Damian Lillard’s series-clinching three-point shot put the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. However, in the Conference Semifinals, they received a stiff reminder about how far they still have to go from the San Antonio Spurs on their way to a championship.
With a young core and an improved second unit, the Trail Blazers hope to be better prepared to take on the West’s elite.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2014-15 Portland Trail Blazers.
Five Guys Think
Two years ago, LaMarcus Aldridge was intimating that he’d do precisely what Kevin Love just did and leave what was then a pretty uninteresting Blazers team for greener pastures somewhere else. Now, however, the grass is plenty green right where Aldridge is, thanks to an exciting first-round win in last year’s postseason and a roster that’s pretty flush with talent. Damian Lillard is an All-Star now, and with good role players like Nic Batum, Wesley Matthews, Dorell Wright, Robin Lopez, Steve Blake, Chris Kaman and C.J. McCollum, they’re deeper than they’ve been in years. The Western Conference is a tough place to live, but these young Blazers are champing at the bit to get back out there and give their title hopes another go.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
The Portland Trail Blazers were one of the league’s surprising teams in 2014 and should once again flirt with 50 victories and a playoff berth. At the top of the lineup are All-Stars Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge driving the success. Aldridge was nearly out of the door a year ago, but the team’s direction has the veteran forward saying he’d like to retire with the organization. The 2014-15 campaign will be a big one for the franchise in regards to its future makeup. Aldridge, center Robin Lopez and guard Wesley Matthews will all be unrestricted free agents next summer. Forward Nicolas Batum will be a free agent in 2016. So while the club is basking in its recent success, if the team struggles you have to keep in mind their front office might have to pull off some moves to prevent a mass exodus.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Lang Greene
The newly acquired Chris Kaman will add something to a Trail Blazers team that has been capably led by stalwart Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge. The major concern for the Blazers will be one that often affects overachieving young teams—the want of more. Often, after young players experience some level of success, they tend to want more: shots, money and recognition. With Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez each entering the final year of their contracts, Blazers fans should only hope that the group collectively continues to be as cohesive and unified as they were last season. C.J. McCollum opened eyes up during Summer League play in Las Vegas, so whether he gets more minutes and opportunity—and whether he thrives—is a storyline worth keeping an eye on out in Rip City. Out in the Northwest Division, though, as long as Aldridge and Lillard remain healthy, it will be the Blazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder battling for the division crown while the other three teams are left fighting for scraps.
2nd place – Northwest Division
– Moke Hamilton
I jumped on the Portland bandwagon when they drafted Damian Lillard, as I was a big fan when he was at Weber State. However, he has exceeded all expectations in his first two seasons in the NBA, mine included. He’s already an All-Star and All-NBA player, which is incredible. The Blazers went from being a rebuilding lottery team to having one of the better one-two punches in the league in Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, and they should remain a playoff squad as long as those two players are there. We saw what Portland could be when these players are clicking last year in the postseason when they upset the Houston Rockets in the first round. Portland didn’t make any drastic moves this offseason, but they really didn’t need to. Bringing back the same pieces was smart, as their chemistry will be good and they clearly have the talent to be an elite team in the Western Conference.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Alex Kennedy
For the second straight summer the Trail Blazers had a quiet, but very efficient summer. This team’s starting five is set, but last year they were exposed for their lack of a bench in the second round against the San Antonio Spurs. By adding Steve Blake and Chris Kaman, they solidified one of their two most important bench positions with guys who are proven to be capable starters. With their most pertinent needs addressed and a young core that is poised to improve off of the great experience they gained last year, few teams in the West should be feared the way they Trail Blazers are. As long as they stay healthy, it’s not out of the question that they could top the Oklahoma City Thunder and win the Northwest Division.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Yannis Koutroupis
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: LaMarcus Aldridge. While point guard Damian Lillard has received a lot of the headlines, it is forward LaMarcus Aldridge who is the unquestioned top offensive producer for the Blazers. Aldridge was criticized early in his career for his lack of toughness, commitment to rebounding and ability to bang in the post. In his eighth year with three straight All-Star appearances, Aldridge has shredded those critiques to become one of the top power forwards in the NBA (if not the best). Aldridge is a mismatch nightmare against nearly every opponent he faces. His offensive versatility includes the ability to stretch defenses with his silky-smooth mid-range jumper, a variety of polished post moves and the strength and athleticism to overpower opponents. This unique skill set helped Aldridge continue improving his offensive production every year of his career once again with career-high averages of 23.2 points, 11.1 rebounds per game and a team-leading PER of 21.8. Although Lillard and forward Nicolas Batum figure to become more involved on offense this year, the Blazers will still run the offense heavily through Aldridge as their go-to scorer.
Top Defensive Player: Nicolas Batum. Head coach Terry Stotts has made a commitment to including Batum more often in the offense since coming to Portland thanks to his unique skill set. The one skill Batum has been relied upon since coming to the Blazers as a 20-year-old rookie is his ability to play lock-down defense. Batum is one of the most versatile defenders in the NBA thanks to his 6’8′ frame, 7’1′ wingspan and great lateral foot movement. Since his rookie season, Batum has been tasked with guarding the best player on the opposing team whether it’s bigger forwards like LeBron James or Kevin Durant or even some of the elite point guards such as Russell Westbrook or Tony Parker. Batum has effectively limited the stars of the NBA to earn his best defensive rating of his career last season at 106. Batum has the ability to stuff the stat sheet on a nightly basis thanks to his defensive versatility, averaging .7 blocks, .9 steals and a career-high 7.5 rebounds per game. While Batum’s role on offense is expected to grow this season, fans can expect Batum to step up against the best player on the opposing team and pepper the stat sheet on both offense and defense.
Top Playmaker: Damian Lillard. Since coming to the Blazers as a rookie out of Weber State, Lillard has been given the keys to run this team and create plays on offense. Lillard was selected to his first All-Star game last year in just his second season by averaging 20.7 points, 5.6 assists, 3.5 rebounds and .8 steals per game. With his career-high scoring and electric offensive play last year, Lillard announced himself as one of the elite guards in the NBA. Not only has Lillard increased his offensive production, he has also developed a more complete grasp of the Blazers’ offense. Lillard is the spearhead to Stotts’ offensive game plan, creating opportunities with his incredible speed and athleticism. In an offense that requires hitting open shots when available, Lillard is in a great situation with shooters like Wesley Matthews and Batum surrounding him as well as Lillard being unafraid to take the open shot himself. To go with his elite speed and athleticism, Lillard has also improved his three-point jumper to 39.4 percent on nearly seven attempts per game. Lillard’s threat as a three-point shooter makes him nearly unguardable at moments and opens up offensive opportunities for his teammates drastically with his ability to drive, shoot, draw fouls or pull up for a mid-range shot. Lillard will be counted on along with Aldridge to be the top offensive producers this season, but also will be in charge of keeping his teammates involved and the offense balanced.
Top Clutch Player: Damian Lillard. Not only is Lillard the top playmaker for the Blazers, he has also displayed the ability to hit the clutch shot repeatedly in his short career. Everybody remembers his amazing series-winning, last-second three against the Rockets last year in the playoffs to push the Blazers past the first round for the first time in 14 years. However, Lillard really has been clutch since coming into the NBA and the stats show it. According to NBA.com, of the top 25 players in clutch field goal attempts for the regular season last year, Lillard finished with the second highest FG percentage at 47.3 percent, trailing only LeBron James (48.4 percent). Lillard was equally clutch when it came to hitting shots from afar; 44.2 percent of them came from three-point range, which ranks second among players in the top 25 of clutch three-point attempts last season. It’s safe to say Lillard is unafraid of the big moment and has proven to be the best option in late game situations. Expect Lillard to continue having the ball in his hands at the last second and don’t be surprised if he continues to hit game-winning shots.
The Unheralded Player: Robin Lopez. With Aldridge and Lillard getting all the attention, even some of the most attentive Blazers fans forget what a huge presence Robin Lopez has been since coming to the team last year. The 7’0 center was brought on with limited expectations. However, Lopez immediately stepped up as the starting center and became a defensive force for the Blazers. After being limited in his career by injuries, Lopez managed to remain healthy throughout the season and averaged career-highs 8.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game as well as 11.1 points per game. Lopez has also brought toughness to the front court with his defensive presence and focus on controlling rebounds. More importantly, Lopez’s presence allows Aldridge to move back to his natural position of power forward and gives him more options to attack offensively. In the past, Aldridge was forced to play center due to injuries and personnel, which limited his ability on offense and matched him up against bigger players. Lopez is definitely under-the-radar in terms of his production and his important role on both offense and defense. While Lopez may not be the center of the future that fans hope for, he’s the perfect fit for the team right now.
Best New Addition: Steve Blake. In what will be his third stint with the Blazers, the team signed point guard Steve Blake to add depth and a veteran presence to the Blazers’ backcourt. With limited cap space, the Blazers were not able to make a big free agent splash, so they managed to get a player they are comfortable with and knows the organization in Blake. Blake will assume the back-up point guard role from Mo Williams, who left in free agency, as well as run the offense for a young Blazers bench. While Blake may not have the offensive potency that Williams showed, he is a calming veteran presence who can run the offense effectively, play pressure defense, not turn the ball over and hit the three-point shot. Blake will be a huge influence on the young Blazers’ guards like C.J. McCollum and Will Barton as well as bring toughness off the bench that will be needed in late-game situations and in the postseason. For his price and potential impact, Blake is the best addition to the Blazers this offseason.
– Kyle Cape-Lindelin
Who We Like
Neil Olshey: Blazers GM Neil Olshey came to an organization starved for the playoffs and a team that was decimated by injuries to their young stars. Olshey quickly rebuilt the Blazers to a playoff team with the help of established players like Aldridge, Batum and Matthews while adding a star in Lillard through the draft. After a series of fired GMs, it seems apparent the Blazers found their man to manage the roster. Expect Olshey to continue to develop and add to the core going forward, even though he has already assembled a talented contender.
Terry Stotts: Stotts was hired as the head coach three years ago and has completely revamped the team’s offense from the Nate McMillan era. Going from one of the slowest paces and low-scoring offenses run by McMillan, Stotts has evolved the offense into one of best. Averaging 106.7 points per game, which ranked fourth in the NBA, and an incredible offensive rating of 111.5, which ranked second in the NBA, Stotts has shown he’s one of the best offensive coaches in the NBA. Stotts has made this offensive transformation by allowing freedom to his stars Aldridge and Lillard as well as giving opportunities to players like Matthews and Batum thanks to an emphasis on moving the ball, feeding the post and shooting open three-point shots. Stotts appears to be the ideal coach for the Blazers this season and moving forward.
Wesley Matthews: While Batum may be the best and most versatile defender on the Blazers, Matthews is definitely the heart of the team on defense. Matthews has developed great defensive chemistry with Batum to create one of the best perimeter defensive duos in the West. Matthews’ toughness fires up the entire team and he’s always willing to take the big shot to electrify the team. Matthews has grown into a regular scoring threat as he enters his sixth season by posting a career-high 16.4 points per game on .441 percent shooting from the field. A true, blue collar player, Matthews does all the little things including playing solid defesnse, mentoring young players as a leader and stepping up to hit big shots that the Blazers will need this upcoming season.
Will Barton: Third-year guard Will Barton emerged as a spark plug of offensive energy last season from a bench that was heavily criticized for its lack of production. Barton uses his electrifying athleticism and shooting stroke to put up points in a hurry. While Barton has struggled with consistency since entering the NBA, the Blazers hope another year of seasoning and focus on development will push Barton to become a Sixth Man of the Year candidate who is an offensive threat off the bench.
C.J. McCollum: Second-year guard C.J. McCollum was hampered by a foot injury that caused him to miss 44 games last season as well as losing minutes to veteran Mo Williams off the bench. However, with Williams’ departure and McCollum being fully healthy, expect his role to increase this year as the team searches to find an offensive spark off the bench. McCollum’s ability to create his own shot and his strong shooting stroke along with increased minutes should prove that he can be the answer to the Blazers’ troubling bench production.
– Kyle Cape-Lindelin
The Blazers’ strengths have definitely shown through the last two seasons under Coach Stotts on offense. The Blazers’ incredibly effective offense relies on their great three-point shooting and offensive versatility. Thanks to the team’s stars in Lillard and Aldridge, they have two go-to players on offense who can take over a game. However, the Blazers stay balanced by running the offense through the post, moving the ball, attacking the hoop and hitting open shots. Another key strength for the Blazers is their match-up ability on defense. Led by Batum and Matthews, the Blazers can match up with some of the best perimeter attacks in the NBA. Meanwhile, the size and presence of Lopez allows him to match up with some of the elite big men while Aldridge can hold his own on defense with this great size, athleticism and length. The Blazers will continue to rely on hot shooting and riding their stars in Aldridge and Lillard to get the Blazers back to the playoffs and try to become an elite team in the West.
– Kyle Cape-Lindelin
While the Blazers are attempting to address their depth issues by putting faith in the development of their young players, the Blazers still have major issues once their starters take a rest. As their bench relies on young players who are still struggling with consistency, the Blazers routinely lost leads and were forced to over-play their starters last year. Veterans like Kaman and Blake may help, but it’s still a concern. With Stotts being forced to ride his starters to win games, it could also create another problem that Blazers’ fans know all too well: injuries. If the Blazers lose any of their starters, it could be a major blow to the team and with so little room for slippage in the West. The Blazers could go from battling for home court to fighting to even make the playoffs. Another weakness that hurt the Blazers last season was being too predictable on offense. Too often, the Blazers fell into a habit of jacking up three-point shots or trying to force feed Aldridge. The Blazers will need to be injury free this year, remain in a consistent, balanced offense attack and hope their young players develop into quality production off the bench to keep them from dropping off in a loaded Western Conference.
– Kyle Cape-Lindelin
The Salary Cap
The Trail Blazers are hard-capped at $80.8 million after using most of their $5.3 million Mid-Level Exception on Chris Kaman and their $2.1 Bi-Annual Exception on Steve Blake. With 15 guaranteed players, the Blazers aren’t near the hard cap, or even the $76.8 million tax threshold. Diante Garrett has a contract guaranteed for just $30k while Darius Morris and James Southerland have no guarantees. Barring a trade or a buyout with another player, the trio aren’t likely to make the team but may represent the Blazers in the NBA D-League once cut. The Blazers still have $505k of their MLE remaining, but given that’s less than the $507,336 rookie minimum contract – it isn’t enough to sign a player before the season. Joel Freeland and Victor Claver are both eligible for extensions (until Halloween), otherwise they’ll be restricted free agents next summer.
– Eric Pincus
I consider the Blazers more likely to regress because so many of their players had career years, but some are still young enough to improve, especially on defense. That is where all the slack is for the 16th-ranked team on that end, and improvement there will likely be needed to offset regression on offense for a squad that benefited from a lot of career years a season ago. In this scenario, Lillard improves significantly on defense (which happens for a lot of third-year players), while Batum also gets even better on that end, building on his all-tournament performance at the World Cup. Batum has the length and athleticism to be an All-NBA caliber defender, but his upright stance and wavering intensity have prevented it. Lillard also improves his distribution and finishing at the basket. Aldridge and Matthews prove that their shooting a year ago was no fluke, and Coach Stotts is able to cobble together an effective bench rotation from Kaman and the young bigs. Blake plays well enough to avoid the wrath of Portland basketball Twitter, which has reviled seemingly every Blazers’ backup point. Most importantly, the Blazers continue to have near-perfect health.
But even if everything goes as well as it can, this was a 52-win team a year ago by point-differential, so 57 wins seems like the ceiling.
The crazy good health run ends, as the Blazers regress to the mean. If Lillard or Aldridge miss significant time, they really have no adequate replacement for either who has proven capable of playing big minutes at this point. The squad goes a little colder from three-point range, and a great offensive squad regresses to merely good even when healthy. Coach Stotts proves unable to improve the defense (he has never presided over a great defense in his head-coaching career), which regresses slightly. Teams below Portland like Golden State, Memphis, Phoenix, Dallas, and New Orleans all improve, and the Blazers end up with a winning record but out of the playoffs.
– Nate Duncan
The Burning Question
Can the Blazers stay healthy enough to reach elite status in the West?
While the Blazers were able to remain largely healthy for most of last year (and more importantly, the end of the year), the Blazers have a sad history of seasons being derailed by injury. With their lack of depth, any major injury to not only their stars Lillard and Aldridge, but any of their starters could be catastrophic to their playoff chances. The Blazers proved to be one of the best teams in the West when healthy and confident last year. But with no room for error in the West, Stotts will need to manage his starter’s minutes and hope the young player are ready to contribute consistently to the team in order for them to reach the next level of the playoffs.
– Kyle Cape-Lindelin
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