williams has been one of the best three-point shooting point guards in the league over the past five years and Robin Lopez provides them with some much needed girth on the interior. For sure, the Blazers have gotten much better, but so have many of the conference’s other teams. If things break right, they should make a return to the playoffs this year, but not even that is a guarantee.
3rd place — Northwest Division
- Moke Hamilton
Top Of The List
Top Offensive Player: LaMarcus Aldridge. There is a case to be made for Lillard as Portland’s best offensive weapon, since he averaged 19 points and 6.5 assists last year. However, Aldridge was the Blazers’ leading scorer with 21.1 points per game on 48.4 percent shooting from the field. The 28-year-old has averaged over 21 points in each of the last three seasons and has been incredibly consistent. He was Portland’s lone All-Star over the last two seasons, and remains their top offensive threat.
Top Defensive Player: Nicolas Batum. The 24-year-old was the only player on Portland’s roster to average at least one steal and one block, and he nearly led the Blazers in both statistical categories. Batum finished the season averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks, which were both career-highs for the fifth-year player. Even as Batum’s role on offense has increased in recent years, he still remains a solid defender thanks to his ability to guard multiple positions, high motor and 7’4 wingspan.
Top Playmaker: Damian Lillard. While Lillard is a shoot-first point guard, he’s also a solid playmaker. Last season, Lillard showed that he could proficiently run an NBA offense and excel as a facilitator when surrounded by talented professionals as opposed to his Weber State teammates. Lillard averaged 6.5 assists, and that number will likely increase this season since he’ll have more weapons on offense with the additions of McCollum and Wright among others. Part of the reason that Lillard slipped to Portland in last year’s draft was because teams doubting his playmaking skills, but he showed that he can run an offense and make his teammates better as a rookie.
Top Clutch Player: Damian Lillard. Lillard’s game-winning three-point shot against New Orleans in December of last year was one of the most memorable plays of his rookie season, and he often came up big for the Blazers in the clutch. Lillard led Portland in clutch scoring with 27.8 points per-48 minutes of clutch time, which is defined as the final five minutes of games in which neither team is ahead by more than five points. When the clock is winding down and the score is close, the ball will almost always be in Lillard’s hands.
The Unheralded Player: Nicolas Batum. Last offseason, the Blazers gave Batum a four-year contract worth $46.1 million, and the deal was criticized since the 24-year-old isn’t exactly a household name. However, Batum posted the best numbers of his career during the 2012-13 season, averaging 14.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks. He filled the stat sheet on a nightly basis and perfectly complemented Aldridge and Lillard in the starting lineup. Batum is still very young and it’s safe to say that his best basketball is ahead of him, so that contract is looking pretty good today.
Best New Addition: C.J. McCollum. Drafting a mid-major star with the ability to score from anywhere on the court worked pretty well for Portland last year, so they decided to do the exact same thing during the 2013 NBA Draft. McCollum, the 10th overall pick, will join Lillard in Portland’s backcourt, which could eventually become one of the best one-two punches in the league. The two guards have been friends for years and should have no problem coexisting and helping each other grow.
- Alex Kennedy
Who We Like
1. Neil Olshey – Rather than having a long, drawn out rebuilding effort in Portland, Olshey has done an excellent job restocking the cupboard in a short period of time. The Blazers are positioned as one of the best up-and-coming teams in the league and Olshey deserves a lot of credit. Just as he was able to work wonders with the Los Angeles Clippers, Olshey’s ability to identify talent through the draft and acquire complementary pieces will have the Blazers fighting for a playoff spot in the competitive Western Conference much sooner than anyone could’ve anticipated.
2. C.J. McCollum – McCollum was a terrific selection for Portland with the 10th overall pick. He’s arguably the most NBA-ready player in this draft class and he would’ve gone higher if his season hadn’t ended prematurely due to a broken foot. McCollum has the ability to score from anywhere on the court, which means he can provide Portland’s second unit with a much-needed scoring punch. The fact that McCollum developed a close relationship with Damian Lillard when the two were mid-major stars in college makes the pick even better. Everyone raves about McCollum – on and off the court – and it’s no surprise that his fellow rookies voted him most likely to take home Rookie of the Year honors in a recent survey. He’s a hard worker, exceptional leader and special player.
3. Nicolas Batum – As previously mentioned, Batum had a breakout campaign in 2012-13 and he should continue to produce at a high level as he continues to mature and expand his game. The 24-year-old is clearly part of Portland’s long-term plan and his development will in large part determine just how successful this team becomes. Batum has shown that he can fill the stat sheet and dominate on both ends of the court in spurts. The next step in his progression is improving his consistency. Last season, there were too many games in which he would disappear, and that’s something he wants to change going forward.
4. Dorell Wright – The Blazers must improve their three-point shooting in the coming season. Last year, Portland shot 35.3 percent from three-point range (20th in the NBA) and knocked down 3,009 three-pointers (17th in the NBA). Wright should be able to improve both of those statistics, since the 27-year-old is widely regarded as one of the best shooters in the league. He led the NBA in three-pointers made three seasons ago, has competed in the Three-Point Shootout during All-Star Weekend and is known for producing instant offense off of the bench. Wright, along with Allen Crabbe, should be able to knock down some long-range shots and spread the floor this season.
5. Mo Williams – Neil Olshey has admitted that he didn’t want to bring in a second starting-caliber point guard behind Damian Lillard last season because he didn’t want his top pick looking over his shoulder and worrying about losing his starting job. This is why the team brought in Ronnie Price, a serviceable reserve and friend of Lillard’s, to run the second unit. While this showed just how much faith the organization had in Lillard, it also created some issues when the eventual Rookie of the Year would take a breather on the bench. Price struggled to run the second unit and the clear drop-off at point guard became a problem throughout the season. Those concerns are erased with Williams, who started for the Utah Jazz last season and showed that he can still play at a high level. He’ll provide instant offense off of Portland’s bench, while also mentoring Lillard and emerging as a leader in the locker room. Earl Watson, who backed up Williams in Utah, will also be a solid addition to Portland’s backcourt.
- Alex Kennedy
Lillard and Aldridge are each top players at their position, and that inside-outside duo is Portland’s biggest strength. Not many teams have two dominant scorers – one on the perimeter and one in the interior – like the Blazers. Lillard and Aldridge can both take over a game and the Blazers will go as far as their star tandem takes them. Last year, Portland’s issue was that they didn’t have much help around their two stars. Now, that shouldn’t be an issue after Olshey added a cast of new role players including Lopez, McCollum, Wright, Robinson and Watson. Last season, Portland shot 35.3 percent from three-point range, which was 20th in the NBA, but that should be a strength for the Blazers this season since Lillard, Wright and McCollum are all very good shooters.
- Alex Kennedy
The Blazers must improve defensively if they want to compete for a playoff spot in the Western Conference this season. Last season, Portland finished 29th in opponent field goal percentage, 28th in forced turnovers, 26th in defensive efficiency and 21st in opponent scoring. The Blazers were able to put up points, but they really struggled to slow teams down. Lopez should be an upgrade over J.J. Hickson, who played center last season despite being a natural power forward, but he’s not quite the dominant defensive center that the Blazers hoped to land. Portland also has to get better at playing in opponents’ arenas, since their 11 road wins was tied for third-worst in the West last season. It’s common for young, inexperienced teams to struggle on the road, but that’s an area that must be improved if Portland wants to be in the playoff hunt.
- Alex Kennedy
The Burning Question:
Will Damian Lillard take the next step or hit a sophomore slump?
Lillard’s play will likely determine whether the Blazers jump into the playoff picture or return to the lottery for the third-straight season. Last season, the 23-year-old became the fourth unanimous Rookie of the Year in NBA history, and joined Oscar Robertson and Allen Iverson as the only rookies ever to record 1,500 points and 500 assists in their debut season. Lillard worked extremely hard over the offseason and expects to be even better in 2013-14, but it’s common for players to hit a wall in their second season. Lillard’s rookie year was one of the best we’ve seen in recent memory, but what he does next will in large part determine where the Blazers go from here.
- Alex Kennedy