It has been a quiet summer in Portland, where the biggest story may have been the hailing of the team's nickname as the best in the league. While this author feels that article underrated the intimidation factor of Our Beloved Puppies, the Trail Blazers do have an excellent name, logo, arena, and fan base, all in the service of a superficially successful, yet ultimately tortured history.
The Blazers were one of the feel good stories for most of the 2013 season. With under five reliable NBA players to start the season, the team was expecting to take a major step backwards despite the best efforts of Nicolas Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge. Instead, Portland stayed around .500 for most of the year with the help of Damian Lillard, who played a mindboggling 3,167 minutes as a rookie, and J.J. Hickson, who put up enough numbers to counteract the other J.J. Hickson things J.J. Hickson does. In doing so, they confounded many analysts, who expected that the lack of a bench and quality defenders would sink the squad to the bottom of the Western Conference.
The S.S. Blazer started taking on copious amounts of water in February, after a high mark of 25-23, and the bottom disintegrated in March, as the Blazers lost their final 13 games in a row, confounding and delighting both the superstitious and the degenerate gamblers of the NBA family. (Portland's preseason over/under line was 33.5. They finished 33-49.) Despite the disastrous close to the season, there are plenty of reasons for guarded optimism in Portland, as the team showed promise last year and made many improvements around the margins during the summer.
Like another Western Conference squad, the Blazers' biggest reason for optimism is a power forward who will be a free agent in two years. LaMarcus Aldridge is often criticized for an over reliance on the mid range jump shot, but is a deceptively effective player despite mediocre rebounding and shooting efficiencies. Aldridge has put up gaudy raw plus minus numbers the past three years and his RAPM has been very solid during that time. In addition, Aldridge's teams have consistently rebounded better with him in the game, even though his individual numbers are not very impressive. When factoring in his durability and defense, which has been very good by on/off numbers, if underwhelming in other statistical measures, the turnover averse Aldridge forms an almost perfect example of a player who will be underrated by a simple box score analysis.
Damian Lillard also does not excel by some statistical measures, but won Rookie of the Year almost by acclimation, and deserves credit for leading the league in minutes played as a rookie. He also made some big shots early in the season which helped excuse the too frequent 4-14 performances. Nitpicks like "defense" and "shot selection" aside, Lillard is already an above average point guard and further improvement will do quite a lot to help the Blazers back into the playoffs. Like Aldridge, his eye-popping raw plus minus may be an indication that his somewhat inefficient shot selection may have been warranted at times, given the skill of the other players on the court.
Nic Batum is one of the more divisive players among NBA junkies. Some see a swingman who has the tools to shoot, pass, handle, and defend at a high level. Others see a sixth year player who has yet to carry a high efficiency or post advanced defensive numbers that match his perceived skills. He did post a career high -0.5 DRAPM last year, after some truly dreadful years, which may provide some hope that his production will begin to catch up with his perception.
As can be intuited from the previous paragraphs, the Blazers biggest problems last year were defensive. Aldridge, the little used Jared Jeffries, and somehow, against all expectation, J.J. Hickson, were the team's only defenders with a positive RAPM. The bench of Meyers Leonard, Eric Maynor, Will Barton, Victor Claver, and Luke Babbitt were particularly execrable, actually on both sides of the ball, and the team hoped to move the defense closer to mediocre with the acquisitions of Robin Lopez and Dorell Wright. Neither will make Trail Blazer fans forget Jerome Kersey or Bob Gross but both should provide an upgrade to the team's 26th ranked defense.
The Blazers are also relying on a few unproven lottery picks to fill key roles off the bench. Pre-emptive fan favorite CJ McCollum will back up veteran Wesley Matthews. With enough playing time and shots, McCollum could contend for the Rookie of the Year. Thomas Robinson had a rocky first season, making his way through three cities, and having serious efficiency problems. On the other hand, he showed the ability to rebound and has the tools to develop into a plus defender. Likewise, Meyers Leonard showed an enthusiastic proclivity for dunking on 50 year old point guards. He's also seven feet tall, so the Blazers are hoping he can backup the center position with more effectiveness than he did last year.
If the Blazers are effective, it will be through spacing and shooting. Lillard, Matthews, Batum, Wright, McCollum, and new acquisition Mo Williams are all dangerous three point shooters and Aldridge's 18 footers open additional driving lanes. For the team to make the playoffs, the added shooting needs to catapult the offense to top 10 levels, while the defense needs to "not fall apart" as spectacularly as last season. The team does not have the personnel to fully shut other teams down, but a well executed, conservative system could produce similar results to Golden State's 2013 renaissance. Another year of experience for the fairly young roster should help.
The eventual ceiling of this team is a little harder to work out, though the aforementioned Zach Lowe had the temerity to publish an article on that very subject as I was writing this. As I see it, the current core has a ~48 win ceiling, and unless Lillard, McCollum, or Batum become an All-Star, Portland will stay in the 6-9 seed limbo for the next few years. If that is not enough for the team's fans, then either a major free agent signing or Harden style trade may be needed to make the Blazers Finals contenders again.