Can you rebuild on the fly in the NBA while still fighting for a spot in the post-season? The 2013-14 Portland Trail-Blazers are about to find out.
After the summer of 2012, it seemed this team was ready to blow things up and start over, building around their new point guard, Damian Lillard, while entertaining offers for LaMarcus Aldridge, Nic Batum, Wes Mathews and the rest of their existing core. But when the season started and Lillard, in his first pro game, dropped 23 points and 11 assists in a win over the supposed-to-be-Finals-bound Los Angeles Lakers, suddenly the thinking in Portland changed. Maybe this team was good enough to make the playoffs. Maybe a complete rebuild wasn’t necessary. Maybe we should wait and see what happens…
Despite the brilliance of Lillard in his first season, and the continued all-star level play of Aldridge, the Blazers found themselves in NBA no man’s land: not bad enough to land a favourable draft position, but not yet good enough to reach the playoffs ( Toronto Raptors fans, of course, can’t relate to this in the least).
So entering this past off-season the question lingered: Is Portland better off blowing it up and shedding the long-term contracts of its established players, or is this team closer to being competitive than we think? Strangely, the answer might be both.
C.J. McCollum, Robin Lopez, Mo Williams, Thomas Robinson, Dorrell Wright, Earl Watson, Allen Crabbe.
Assessing his team during media day in Portland, Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts called this the deepest roster he’s ever had. And it’s certainly far improved from what we saw last season. The Blazers’ bench is suddenly stacked with Williams and Wright ready to fulfill their destiny as microwave-type bulk scorers. The most intriguing newcomer, however, is Robinson, the fifth pick of the 2012 draft, who’s already on his third team, but who could become a much-needed backup behind Aldridge and Lopez (an underappreciated defender) in the front court.
- The continued ascension of Damian Lillard. Look, Lillard was good last season. Like, historically good. He was one of only three players in NBA history to record 1,500 points and 500 assists in their rookie season. The other two? Oscar Robertson and Allen Iverson. Of course, Lillard was given free reign last season and played a very un-rookie-like 38.6 minutes a game (he started all 82), but make no mistake, even with stellar players like Aldridge and Batum, the Blazers will only go as far as Lillard takes them.
- After a summer of trade rumours, the Blazers are adamant that LaMarcus Aldridge is here to stay… for now. And really, he should stay. A healthy Aldridge is a valuable commodity in the NBA—a reliable, lefty low post threat with a killer mid-range game and a propensity to attract double-teams. You don’t find those very often, and when you do, you hang on to them. Rumour had it that Aldridge was upset at the Blazers tough season last year, but general manager Neil Olshey’s decision to fill the roster with talented veterans has surely gone a long way toward eradicating those concerns.
- Between Lillard, Williams, McCollum and Watson, there are currently four Blazers who deserve minutes at point guard. We know Lillard is going to get the lion’s share, but how will the rest shake out? McCollum, in particular, would benefit from as much court time as possible, and the team seemed wiling to give it to their 10th-overall pick before he broke his foot in practice on Saturday. At the Summer League in Vegas, I caught up with Lillard, who pointed to McCollum’s versatility. “The beautiful thing is that C.J. and I can both handle minutes at the two spot,” Lillard said. “So, really, we have nothing but options—we can play together in the backcourt, or he can back me up. It’s a good problem to have.” The Blazers have yet to set a timetable for McCollum’s return, but whenever he gets back, it seems he’ll be a welcome addition.
McCollum was the obvious choice, but keep an eye on Victor Claver. The recent injury to Wright will likely free up minutes for the second-year small forward from Spain to start the season. Like Wright, Claver is an explosive athlete and a dangerous shooting threat, and all it may take is a handful of big performances off the bench early on for Claver to work himself into a meaningful role in Stotts’ rotation.
Pretty decent. Thanks to some subtle roster moves and the continued growth of the Lillard/Batum/Aldridge core, the Blazers have the parts to be one of the league’s most improved franchises and should make a serious run at the playoffs.