The Portland Trail Blazers took on the Milwaukee Bucks at the Moda Center in Portland on Tuesday, March 18th 2013. Eugene Daily News was there in person for the first time with writer Ryan Beltram and Photographer Craig Strobeck. This Photo Essay was captured by Craig from his court side shooting position. Many thanks to the Portland Trail Blazer media representative for the first class accommodations and assistance.
After an incredibly exciting offseason, or so we thought, for the Portland Trail Blazers (0-1) a 104-93 opening night loss to the Phoenix Suns (1-0) has fans and analysts alike scratching their respective heads.
“The Phoenix Suns outplayed us,” Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said. “They were ready from the get-go. They got out and ran. All the things that we were working on, we had a setback today. Transition defense; we were slow reacting to that. Their guards did a good job of penetrating.”
As was the issue last season, the Blazers’ bench failed to help out and a lack of depth sill seems present. Only two Portland players scored in double-digits – LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard – and the collective bench only managed 12 points.
“We were not ready,” Blazers SF Nicolas Batum said. “We can talk about how much better we are and all the things we want to do, but we’ve got to be ready. We had a good preseason. We had a good training camp. But the preseason is over.
“That was a good warning for us.”
Batum was the next leading scorer for the Blazers behind Aldridge and Lillard with nine points on 3-of-9 shooting and seven rebounds.
But as has been mentioned, the two bright spots were Portland’s two stars in Aldridge and Lillard who finished with 28 and 32 points respectively. Should the Blazers find a way to get the rest of its players more involved, this team is talented enough to make a playoff push. It’s only game one.
“We have 81 more games — that was only one,” Batum said. “But we have to correct things now. We can’t wait.”
The Portland Trail Blazers held workouts with six more NBA prospects Friday morning. The list of players didn’t include blue chip recruits, but rather potential second round picks. The group was composed of the son of an NBA legend who dominated the D-League last year, a former Oregon Duck, a former UCLA Bruin AND North Carolina Tar Heel, a golden gopher and a few former big fish from small mid major ponds.
The most highly touted recruit of the bunch is Glen Rice Jr. Rice Jr. averaged 25 ppg in the D-League playoffs last year and turned enough heads to be a bubble first round pick. He had an atrocious college career in which he was consistently suspended for off the court issues. From a talent standpoint, if Rice falls to the Blazers at 39, he might be a no brainer choice. But if he wants to make it in the NBA, he is going to have to prove to be just as reliable off the court as on it.
Trevor Mbakwe is the only other workout participant who has a shot at the first round. Mbakwe is a beast on the boards. He led the Big-10 in rebounding and finished second in blocks in his senior season for Minnesota.
Although, according to every reputable source EJ Singler will not be drafted, if he proves that he can provide similar skills as his brother (three point shooting/basketball IQ/defense), he could make an NBA roster this fall.
The other tree participants were Larry Drew II, Ed Daniel and Ian Clarke. Drew finished off his college career well after a disappointing start in which he was unable to run the North Carolina Tar Heels offense before being replaced by Kendal Marshall as an underclassmen. Drew averaged over seven assists a game for the Bruins this year. Daniel averaged a double double for Murray State this year, while earning first team All-OVC honors. Clarke was not only first team all conference four years in a row, but won defensive player of the year in the OVC playing for Belmont.
It wasn’t one of the most pivotal workout days for Blazers nation, but it could prove valuable in determining whom the Blazers go after in the second round.
The Portland Trail Blazers’ season mercifully came to an end Wednesday night as the team tied a franchise record with their 13th consecutive loss. It was a tough final quarter of the season to witness as the majority of the team’s starting five (Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge) inevitably wore down due to too many minutes played and lingering injuries.
But don’t let this last month of despair cloud your view of the entire season. For about half of it, this was an exciting group to watch and as I noted in an earlier column, there was never a dull moment with this team. It looks like their final record will fall in line with what experts predicted at the start of the season, but through the beginning of March, the 2012-13 Trail Blazers defied the odds and the pundits by staying competitive in nearly every game and earning some impressive wins as a result.
So call this an end-of-the-season wrap up. But instead of giving out report cards or individual awards, this will be a surprises, disappointments, strange observations kind of recap.
High Points: Beating the elite
As I said earlier, Portland had a number of impressive wins this season. Home victories over Miami, San Antonio, Indiana, New York, Denver and the Clippers showcased the team’s ability to play with anyone. It was even more miraculous considering they did it with essentially five guys.
The road was not kind to the Blazers this season. They only managed 12 wins out of 41 but hey it’s all about quality rather than quantity. The team overcame Carmelo Anthony’s 45 points and a New Years Day crowd in New York to beat the Knicks thanks to a late-game three from Damian Lillard. Throw in an “out of nowhere” beat down by 30 over the Spurs (their worst home loss in the Tim Duncan era), a nail bitter of a victory over Memphis early in the season and back-to-back quality wins (their last two of the season as it turned out) over Atlanta and Chicago and Portland at times showed how good they could be.
Low Points: Losing to the dismal
For whatever reason, the Blazers constantly struggled against lesser opponents. An early-season blowout at home to the Kings seemed surprising at the time, but then a rash of embarrassing losses followed. A quick look at the standings reveals Portland lost to every last-place division team with the exception of Minnesota.
An even bigger surprise was the number of bad losses at home. Portland has one of the best home-court advantages in the league and yet the team lost to Cleveland, Washington, Sacramento, Phoenix and New Orleans. What do all of these teams have in common? They all won less than 30 games this season. To put that in perspective, Portland just ended the season with 13 straight losses and yet they still managed to win 33 games so you know those were demoralizing losses.
When the team picked up J.J. Hickson off the scrap heap midway through last season, many fans probably had the same reaction I did (“Oh, look at that. That’s a nice pickup.”) With the center position being the most glaring weakness heading into the season, it was a foregone conclusion Hickson would see the majority of the minutes there. But despite being undersized (he’s really a power forward), Hickson finished seventh in the league in double-doubles with 40 and averaged career highs in rebounds (10.4) and field goal percentage (56%).
It remains to be seen whether or not this season was an outlier for Hickson as many in the media have insinuated his strong play was due to his motivation to get a big contract this summer. He won’t be back next year because Portland can’t afford to pay him or continue to play him at the center position, but for one full season, Hickson showed why once upon a time the Cleveland Cavaliers refused to give him up in a trade for Amar’e Stoudemire.
He’s athletic, an excellent rebounder and a surprisingly consistent mid-range jump shooter and his countless hustle plays this season quickly endeared him to the fans. Although I can’t tell you how many times I read the comments section on Blazer websites where fans actually wanted to keep him and get rid of Aldridge. He’s a nice player, but come on people.
The freeing of Nicolas Batum
Before the wrist and shoulder injuries derailed the second half of his season, Batum was a revelation. Gone were the Nate McMillan days where Batum would stand in the corner for open threes and have very little responsibility elsewhere. But under coach Terry Stotts, the flying Frenchman had the ball in his hands constantly and he created off the dribble for himself or for others.
This versatility culminated in two triple-doubles and nearly a third. At nearly 5 assists per game, Batum became the point-forward type player we all envisioned he could be. But at times he was a little too unselfish. As the season went on, his scoring numbers dropped and his shooting percentage ended up being the lowest of his career. Perhaps a lot of that had to do with the wrist injury he sustained in practice and then re-aggravated in a game.
Despite the disappointing end to his season, Batum more than lived up to the big contract he signed last summer. As long as he can stay healthy, Batum has a shot at becoming not only one of the more multi-faceted players in the league, but also an All-Star.
See every Blazer column I’ve written up to this point. There’s nothing left to say about the unanimous Rookie-of-the-Year. It didn’t take long for Portland to find Brandon Roy’s replacement and by next season, this could become Lillard’s team.
Disappointments: The Bench
When the most productive player off the bench for the Blazers was Eric Maynor, a guy Portland traded for midway through the season and thus only played 27 games, you know this was a horrid bench. How bad were the reserves? According to hoopsstats.com, Portland finished dead last in bench scoring with 18.5. The two next worst teams in terms of bench production (Lakers, Pacers), averaged 26 points per game. That’s an eight point drop.
In fact, I had to go back to the 2004-05 Phoenix Suns to find a team who averaged fewer than 18.5 points off the bench. The starting five for Portland accounted for 81 percent of the team’s total points for the season (first in the league by the way). No wonder nearly all of them broke down at some point.
What’s most demoralizing about the bench unit? They only averaged 13.3 minutes per game and yet they were a -17.7 in efficiency when they were on the court. That’s nearly a 20 point hole the starters had to dig out of. Yikes!
Wesley Matthews apparently has an easier time hitting step-back 3-pointers with a guy in his face than wide-open 3-pointers. I can’t explain it.
They said Meyers Leonard was raw when Portland drafted him but wow, is he raw. I mean really, really raw! He looks like a dear caught in the headlights out there. When you think about it, he’s learning the center position opposite to every other player. He’s got the shooting down (I mean what other team has their center shoot a technical free-throw) and he’s a freak athletically, but boy does he not have a clue about where to be on the floor defensively or in rebounding. And when was the last time he blocked a shot? You’re 7’1″ for crying out loud! I’m making the suggestion right now that Portland bring back Joel Pryzbilla (who’s probably retiring after this season) to come back to Portland as an assistant coach for Leonard.
You know those giant, full-body balloons they have at car dealerships that wave in the wind? That’s what Will Barton looks like sometimes when he drives to the basket. He’s all limbs out there flailing about.
Is it me or would LaMarcus Aldridge make the worst wide-receiver ever? He’s the best player on the team by far, but I can’t tell you how many times I witnessed him fumble away catches at the rim. Maybe it was the passer? I don’t remember this happening as much when they had Andre Miller.
Victor Claver! You’re from Europe and you don’t know how to shoot? How is that even possible. How did they let you leave Spain without that ability? Watching this guy shoot free-throws is like witnessing a baby play Jenga, it’s just not going to work out. Please improve this next season Victor, please?
Well, by the end of the season the Blazers finished where we all thought they would (low 30 win range). But there was a lot of promise early. After a comeback win over Miami, Portland was 20-15, their best record at any point in the season. But following that miraculous win on national television, the team went 13-34 the rest of the way.
The good news is Portland has their core (Aldridge, Lillard, Batum, Matthews) for the future. They proved they could beat anyone on any given night. Now if they can just surround them with the right guys (perimeter shooters, post defenders, a bench), the Trail Blazers can become a playoff team quicker than we thought. Perhaps next season even. Who would have thought that were possible after all that happened to this franchise over the past two years: devastating injuries, coaching, player and management changes. I’d say that’s a quick turnaround.
Former Portland Trail Blazers point guard Raymond Felton will make his first visit back to the Rose Garden on Thursday when the New York Knicks (38-23) head to the Rose Garden.
Felton had an abysmal one season with the Blazers after being traded from the Nuggets. He arrived out of shape and struggled all season long to sync with the team and never got a groove going.
Felton struggled to lead the team, and as a result Portland had one of the worst seasons in the past decade. Many chose to place most, if not all, of the blame on Felton.
[gn_quote style=”1″]“You can’t blame anything on just one person,” Felton said. “It’s all about a team, and it’s all about everybody coming together trying to win games. Like I said from Day 1, I said I wasn’t in shape, I came in out of shape. But I busted my behind every day, got myself into shape for the latter of the season. That’s pretty much it. Anything else negative is just them trying to find a story to write about, that’s all.”[/gn_quote]
There were rumors that Felton and former head coach Nate McMillan did not get along with the guard. Both ultimately ended up parting ways from the team. It will not be surprising if Felton receives some boos when his name is announced. But Felton doesn’t believe that he is deserving of a poor reception.
[gn_quote style=”1″]”If they boo me because of those negative articles, they would just be reacting off of the lies,” Felton said. “Everything written about me and coach [McMillan] was wrong. You can talk to any other teams I’ve been on and ask if I’ve ever been a problem in the locker room. I never have. I heard they booed Jamal [Crawford], so I know what to expect. But really, we just had a tough season last year.”[/gn_quote]
[gn_quote style=”1”]“I don’t understand why they’re going to try to do that,” he continued. “They didn’t make the playoffs last year when I was there, and when I looked last I don’t think they’re in the playoffs now.”[/gn_quote]
Terry Stotts, the former Dallas assistant turned Portland head coach, is already catching criticism for his Dirk Nowitski-esque usage of All-Star big man LaMarcus Aldridge.
The first-year coach has imposed a new offensive scheme that features more wide-open, free-flowing play, and so far, the result has had a negative effect on Aldridge who, through Monday, is shooting a career-low .425 from the field. After going 7-17 from the field last Thursday, Aldridge was asked about his recent long-range shooting binge by The Oregonian’s Jason Quick.
“[Stotts] has plays that he calls that get me to the block,” Aldridge said. “Other than that, you float to the elbow. So the offense is designed for me to be at the elbow.”
What’s worse, Aldridge seemed to get defensive when asked by Quick if he was shooting too many jumpers.
“I don’t [think so],” he responded. “Obviously you do, you asked the question.”
The developing trend is not being overplayed, and it is something Blazers fans should be keeping an eye on. Aldridge is a career 41.8 percent between the paint and the three-point line as opposed to a 58.3 percent shooter from inside the paint, according to John Schuhmann of NBA.com, and through seven games he is launching more mid-range jumpers than ever. Joe Kaiser of ESPN.com had Aldridge “playing small, not big” as his number one trend to watch so far this season, but let’s let the numbers tell the full story.
The majority of Aldridge’s shot attempts are coming from outside of 16 feet, as he leads the league in mid-range jumpers. In previous years Aldridge had taken these long twos around 35 percent of the time, but this year he is taking them almost 60 percent of the time. (Ben Golliver)
And while Aldridge has always been considered one of the better jump-shooting big men in the league, he has never been on the same level as Stotts’ former power forward Dirk Nowitzki who is a 46.8 percent shooter from mid-range. Moreover, Aldridge has been an elite scorer in the low-post throughout his career. In Aldridge’s best season, 2011-2012, he averaged about 10 shots a game from inside of 10 feet, while this year he is only averaging 5.4 from inside, according to Kaiser.
If there is one positive, it is that Aldridge has been distributing the basketball better than ever. Through Monday, Aldridge is averaging 4.4 assists, which is way up from his career mark of 1.8. Regardless, though, his overall efficiency so far this season (17.44 Player Efficiency Rating) is the worst it has been since his rookie year.
With the Blazers struggling—they are 2-5 through Monday—Stotts needs to begin to realize that he no longer has Dirk Nowitzki at power forward. What he does have is a dominating post player with good range to keep defenses honest. If this realization happens later and not sooner, the Blazers could be facing a long year.
“[Aldridge] is transforming from a post presence with range to a glorified wing shooter right in front of our eyes,” writes Kaiser. “That could be a bad thing for the Blazers.”
So far, for Aldridge and for the Blazers, it certainly hasn’t been a good thing.
PORTLAND – The Portland Trail Blazers (2-5) have now lost their fourth consecutive game, after opening the season with a winning record, in a 95-87 loss to the Atlanta Hawks (3-3).
The Hawks climbed out to an early 22-9 lead putting Portland in all too familiar situation of being down early. Portland went on a 15-2 run starting at the 9:40 mark in the fourth quarter to bring the Blazers one of their few leads in the game at 82-80. It didn’t last long, however, as Atlanta responded with a 10-0 run to close the game, turning a two-point deficit into an eight-point win.
“We keep putting ourselves in holes,” guard Wesley Matthews said after the game. “We can’t keep doing that to ourselves.”
Matthews finished the game with 17 points on 3-9 shooting (0-6 from three-point range). He also was a perfect 10-10 from the free throw line. He was third on the team in points scored behind J.J. Hickson and Nicolas Batum who each scored 19 points.
Like last game, Portland’s bench put in a poor performance against the Hawks by only combining for six points on 2-12 shooting. Portland’s bench has been outscored 89-10 in close loses to the Spurs and Hawks (26-6 against Hawks).
Joel Freeland was 0-5 with 0 points scored, Meyers Leonard was 1-4 with four points and Ronnie Price went 1-3 with two points. Portland’s bench played a total of 54 minutes with the starters playing 186.
Despite the slow start and four-game losing streak, head coach Terry Stotts believes that his team is continuing to grow and that a 2-5 record is not something to be concerned over.
“Certainly, the record is important, but the other things are more important at this point,” Stotts said. “Certainly, we want to go in and win every game. But as I said when I got job, I’m going to base it on how we’re playing and how we’re improving. That’s how I judge our team.”
Fans and media new going into this season that Portland would have a difficult opening stretch with two new starters, a new coaching staff and a difficult schedule. Portland has the ninth toughest strength of schedule (.540) and have an RPI of 17th in the league (.477) according to ESPN rankings.
The Blazers’ schedule will get a lot easier in December when they open with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Charlotte Bobcats, Indiana Pacers, Sacramento Kings and Toronto Raptors. Of those five games, Portland should get four wins in that stretch.
As for the immediate schedule, Portland has the Kings on the road tonight followed by two home games against the Houston Rockets and Chicago Bulls. With those two home games, it’s safe to say fans will be packing the Rose Garden to see the stars come to the Rose City.
- The Blazers and Hawks entered the match with an even-split 50-50 win record against the other in 100 matches played. Atlanta now takes the series lead 51-50.
- Portland’s 195-game sellout streak came to an end last night, one of the longest in the NBA. The sellout streak started on Dec. 21, 2007.
DALLAS – Athletes always seem to shine on their birthdays, and O.J. Mayo was no exception on Monday night as he used a 32-point performance to lead the Dallas Mavericks to a 114-91 win over the Portland Trail Blazers in Dallas, his second straight 30-point game.
Chris Kaman came off the bench for Dallas for 16 points and six rebounds, and Darren Collison added a double-double with 14 points and 13 assists. Meanwhile for the Blazers, the starters carried the load once again. Four of the five starters scored double figures, led by Wesley Matthews and LaMarcus Aldridge with 20 points each. Rookie Damian Lillard added 13 points.
The Blazers got off to a slow start, trailing by nine with less than two minutes to go in the first. Portland was able to chip at the Mavericks’ lead and trailed by four going into the second. With 3:39 left in the half, a 13-foot jumper from Ronnie Price gave the Blazers their first lead of the game, but Dallas would go into the locker room with a two point lead.
In the third, back-to-back three-pointers from Mayo propelled the Mavericks to a 65-57 lead to begin the half. After a timeout, the Blazers were once again able to chip at the lead and whittle it down to just one point, and trailed by four going into the final quarter. The Blazers did their part for three quarters of the game as they trailed by only two with 10:17 remaining in the game. Kaman hit a mid-range jumper that sparked a 28-9 run from the Mavericks to put the game away.
Portland was outmatched in many statistical categories leading to the loss. While the Blazers shot just 38.7% from the field, the Mavericks shot 61.5%, including 50% from beyond the arc compared to 22.7% for Portland. Dallas also controlled the tempo of the game, outscoring the Blazers 24-2 on the fast break. The Mavericks have shot at least 60% from the field in consecutive games for the first time in team history thanks to what Mayo calls “organized street ball.”
Despite shooting 8-8 from the free-throw line, Lillard struggled shooting during the night going 2-13 from the field, including 1-8 from three-point range.
“It was a tough night. I got some good looks, didn’t make shots,” Lillard said.
Looking ahead, the Blazers return home for six of their next eight games, a chance to rack up some early November wins that could help them in the long run. Thursday night the Blazers welcome Blake Griffin and the Clippers to the Rose Garden. Los Angeles is coming off close losses to the Warriors and Cavaliers, and look to get back in the win column.
11/8 – vs. LA Clippers
11/10 – vs. San Antonio Spurs
11/12 – vs. Atlanta Hawks
11/13 – @ Sacramento Kings
11/16 – vs. Houston Rockets
PHOENIX – The Portland Trail Blazers (1-1) couldn’t follow up their win over the Lakers and worked to fight back from a tough first half to ultimately fall 104-93 on the road against the Phoenix Suns (1-1).
Rookie Damian Lillard was the clear MVP last game, but it was rookie Meyers Leonard who stole the show Friday night. Leonard nearly put in a double-double performance with 14 points and eight rebounds in 21 minutes of action, the fewest of any starter for the Blazers. Lillard (15 points, five assists, five turn overs) played the most minutes for any player from either team at 35.
“The thing I really want is for (Leonard) not to get caught up in whether he made a bad play, but just keep playing,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said to Oregon Live. “Don’t overanalyze it, but keep playing. He wants to do well. And when he makes mistakes, he’s hard on himself and wants answers. I think it’s important that he keep playing.”
As far as double-doubles are concerned, LaMarcus Aldridge put in a 11 point and 10 rebound performance in 24 minutes while shooting a disappointing 4-13. And for those who take +/- as an important stat, the reigning all-star was the lowest of the team at -21.
All of the Blazers starters scored in double digits, with the one exception being guard Wesley Matthews at eight.
As mentioned earlier, the Portland Trail Blazers were absolutely abysmal to open the game. Phoenix took a 28-15 lead at the end of the first quarter, with just three Blazers scoring and 5-20 shooting (25%). Portland cut the deficit to 53-46 at half time after backup guard Luke Babbit brought a spark off of the bench, scoring seven crucial points in eight minutes. He’d finish the game with seven points.
The Blazers got a scare in the second half when guard Ronnie Price was taken off the court with an apparent ankle injury. No word on the severity of the injury.
The Suns, without point guard Steve Nash (now with the Lakers) were able to easily move the ball against Portland. Starting point guard Goran Dragic put up good numbers with eight points and nine assists while only turning the ball over four times. Forwards Michael Beasley and Luis Scola also played well as they make their transition from the Timberwolves and Rockets respectively.
Lillard and Meyers will have a light exhibition schedule to lead into the regular season before opening up with the Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder in the first two weeks of the season.
“I just wanted to be perfect and sometimes when I do that, I get to thinking too much and that doesn’t help,” Leonard said to Oregon Live. “I have to go with the flow of the game. I know I can do a lot of things on the court well, but when I don’t, I just have to calm down and move on. It’s part of the process.”
From here, the Blazers will have a busy upcoming week. It starts Monday night on the road against the Sacramento Kings, followed by two home games against the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night followed by the Golden State Warriors on Friday.
|LaMarcus Aldridge, F||24||4-13||0-0||3-4||0||1||3||11|
|Nicolas Batum, F||26||6-14||2-5||0-0||0||1||2||14|
|Meyers Leonard, C||21||5-8||0-1||4-4||1||1||1||14|
|Wesley Matthews, G||22||2-7||1-4||3-4||1||0||0||8|
|Damian Lillard, G||35||5-13||1-6||4-4||0||0||5||15|
|Dallas Lauderdale, F||1||0-1||0-0||1-2||0||0||0||1|
|Luke Babbitt, F||17||3-5||1-2||0-0||1||0||1||7|
|Joel Freeland, F||18||3-5||0-0||0-0||1||1||0||6|
|Adam Morrison, F||12||0-3||0-3||0-0||0||0||1||0|
|Jared Jeffries, F||8||0-1||0-1||0-0||0||0||0||0|
|Sasha Pavlovic, F||18||1-2||1-1||0-0||2||0||1||3|
|Demonte Harper, G||1||0-0||0-0||0-0||0||0||0||0|
|Nolan Smith, G||17||3-9||1-3||0-0||2||0||3||7|
|Ronnie Price, G||12||1-5||0-2||2-2||1||0||0||4|
|Coby Karl, NA||8||1-2||1-1||0-0||0||0||0||3|
|Luis Scola, F||18||5-8||1-1||1-2||0||0||3||12|
|Jared Dudley, F||26||4-7||1-2||0-0||1||2||0||9|
|Michael Beasley, F||20||4-8||2-4||0-0||0||0||1||10|
|Marcin Gortat, C||29||4-7||0-0||1-1||2||1||4||9|
|Goran Dragic, G||30||3-8||0-2||2-2||1||0||2||8|
|Wesley Johnson, F||20||4-7||3-4||1-2||2||0||3||12|
|Markieff Morris, F||17||6-11||1-2||1-1||1||0||1||14|
|Luke Zeller, F||12||2-5||1-1||0-0||0||0||0||5|
|Solomon Jones, F||8||1-3||0-0||2-2||0||1||0||4|
|Ike Diogu, F||11||2-4||0-0||0-0||0||0||0||4|
|Kendall Marshall, G||18||0-2||0-2||0-0||0||0||2||0|
|Shannon Brown, G||28||5-9||1-2||1-4||0||0||1||12|
|P.J. Tucker, G||3||2-3||0-0||1-2||1||0||1||5|
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.