NBA season preview: Portland Trail Blazers
Last season: Nothing will push you toward rebuilding like disappointment, and their 28-38 record was that. This was a 48 win team a couple seasons ago, but last season a team that should be playing fast and pressuring teams was average in pace and threatening nobody. Point guard Raymond Felton took the blame from fans for being out of shape (he was), coach Nate McMillan took the blame from management and they fired him and replaced him with Kalab Canales. None of it mattered. Outside of an All-Star season from LaMarcus Aldridge everyone else on the roster didn’t live up to expectations.
Key Departures: Consider it an overhaul — Gerald Wallace, Marcus Camby, Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford are all gone. They got serious about rebuilding and shipped everyone out.
Key Additions: Through the draft they added two lottery picks — point guard Damian Lillard and center Meyers Leonard. Both looked good at Summer League (Lillard was co-MVP) and both are going to get a lot of run. They are going to be key for Portland. After that, unless Joel Freeland excites you none of these additions can be called key.
Two other key additions — the aggressive Neil Olshey as GM and Terry Stotts as coach.
Three keys to the Trail Blazers season:
1) Nicolas Batum, it is time to step up and earn that contract. Through four NBA seasons, Batum has been good — last season he averaged 13.9 points per game, shot 39.1 percent from three, took on more offense and had a PER of 17.3, and he shows flashes as a defender but is not consistent. This season — with Batum sporting shiny new a four-year, $45 million contract — they are paying him to play like a star. Portland needs him to be real NBA No. 2 guy on a team. He has to be better than just pretty good most of the time.
He needs to score more and lead on offense. He can knock down the three, but his handle needs to improve so he can attack better off the dribble. The defense needs to be there nightly. He needs to find a groove with Damien Lillard. The Blazers have locked themselves in a bit with big contracts to Aldridge and Batum, those two have to be the stars. Aldridge will be, no question. Batum has got the skills, but this needs to be his breakout year.
2) After Batum and Aldridge, who is going to step up? LaMarcus Aldridge is an All-Star, one of the best power forwards in the game right now. Nicolas Batum is good and on the verge of a breakout season. And after that…
There is rookie point guard Lillard, who has been given the keys to the Blazers offense and asked to run the show. Which is a lot to ask for a rookie out of Weber State. In the middle there is rookie Meyers Leonard, who is tall and athletic but with a raw offensive game. So far in preseason it has looked like J.J. Hickson could beat him out for minutes, which speaks to how far he has to go to be a starting NBA five. Leonard was always a project but they need to see something from him this year.
And after that… who do you like on the Portland roster? Wesley Mathews is solid. Hickson has shown flashes but misses a lot of jumpers (which he keeps taking). Who is left to step up? Nolan Smith? Jared Jeffries? Luke Babbitt? Ronnie Price?
Someone is going to step up or depth will hurt Portland this year.
3) They need to need to add pieces, but how? Portland is rebuilding, but with big contracts handed out to Aldridge and Batum plus other deals on the books, Portland is not in a place where they can just add guys easily via free agency. They can have some space if they let Hickson walk and don’t bring back guys like Babbitt, but they are not “we can go get a max guy” below the cap.
Neil Olshey will be aggressive, he will make deals because that is what he does. But it will be interesting to see if he can get them more cap room to use in future seasons.
What Trail Blazers fans should fear: Meddling ownership. Paul Allen and his Vulcan crew stepping in to make decisions. The best owners stay out of the way — hire a smart GM, a smart person to run the business operations, then let the basketball people do their thing. Don’t let personal relationships with a coach or anyone influence business decisions. Only change the GM when it’s clear he has failed. But Paul Allen likes to stir the Blazers pot, and when he does plans seem to reset. It happens too often.
How it likely works out: Even if Batum does have a breakout year and Aldridge is once again an All-Star, the Blazers are trusting a rookie point guard to lead them to the playoffs. Which means it is going to be a long season. The Blazers will be entertaining and not an embarrassment, but when the inevitable injuries of any NBA season come the depth of this team will be exposed. And it won’t be pretty.
Prediction: Portland finishes 33-49 and is back in the lottery, hoping for a lucky Ping-Pong ball bounce. This is a year to be measured in growth of young players that lets them build for the future. They have Aldridge for three more seasons, they need to find a way to win with him in that time or the rebuilding may have to start again.