Are Playoffs the Only Goal for Blazers?
After missing the playoffs two years in a row, the Portland Trail Blazers are focusing now on a postseason berth.
Should a third-straight lottery appearance be considered a failure or are the Blazers ahead of schedule?
Portland began the rebuilding process in 2011 after getting knocked out in the first round three years in a row (2009-11). General manager Neil Olshey and head coach Terry Stotts were brought in last summer — along with unanimous Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard, drafted with the sixth overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft.
Suddenly the Blazers had a very potent one-two punch with Lillard and All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, along with two strong wing players in Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews.
“I think the core went from basically three guys when we took over with Wes, Nic and LaMarcus to four with Damian,” Olshey said. “I think that got us close enough where we just felt like we didn’t want to be kind of caught in the middle, that we needed to make moves this offseason.”
Portland had no significant depth last season but still was able to stay in the playoff hunt until the final month of the season, winning 33 games total.
The team has since added veterans Robin Lopez, Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Earl Watson. The Blazers also acquired second-year forward Thomas Robinson and draft picks C.J. McCollum (10th) and Allen Crabbe (31st). McCollum is currently sidelined with a broken foot.
“We’re looking to take a step forward, but I think probably an accelerated step forward based on some of the offseason acquisitions we were able to make,” Olshey said. “Getting a veteran center like Robin and then building up the bench has kind of accelerated our growth a little bit.”
The veterans have already made their presence felt through training camp and preseason.
“You’ve got guys like Mo, Earl, D-Wright, they had an instant impact just on how they carry themselves,” Lillard said. “If something needed to be said in practice, they just speak up. If the coach is saying one thing — and a young guy, it might not be clear to them … Mo will see a guy’s face and [ask], ‘Dame, you understand that?’ or ‘Will, you understand that?’”
The rebuilding process has been a bit of a challenge for Aldridge, who Olshey called “the best power forward in the game right now.”
“Going to the playoffs is one of our goals,” Aldridge said. “If this team works hard every day and we grind it out, then we can get to the playoffs and we have a chance to do anything.”
The 6’11 forward has averaged over 21 points a game each of the last three seasons. Waiting for the team to catch up hasn’t been easy, but Aldridge is happy to see the Blazers have added some veteran help.
“It means a lot. We were very young last year. We did a lot of teaching,” Aldridge said. “This year we want to do more winning and less teaching. You definitely bring guys along and try to make them better but having more veterans makes it easier.”
Making the postseason could help sell Aldridge on the team’s future, given he’s only under contract through the 2014-15 season.
“The playoffs are a sliding scale. It’s very hard to pinpoint what is the number that gets you there. I think we’re going to make a significant move forward from last year,” Olshey said. “The question really is, ‘What is the number that gets you in, in the Western Conference?’
“All we can focus on is that the core continues to grow together, our young players develop. The goal is to get into the playoffs because I think that’s the next step for us. I don’t know when we took over if we thought if it was realistic in year two but Damian’s development, LaMarcus’s consistent play, the growth of Nic, the consistency of Wesley, put us in a position where we felt like were close enough that we needed to go for it.”
The Blazers won’t be an elite team in the West this season but they’ll be in the running for a low seed along with teams like the Dallas Mavericks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Lakers.
For Lillard, the goal first and foremost is to improve.
“Last year was a great experience for me. The team gave me a lot of minutes. They gave me the opportunity to play through mistakes. They allowed me to play freely and I think that I’ve got to give them a lot of credit to them for allowing me to do that,” Lillard said. “Coming into the season, I want to improve on a few things, defense being one, being more efficient being another one and just completely focusing on doing whatever I need to do to win games.”
The Blazers lost 13 straight to finish last season. Injuries played a part but once it was clear the team wasn’t going to make the playoffs, lottery positioning may have become the priority.
The team will need to improve by at least 12 wins if last year’s 45 mark holds up (both the Lakers and Houston Rockets finished as the bottom two seeds with 45-37 records).
Is anything but a playoff berth a failure for the Blazers?
“I don’t think it’s a failure. If we continue to do what we’ve been able to do so far in the preseason defensively, and do that consistently, I think we’ll win more games than we did last year,” Lillard said. “I don’t think the season is a failure if we don’t make the playoffs. It’s what we want to do. We’ve got what we need to make that happen.”
Lillard, who Olshey called a “franchise point guard,” can afford to wait. He’s got a long, successful career ahead of him.
The bigger question is Aldridge and his ability to be patient.
The Blazers have two full seasons before Aldridge has to make a crucial decision about his future. That’s where the team has to guard against failure.
Progressing to the playoffs, after a two-year absence, would be a statement as Portland tries to solidify their long-term relationship with arguably the best power forward in the NBA.