NBA AM: Blazers Ready To Join League’s Elite

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Blazers forward Nic Batum says team has eyes on becoming elite

The Portland Trail Blazers finished the season with 54 wins and advanced past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since the 2000 campaign. The progress  marked a 21 victory improvement over the 2013 season where the team finished 16 games under .500 and faded terribly during the second half the schedule.

Although the Blazers would ultimately be dismantled by the San Antonio Spurs in five games during the Western Conference Semifinals, the future is undoubtedly bright in Portland with a young talented core poised to rise in the league standings.

Blazers forward Nicolas Batum, who figures to play a prominent role in Portland’s ascent in the league’s standings, can’t hide his excitement of what’s to come for his teammates and the organization overall.

“We can be pretty good,” Batum recently told Basketball Insiders at adidas Eurocamp. “We have a young team. That’s a good thing. We are young, Damian [Lillard] is like 22 or 23, I’m 25, [LaMarcus Aldridge] is 27, 28, Wesley [Matthews] is 26, and Robin[Lopez] is 25.  We have a young team. So, if we stay together, we can be okay.”

The Blazers’ roster is largely set for next season, barring the team’s moves in the draft, trade market and free agency this summer. The only players from this past season’s roster headed to free agency are veteran guards Earl Watson (unrestricted) and Mo Williams (player option, likely to opt out).

Portland already has $61 million in payroll on the books for the 2014-15 campaign, so the team likely won’t be making many flashy offseason moves.

While Batum is feeling optimistic about the future, the veteran forward firmly believes his team could have had a better showing in the second round versus San Antonio and will be looking for redemption next season.

“A little bit of both I think,” Batum said.  “No, that was a great season. 54 wins is a nice accomplishment, of course. But the way we ended up, San Antonio is a great team, got most respect for their team, but I think we could give them more resistance. I think if we had played our game like we did against Houston. Houston we had a great series, we played our heart off, I mean we had a great series too. But I guess San Antonio, I think if we play our basketball, we could play better than that so we have this little taste of revenge for next year, so we try to come back to training camp and be ready.

“It’s a long process, long process, you know it’s not easy. It’s starting right now, I’ll get ready for training camp, and then by training camp, try to walk again, try to get a good team, stay together, to have a good 82 season game, it’s a long season, and be ready for the postseason.

One of the driving forces behind Portland’s success, according to Batum, was the trade for center Robin Lopez. The Blazers acquired Lopez in a draft day three-team trade, dealing rookie center Jeff Withey and a pair of future second round picks.

Lopez responded with arguably the best season of his career. The veteran center averaged 11.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and career best 1.7 blocks on 55 percent shooting from the floor in his first season with the Blazers.

“I think he changed everything for us,” Batum said on the emerging Lopez. “We had a good season the year before, we had a great season this year I think because of him. And LaMarcus had a great season because he has Robin beside him. He does all the dirty work for us, I mean rebound and his defense is huge. It’s huge to have a seven foot defensive guy behind you. So, he’s an x-factor for us, of course.”

The continued development of the team’s second All-Star, Damian Lillard, behind big man LaMarcus Aldridge will be crucial for the Blazers’ success moving forward.

Lillard improved significantly over his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2013. The former Weber State standout recorded averages of 20.7 points, 5.6 assists and 3.5 rebounds per night

“Of course, you know Damian’s a tough point guard so he’s doing great, “Batum said. “The other tough thing for him, is that after his great rookie season, [he got better] after the second offseason the next year. He had a better year than his first year, so that’s just who he is. I love to play with him, he’s going to be better next year too, so the sky’s the limit for that guy. ”

With expectations clearly rising in Portland, the Blazers head into the summer  with the goal of reach the second round of the playoffs for consecutive seasons for the first time since 1999-2000 – both of which lost in the Western Conference Finals.

Blazers forward Nic Batum talks about the season, his team and what he is working on this summer.