By Corey Buchanan
Fresh off of a discombobulated season filled with disappointing acquisitions, coaching uncertainty, tough losses and an eventual roster blow up, the Portland Trail Blazers look to start a new with a young roster and new head coach.
Last season wasn’t all bad, though. Blazers centerpiece Lamarcus Aldridge made his first all-star team. The signing of free agent JJ Hickson towards the end of the season proved valuable as he played some of the best basketball of his career while averaging over 15 points and eight rebounds in his games with the Blazers. Also, Luke Babbit finally showed glimpses of why he was a mid first round selection by shooting an impressive 43% from three-point range after catching fire towards the end of the season.
This year’s NBA draft should also gave Blazers fans hope. Their first selection, Damian Lillard out of Weber State, was by far the best player in NBA Summer League. It was not just because his impressive statistics (26.5 PPG, 5.3 APG), but he showed his natural ability to run the offense, especially in the pick and roll. His high pick and roll aptitude will be quite valuable considering his likely roll man, Aldridge, has equal skill in the paint with a lethal jump shot.
The Blazers other draftees are center Meyers Leonard and small forward Will Barton. Hailing from the University of Illinois, Leonard is raw offensively, but his above average shot blocking and rebounding skills will be useful this year. Out of the University of Memphis, Will Barton is a seasoned college basketball star who slipped in the draft due to an underwhelming performance in the NBA combine. But at pick #40, he might have been the steal of the 2nd round.
The Blazers also hired new coach Terry Stotts. Stotts is most known for masterminding the offense of the 2011 NBA champion Dallas Mavericks who befuddled the Miami Heat with ball movement and spacing. Stotts has previous head coaching experience with the Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks garnering meddling success at both destinations.
Heading into this year, the Blazers have an impressive starting lineup headlined by an all star (Aldridge, high upside Olympian and lock down defender (Nicolas Batum), potential rookie of the year (Lillard), former vital cog in the Cleveland Cavaliers NBA finals run (Hickson), and proven NBA starter (Wesley Mathews).
The biggest question mark going into the Blazer’s season is the bench. The back-up point guard position will be decided between underwhelming rookie Nolan Smith and NBA journeyman Ronnie Price who hasn’t shot over 40% in either of his last two seasons with Utah and Phoenix. After another devastating injury to hyper athletic guard Elliot Williams, the back up off guard positions also looks shaky.
Luke Babbitt hasn’t played well in a meaningful game in either of his 2 seasons as a Blazer and Victor Claver and Barton have a combined 0 NBA minutes. Jared Jeffries is a quality defender, but is an offensive liability. He has not averaged over seven points per game in any of his twelve NBA season. Former college basketball legend and NBA bust Adam Morrison could also potentially see some minutes this year (if he even makes the roster).
The Blazers’ big men off the bench look a little more promising, but are still questionable. Leonard will at least be able to clog up space and get rebounds. And after a strong performance in the Olympics, Joel Freeland looks to be a quality NBA player due to his mobility, rebounding and activity on both ends of the floor. Nonetheless, both players are rookies and aren’t likely to “dominate” the league early on.
The three best players on the team are most likely going to be Aldridge, Batum and Lillard. Significant questions remain about all 3 players. Aldridge has superstar potential, but will he ever reach it? In order to do so he will need to significantly improve his defense and rebounding. Aldridge ranks 136th in the NBA in rebound rate and although he’s competent defensively, he isn’t known to shut down a star player.
Fans once questioned his ability to score on the low block and he has proven after summers of hard work he learned to do so effectively. Thus, it is quite possible that he will once again prove his detractors wrong and become a dominant defender and rebounder.
Nicolas Batum is one of the more valuable trade commodities in the NBA due to his enormous wingspan, offensive fluidity and youth, but has yet to put it all together in his first few NBA seasons. In order for Batum to be an elite player, he must be more assertive, increase his aggression especially when driving to the hoop and improve his handle.
Damian Lillard seems like the real deal. He is a great scorer who can explode to the rim a la Derrick Rose and can shoot the lights out of the gym. Combined with his tenacious defense and unselfishness, he should be a solid NBA point guard from day one. The only answer yet to be revealed about his game is his ability to work within the confines of an offense in which he is not the vocal point.
At Weber State, and in summer league this year, he had free rains to take charge of the offense due to his superiority in skill over his teammates. This year, he might be the third best player on the team and will need to be more of a distributor and floor general than offensive juggernaut.
This will be the first blazer-rebuilding project since the “Jail Blazer Era” so Blazers fans shouldn’t expect anything more than growth and improvement. With that being said, while inexperienced and for the most part unfamiliar with each other, this Blazer team is pretty talented and should be able to compete with most teams in the NBA. Although they probably won’t be in the playoff race, they wont be one of the worst teams in the league either. Somewhere between 30-40 wins is probable.