Trail Blazers building on Foundation
For the last few years, mediocre teams all around the league have chosen the route of tanking, rather than building on their current foundations.
Apparently Neil Olshey didn't get the memo.
The Portland Trail Blazers General Manager took over a franchise riddled with injuries after the 2010 season and could have thrown in the towel. Greg Oden and Brandon Roy, once thought to be franchise cornerstones, both suffered multiple knee injuries which would derail their careers in Portland.
But Olshey stayed the course, opting to hold onto highly-touted young forwards LeMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum, and is hoping that tanking isn't the only way to turn around a struggling franchise.
Portland has drafted well around its all-star Aldridge, who has averaged 18.3 points and 7.8 rebounds in seven years with the Blazers, and fortified its bench via free agency. Now Portland, which finished last in the NBA with 18.5 bench points per game last season, 5.6 points worse than 29th-ranked Indiana Pacers, has a deep, talented roster with a good mix of youthful exuberance and veteran leadership.
Perhaps more important than Aldridge to the success of Rip City is the reigning Rookie of the Year, Damian Lillard. The Weber State product and sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft made an immediate impact with his new club, tallying 23 points and 11 assists in a season-opening win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Lillard led all rookies with 19.0 points and 6.5 assists per game, and has no plans of slowing down.
Lillard, the fourth ever unanimous Rookie of the Year, broke a rookie record with 185 3-pointers and led the league with 3,167 minutes played.
Joining Lillard in the upgraded Blazers' backcourt is rookie C.J. McCollum. Drafted 10th out of Lehigh this past June, the talented young combo guard was expected to step in as the team's sixth man. Unfortunately, McCollum recently underwent surgery after fracturing his left foot -- the same injury that ended his senior season at Lehigh just six games in -- and will miss an undisclosed amount of time.
If McCollum misses an extended period of time, veteran Mo Williams will be called on to spell Lillard and play with him in smaller lineups. Capable of creating or running off the ball, Williams' skill set makes him an invaluable member of Portland's revamped second unit, especially with McCollum on the pine.
Who's In/Who's Out
Additions: C.J. McCollum, Robin Lopez, Mo Williams, Thomas Robinson, Dorrell Wright, Earl Watson, Allen Crabbe
Losses: Elliot Williams
Undersized center J.J. Hickson left for Denver in free agency, but Portland replaced him with a more traditional big man in Lopez. Aldridge, a perennial 20-point scorer, likes to operate at the high-post. Lopez averaged 2.8 offensive rebounds per game last season -- tied with his brother, Brook, and three others for 15th best in the league -- and should improve on that total with Portland.
Rocketing Up the Standings
Trail Blazers (40-42)
In The Hunt
Fighting For Eighth
Solid Young Pieces
Batum might be the X-factor for the Blazers. Fresh off a career year in 2012-13 (14.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 4.9 apg) and Eurobasket Championship playing for his native France this summer, the versatile wing demonstrated that he can play well with or without the ball in his hands.
Lillard is the cog that makes this machine go. His ability to operate in pick & roll and create for himself both from the outside and at the rim makes him a dynamic talent. Lillard played a lot of minutes last season, and should benefit from an improved bench and more rest.
Fifth-year shooting guard Wes Matthews returns to start next to Lillard. Matthews, originally an undrafted free agent with the Jazz out of Marquette, made a name for himself as a hard-nosed defender and spot-up shooter who excels in transition.
Gone are the days of Luke Babbitt and Nolan Smith. Portland lost a ton of production when it went to its bench a season ago, but a handful of under- the-radar offseason acquisitions should make this year's unit much more effective.
McCollum, when healthy, and Williams will take turns handling and playing off the ball, while Earl Watson should provide a steady veteran presence when called upon. Rookie sharpshooter Allen Crabbe's minutes will depend on how well he performs on the defensive end, whereas second-year Will Barton must prove he can make shots in order to earn playing time.
Wright and Victor Claver bring terrific size (6'9) to the small forward spot, which gives coach Stotts a lot of options with his lineups.
Second-year center Meyers Leonard, a raw athlete picked 11th overall out of Illinois, will be tasked with manning the middle for Portland's reserve unit next to Robinson, who hopes to have found a home with the Blazers.
What To Expect
The Blazers aren't OKC, or the Clippers or Spurs. But the Western Conference is more open than its been in recent years. Perennial playoff teams like Denver, Dallas and the Lakers are not as strong as they've been, leaving the door open for a relative newcomer like Portland to sneak into a seventh or eighth seed.
If the Blazers manage to integrate their bench successfully and find ways to get late stops, they should be one of the most exciting teams in the league and back in the postseason for the first time since Roy retired.