By now, everyone knows the Portland Trail Blazers had a rough summer. Veterans like LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo and Steve Blake are gone. Youngsters like Al-Farouq Aminu, Noah Vonleh, Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis among others were brought in. Portland will likely fall out of the top eight in the brutal Western Conference, but they’ve assembled an intriguing young core that complements (and can grow alongside) Damian Lillard, who is clearly the franchise player and cornerstone of this franchise. How long will it take for the Blazers to return to relevance? What should we expect from the team in this upcoming campaign?
Basketball Insiders previews the Portland Trail Blazers’ 2015-16 season.
There’s no way to construe the loss of LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency as a good thing, so this Blazers team that has won 50+ games in two consecutive years can go ahead and plan to take a step backward in 2015-16. Portland actually lost most of their starting lineup to free agency or trade over the summer, with Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews and Nic Batum all suiting up for different teams this year. Damian Lillard is all that remains, and that means plenty of big minutes for younger players on the rise, like Mo Harkless, C.J. McCollum, Meyers Leonard, Mason Plumlee and Noah Vonleh. The Blazers want to rebuild with players on the same career arc as Lillard, but that means loads of youth and loads of new faces. That kind of core needs time to grow and adjust, but they can still compete decently in a relatively weak Northwest Division.
3rd Place — Northwest Division
This summer was basically the worst-case scenario for the Blazers, but I like the way they bounced back from losing so many of their veterans. Rather than signing some quick-fix veterans who may have allowed Portland to compete for the eighth seed in the West, general manager Neil Olshey embraced a youth movement and brought in players who can complement two-time All-Star Damian Lillard for years to come. I love the additions of Noah Vonleh, Al-Farouq Aminu, Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis and Moe Harkless among others. The Blazers will take a step back in the short-term, but I think rebuilding rather than retooling was the right long-term move for the franchise. Now, they have one of the better young cores in the NBA and should be back in contention in several years if all goes as planned. I have them finishing third in the Northwest Division, but the final three teams in the division are a toss-up since Denver, Minnesota and Portland are all sort of in the same rebuilding boat. My advice for fans in Portland: Be patient, and enjoy a monster season from Lillard.
3rd Place — Northwest Division
You don’t have to be a genius to figure that the Blazers are going to take a few steps back this season. Without LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews, Nic Batum and Arron Afflalo, they immediately go from being a team that seemed to be one piece away from contending for it all to a team that is a major piece away from even being competitive in the conference. Sounds a bit harsh, I know, but let’s not spend too much time discussing whether or not I’m down on the Blazers. Instead, let’s ask ourselves the most important question: who’s going to be dead last in the Northwest Division? As I see it, the Thunder should cakewalk to the division title while the others will be fighting to remain relevant come Christmas time. Obviously, Damian Lillard is one of the top point guards the league has to offer, and to the front office’s credit, they have retooled their roster with a lot of young pieces that will grow with Lillard over the years. As a top flight organization and with a good front office, I expect the Blazers to once again rise toward the top of the Western Conference, but it’ll likely take them at least two to three years. At least. Godspeed to all my friends out in Rip City.
4th Place — Northwest Division
A before and after photo of the Trail Blazers’ roster from last season will be drastically different. Star players LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews left the team in free agency. Now, Damian Lillard, 25, and Meyers Leonard, 23, are the team’s veteran leaders. During Summer League Leonard said he was looking forward to building a new squad with Lillard. The Trail Blazers were early movers in free agency, quickly signing Al-Farouq Aminu. They also focused on their frontcourt by acquiring Mason Plumlee and Noah Vonleh. Watch for Vonleh, who noticeably added muscle to his frame at Summer League, to improve from his rookie season. The acquisition of Mike Miller gives the young team a championship-winning voice in the locker room who can still knock down shots. This season will be a rebuilding one for the Trail Blazers after losing two of its top contributors.
2nd Place — Northwest Division
Brace yourselves, Blazers fans. Portland is in the process of descending from being a 50 win unit to a rebuilding franchise looking for a new identity. Gone are LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum. Incoming talent includes Al-Farouq Aminu, Gerald Henderson, Noah Vonleh, Mike Miller and Maurice Harkless. That’s an awful lot of firepower to lose, so Blazers fans shouldn’t anticipate the team making a playoff run this season. However, on the bright side, we will get to see how All-Star guard Damian Lillard handles the pressure of being the man.
4th Place – Northwest Division
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: Damian Lillard
This is a no-brainer, as Lillard is one of the best offensive players in the entire NBA. Last season, he averaged 21 points, which ranked 13th-best among all NBA players and fourth-best among point guards. He finished the season fifth in total points (1,720), as he managed to play in all 82 games for the third consecutive year (meaning he hasn’t missed a contest since entering the NBA). The 25-year-old point guard can score from all over the floor and seemingly has unlimited range. In fact, last season Lillard set the NBA record for most three-pointers made through the first three seasons of a player’s career with 599 makes – beating out the previous mark of 545 held by Klay Thompson. The advanced numbers also show what an offensive force Lillard was last year, as he finished fifth in the NBA in Offensive Box Plus/Minus (5.0) and seventh in the NBA in Value Over Replacement player (5.2). Keep in mind, all of these numbers were posted last season while being Portland’s second option on offense behind LaMarcus Aldridge, who attempted 3.2 more shots per game than Lillard. Expect Lillard’s offensive numbers to further increase now that he’ll get more touches with Aldridge gone.
Top Defensive Player: Al-Farouq Aminu
With Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez gone, this was a tough category since we have no idea what to expect from these new-look Blazers on defense. However, Aminu gets the nod here because of the impressive numbers he put up last year with the Dallas Mavericks. The last time we saw Aminu, he was playing the best basketball of his career in the first round of the playoffs against the Houston Rockets. In that series, he averaged 11.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, two steals and 1.6 blocks while shooting 54.8 percent from the field and 63.6 percent from three-point range – despite coming off of the bench in three of the five playoff games. As you can see, Aminu can impact a game with his rebounds, steals and blocks. He’s versatile and disruptive on the defensive end. Over the course of the entire 2014-15 campaign, he averaged nine rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.6 blocks per-36 minutes. He also had the highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus of anyone on Portland’s roster (2.93), ranking 25th in the NBA last year. And at just 24 years old, it’s possible Aminu will continue to improve, especially since he’s expected to take on a much bigger role in Portland than he’s had in the past.
Top Playmaker: Damian Lillard
Once again, this one isn’t particularly hard to figure out. The Blazers will only go as far as Lillard takes them, and there’s no question he’s the best playmaker on the squad. Last year, he averaged 6.2 assists per game and finished 12th in the NBA in total assists (507). This year will be a bit of a challenge for Lillard, especially as a playmaker, since he’ll no longer be surrounded by the talented veterans who made his life as a point guard easier. The assists may not be as easy to come by since his supporting cast isn’t as reliable. Instead, he’ll be tasked with helping this young core improve and putting them in situations to succeed. But Lillard should still excel since he’s one of the game’s best floor generals, who makes everyone around him better.
Top Clutch Player: Damian Lillard
We try not to continually bring up the same player in these previews, but Lillard is just so important to this team and he has to get the nod here. Not only is Lillard the top clutch player on the Blazers, he has arguably become the best crunch-time player in the NBA in recent years. Rather than writing about all of his outstanding game-winning or game-tying shots, just watch this video:
The Unheralded Player: Moe Harkless
In covering the league out of Orlando, I’ve spent a lot of time around Harkless and I can’t wait to see what he does with the Blazers. With the Magic, he was never used correctly by Jacque Vaughn and eventually just fell out of the former head coach’s rotation (without giving any clear-cut reason to Harkless or the media). This change of scenery is exactly what Harkless needs, and I believe he can develop into a contributor for Portland. He’s still just 22 years old and I believe he’ll fit in well with the Blazers’ young core. He needs to be a bit more assertive, but I think that will come with more playing time and increased confidence. The fact that the Blazers gave up literally nothing (a late second-round pick that will never be conveyed) to land Harkless from the Magic shows just how unheralded he is.
Best New Addition: Noah Vonleh
This label could’ve went to a number of players since the Blazers embraced a youth movement this summer, bringing in Mason Plumlee, Al-Farouq Aminu, Gerald Henderson, Ed Davis and Maurice Harkless among others. While I think Aminu may have the biggest impact in the 2015-16 season, I believe Vonleh is the best new addition because he has the highest ceiling of all the players acquired. Remember, just last year he had scouts drooling over his game and he was the ninth overall pick in the draft. He still has a ridiculous amount of potential (he just turned 20 years old yesterday) and all of the physical tools to be a very special player in the NBA. His rookie season was underwhelming due to injuries and a limited role, but he’ll have every opportunity to succeed in Portland.
Who We Like
C.J. McCollum: No player benefits more from this summer’s roster shake-up than McCollum, who will now be thrust into a huge role and may even emerge as the team’s second-leading scorer behind Lillard. The 24-year-old played very well during the final month of the regular season last year, and then lit up the Memphis Grizzlies in the playoffs (scoring 77 points in the series’ final three games). This could be a breakout year for McCollum, and he knows it. He recently spoke to Basketball Insiders about how he’s preparing for his increased role by watching a ton of film and working hard in the gym every day.
Neil Olshey: As previously mentioned, I like the route that Olshey took this summer. Embracing a youth movement was smart and he did a good job stockpiling young players who complement Damian Lillard and will develop on the same career trajectory as the Blazers’ All-Star. Some of the trades he pulled off were impressive too, like getting Moe Harkless – the 15th overall pick in 2012 – for literally nothing. It’s hard for any general manager to bounce back from losing a star like Aldridge and four out of five starters, but Olshey did a great job bouncing back and making nice moves. The team will take a step back in the short-term, but Olshey has set the franchise up nicely for the future.
Meyers Leonard: Like McCollum, the departure of so many key players gives Leonard the chance to shine. Last year, he played well, averaging 5.9 points and 4.5 rebounds in just 15.4 minutes per game. And, like McCollum, he elevated his play in the postseason, averaging 7.8 points and 6.6 rebounds while shooting a ridiculous 66.7 percent from the field and 76.9 percent from three-point range (on 2.6 attempts per game). Leonard will have to compete for minutes with newcomers like Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis in the frontcourt, but he could have a big year for the Blazers. And keep in mind, he’s still just 23 years old so his best basketball is obviously still ahead of him.
Ed Davis: Speaking of Davis, he may be one of the more underrated players in the NBA. Last year, the Los Angeles Lakers somehow landed Davis on a minimum contract and he overplayed his deal by averaging 8.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.2 assists in 23.3 minutes per game, while shooting 60.1 percent from the field. He was one of the few bright spots on a terrible Lakers team last season. Fortunately for Davis, he finally received the type of contract he deserves this summer, inking a three-year, $20 million deal with Portland. Much like in Los Angeles, Davis will play whatever role is asked of him, do the dirty work in the paint and put up quietly impressive numbers. Basketball Insiders chatted with Davis about joining the Blazers earlier this summer and he has said he’d love to finish his career in Portland, so it’s clear the relationship between player and team is off to a great start.
In most of these previews, we’ll talk about a team’s 2014-15 stats, but those simply aren’t applicable for the Blazers. You can throw the numbers out, because this team is completely different than last year’s squad. Without seeing this specific group play a game together yet, the two strengths that immediately jump out are point guard play and their youth.
Having Lillard is huge for this team, since this is the golden age of point guards in the NBA and it’s a whole lot easier to compete when you have a great one. Lillard has been fantastic in his first three NBA seasons, and he should only get better in his fourth year as he steps into a more prominent role with the Blazers.
Another strength for this team is their flexibility. They have just $47,879,873 in guaranteed commitments for this year and $36,169,518 in guaranteed commitments for next season. That means they’ll have a ton of cap room to work with. They can use this to sign players or to pick up assets through trades. Portland did this earlier this offseason, when they agreed to take Brendan Haywood and Mike Miller off the Cleveland Cavaliers’ hands, and picked up two second-round picks for facilitating the deal. The picks help Portland, and the deal helped the Cavaliers because they got a traded-player exception for Haywood (which they have one year to use in a trade before it expires) and were able to dump Miller’s contract. The Philadelphia 76ers have been very successful in using their flexibility to pick up assets in trades, and Portland can do the same thing as their young team develops.
The team’s biggest weakness is going to be their inexperience. As I’ve said, I like that they went young rather than trying to go for the quick fix and finish eighth or ninth in the West. But expecting this young group to win a lot of games just isn’t realistic. The Blazers have 14 players who are 25 years old or younger on the roster, which is third-most in the NBA behind only the Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers. Those young players give the team a core to develop as well as flexibility going forward, but these players are inexperienced and many will be asked to step into much larger roles than they’ve played in the past. Lillard is the only sure thing on the team, which is somewhat scary. But it also means there’s plenty of opportunity for young players to step up and establish themselves in Portland.
The Burning Question
How quickly will the Blazers be able to turn things around?
It’s going to take some time for Portland to be a playoff team again, especially in the brutal Western Conference. As previously mentioned, the Blazers have a ton of young guys on this team. They will need to develop those players and have them reach their full potential before we’re talking about Portland competing at a high level again. However, the Blazers do have something that a lot of young, up-and-coming teams don’t and that’s a superstar. Damian Lillard could significantly accelerate their rebuild and it’ll be exciting to see what he can do as the main attraction in Portland. With all of the young talent on the roster (and some top picks likely coming in the next few years), this could be a team that is very good a few years down the road when all of their young guns are hitting their stride at the same time.
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