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Around the NBA: Portland Trailblazers, Dallas Mavericks, and Utah Jazz

Last week we took a look at the three worst teams in the Western Conference in our Around the League series, and now we move up a notch to the rest of the (non-Timberwolves) Western Conference lottery teams.

Nowitzki. Jump shot.
Nowitzki. Jump shot.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Our Around the League series continues:

Portland Trailblazers (33-49) 11th in the Western Conference

Salary: $43M committed for eight players in 2013-14

What they did well: Drafted Damian Lillard, the Rookie of the Year. Stayed healthy, at least through most of the season. Scored the ball. They were more or less a league average offense behind a high volume of three pointers (led by Lillard, Wes Matthews, and Nicolas Batum) and the excellence of LaMarcus Aldridge at the power forward spot. They didn't get to the line much or get many offensive rebounds, but their relative shooting quality made their offense legitimate.

Damian Lillard highlights:

What they did poorly: Stopped anyone. Rebounded the ball. Got anything from their bench. The Blazers really struggled on defense this year, allowing teams a .512 efg% and forcing a 12.5% turnover percentage, both bottom five marks in the league. Much of this has to do with Lillard's defensive struggles, which are not unexpected for a rookie, and also the fact that they were starting J.J. Hickson at center. Hickson had a good year in some ways, but he simply isn't big enough to be a defensive force inside the paint, and that has never been Aldridge's game either. They also had one of the worst benches in the league. Meyers Leonard, their second lottery pick, fared alright for a 20 year old rookie center, (though like the rest of the squad struggled defensively), and...that's about it. Win Shares is what it is, but the Blazers gave more than 20% of their minutes to guys with WS/48 of .022 or worse.

I find the Blazers fascinating. They had five guys who, in a vacuum, look like decent or better starters in the NBA. They have an all-star quality performer in Aldridge, and the ROY. So in some ways, it's tough to see a clear path for them to get a lot better. Hickson is a free agent and the Blazers won't bring him back, so center is an obvious position to upgrade, and a very difficult position to upgrade. They obviously aren't going to change things at the one or the four, and they just invested a lot of money at small forward in Batum. That leaves the shooting guard spot, but how easy is it to find someone better than Wes Matthews?

Of course the depth has to be improved. But one senses that they need another star to really re-enter the world of contenders. The Blazers hold the 10th pick in the draft this year as well as three picks in the first half of the 2nd round (including the Wolves pick). They have some cap space. With wise use of these resources, as well as likely improvements from their 2nd year guys, I think the Blazers can be right back in the playoffs conversation. Taking that next step into the upper echelon of the West is somewhat murkier.

Dallas Mavericks (41-41) 10th in the Western Conference

Salary: $38M for 5 players (assuming Marion opts in and Mayo opts out).

What they did well: Kept their powder dry? It seems useless to talk about how they did on the court this season, since so much of the team is likely to be different in 2013-14, with only Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter, and Shawn Marion likely to be back among their core players. Drafted Jae Crowder and thus ensured that Canis Hoopus would be paying attention to them? Got a fine season at low cost from Vince Carter, who appeared somewhat rejuvenated in Dallas, and is under contract for next year at $3.2M.

What they did poorly: Score any stars last summer. Allowed Dirk Nowitzki to get a year older without a potentially contending team around him. Rebound the ball. They still had a fairly effective offense build around Nowitzki, Carter, and reasonably good years from Marion and O.J. Mayo, but they weren't competitive on the boards, and lacked any defensive bite.

Following their championship run in 2011, the Mavericks made the decision not to bring that team back and try again. This was understandable: that team had not dominated the league, simply had a great playoff run. And it was going to get even more expensive to keep. So they let Tyson Chandler (and J.J. Barea!) walk that summer, and let Jason Terry and Jason Kidd leave in the summer of 2012, with the purpose of freeing cap space for 2012 and going after a big star to pair with Dirk Nowitzki. Unfortunately for them, Dwight Howard wound up opting in to his final year and being traded to the Lakers, Deron Williams re-signed with the Nets, and the Mavericks were left with money but nowhere to spend it. They responded by acquiring players on one year deals (Chris Kaman, Darren Collison, and O.J. Mayo) so they could re-enter the market place this summer. One expects they will make a play for Dwight Howard (again), but beyond that, it isn't clear where they might look.

They hold the 13th pick in the draft, and potentially significant cap space. Mark Cuban has been quoted as saying that Dallas should be a contender in the next two years, but the truth is that Nowitzki is no longer in his prime, and even though he's said he'll take a paycut on his next contract, it looks more and more likely that the Nowitzki era in Dallas will end with two trips to the finals and one championship. Which is pretty good. We'll see what the next great Mavericks team looks like. Despite a committed owner, it could be a bit of a wait.

Utah Jazz (43-39) 9th in the Western Conference

Salary: $24M committed to 6 players (assuming Marvin Williams opts in).

What they did well: Collected depth in the front court. Played good offense behind a lot of free thows and offensive rebounds. Set themselves up to have immense flexibility this summer. Much like Dallas, so much of this team could change that the specifics of their on-court performance seem almost beside the point.

What they did poorly: Had no point guard. Got little from the wing positions outside of Gordon Hayward. Struggled defensively, especially with fouls and defending the three point line.

It feels like the Jazz have been waiting for this summer since the Deron Williams trade brought them Derrick Favors. In the meantime, they have tried to put a competitive team on the floor, something they clearly value (hey! how about that?). This summer, their two front court veterans, Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, are free agents, while their pair of young bigs, Favors and Enes Kanter, who have been apprenticing for the past couple of years, remain on their rookie contracts. This gives the Jazz options: they can bring back one or neither of the veterans, and in the meantime have a bunch of cap space as Mo Williams' contract also comes off the books.

They hold the 14th and 21st picks in the first round of the draft, and no matter what they do about Millsap and Jefferson they must address the perimeter. They are desperate for a quality point guard, as there are none on the roster, and must improve their wing situation as well. Defense will have to be a priority. The Jazz are in a position to change their roster significantly this summer, how they go about it will be one of the interesting stories to watch.

What say you about these three teams?