Oct 10, 2013, 8:45 AM EST
Last Season: The Blazers spent the first half of the season threatening for a playoff spot, but one of the worst benches in NBA history ultimately sunk the team’s chances. Damian Lillard‘s scoring prowess made him the fourth unanimous Rookie of the Year winner in NBA history, and it simulatenously provided hope that Portland’s current core can contend in the near future.
Key Player Changes:
General manager Neil Olshey pulled off some sneaky tanking last year by cobbling together an awful bench with multiple players who won’t even play in the league this season. After hitting on Lillard in the draft, it looked like the Trail Blazers might have stolen another underrated small school grad to slot in as a scoring sixth man. Unfortunately, though, C.J. McCollum’s foot injury will keep him out of action indefinitely.
Adding Thomas Robinson was an incredibly low-risk, high-reward move, as his energy and rebounding should be a welcome sight coming off the bench. Robinson will likely never be a star, but he could carve out a solid role.
If Dorell Wright’s outside shooting returns to form, he could be a steal as a versatile 3 and D guy. Mo Williams is an extremely good shooter and a decent point guard to boot, but he needs to be hidden defensively at all times.
Robin Lopez might be the addition with the biggest impact, as his pure size should help the Blazers control the paint defensively much better than last season.
Losing J.J. Hickson doesn’t hurt nearly as much as his overall numbers would indicate. Hickson was defensive poison as a center last season, and it’s telling that the Blazers were unable to flip him for any asset while he was putting up grossly inflated stats.
Keys to Portland’s Season:
1) Can an improved bench make that much of a difference?
After running his starters into the ground by necessity last season, Terry Stotts can ease off the reins a bit and trust what should be a very capable bench. The on/off ratings for Aldridge (+9.4 points per 100 possessions) and Lillard (+9.1 points per 100 possessions) illustrate just how bad Portland’s reserve unit was last year, and the heavy minutes took a toll late in the season when the defense completely collapsed.
2) Will the defense improve?
Although he’s a plodder, Robin Lopez should plug a few more gaps in this leaky defense. Matthews is still the team’s best defender despite Batum’s reputation, but a lot of the responsibility boils down to Lillard and Aldridge, who need to stop reserving so much energy for offense and start defending pick-and-roll action better.
The Blazers finished 26th in defensive efficiency last season, so there’s certainly plenty of room for improvement here. The starting unit should be explosive, but below-average defensive teams traditionally have a much harder time making the playoffs than below-average offensive teams. The Blazers have to get better here in order to fight for the 8-seed.
3) Which unexpected source can provide the lift?
It’s time for Nic Batum to live up to his potential, as he’s the player who needs to make the biggest leap on both ends for the Blazers to truly be competitive. We know what we’re getting from LaMarcus Aldridge and Wes Matthews at this point, and it’s hard to imagine Lillard being significantly better (at least offensively) in his second year.
Perhaps Lopez or Robinson can surprise and add big contributions as well, but Batum is paid too much money to simply be a very good complementary player. The additions of an improved bench and a defensive-minded center can put the Blazers in the playoff conversation alone, but Batum’s continued development as a secondary creator (his assists shot up to 4.9 a game last year) and locked-in defender has to be there.
Why You Should Watch: Damian Lillard is the definition of smooth. Robin Lopez’s hair is the best in the business. LaMarcus Aldridge has three moves he just pairs over and over again, and no one can stop it. Nic Batum in transition is an adventure. J.J. Hickson and his defense won’t make your eyes bleed anymore.
Prediction: 41-41 and the 9th seed. The Blazers should be able to beat out the other hapless defensive teams vying for the final playoff spot (Mavericks, Lakers), and the talent meshes better in Portland than it likely will in New Orleans. A healthy Minnesota team (oxy-moron?) is my choice for the 8th spot however, as they were much better defensively last year despite massive injuries. I need to see Portland’s defense improve drastically before I can fully believe they are a playoff team.
Dec 20, 2014, 2:00 PM EST
The Christmas Day slate of games is (mostly) stellar.
Dec 20, 2014, 12:30 PM EST
Dunk of the year by Johnson had Drummond throwing elbows.
Dec 20, 2014, 11:00 AM EST
Rivers saw this coming just four games into the season.
Dec 20, 2014, 9:30 AM EST
Lin understands why Bryant always gets the ball in these situations, but admits he’d like to get some opportunities.
Dec 20, 2014, 8:00 AM EST
As the Thunder ended up winning by one, 104-103, this block ended up being very important.
Dec 20, 2014, 2:07 AM EST
Lillard needs to get mentioned with the game’s top point guards.
Dec 20, 2014, 12:49 AM EST
Young earned this one and will get to write a check to the league.
Dec 20, 2014, 12:02 AM EST
Former NBA player now trying to make his way as a fighter.
Dec 19, 2014, 10:50 PM EST
There are a whole host of reasons Rondo was traded; this is just the most convenient for Boston’s brass.
Dec 19, 2014, 9:40 PM EST
Nice gesture by the players.
Dec 19, 2014, 8:30 PM EST
…pretty smoothly somehow
Dec 19, 2014, 7:25 PM EST
Leonard was the Finals MVP for San Antonio last season.
Dec 19, 2014, 6:45 PM EST
Warriors coach has jokes
Dec 19, 2014, 6:35 PM EST
This is the smart move by the Thunder.
Dec 19, 2014, 5:59 PM EST
It’s kind of moot now, but it’s not a surprise.
Dec 19, 2014, 5:15 PM EST
Lakers star: ‘If the opportunity came up, then that’s the time to have that discussion’
Dec 19, 2014, 4:29 PM EST
Black-and-white version of Toronto’s new logo looks similar to Brooklyn’s
Dec 19, 2014, 3:44 PM EST
President wants to see more athletes take political stands
Dec 19, 2014, 2:56 PM EST
This gives the Rockets a little more depth on the wing with Harden and Ariza.
Dec 19, 2014, 2:15 PM EST
Thunder star sprained ankle against Warriors
- Clippers rip officials after being called for seven technical fouls in loss to Nuggets 11
- Jeremy Lin after Kobe misses at the buzzer: ‘I like game-winners too’ 29
- Damian Lillard drops career high 43, leads Blazers to 3OT win over Spurs (VIDEO) 6
- Kendrick Perkins: Rajon Rondo wanted out of Boston 7
- Report: Minnesota agrees to trade Corey Brewer to Houston 7
- Dallas moves into title contender status with addition of Rajon Rondo 44
- Kevin Durant turns ankle, leaves game not to return; X-rays negative. 4
- Report: Celtics ‘pretty pleased’ with return they got in trade for Rajon Rondo 31