Portland Trail Blazers Season Preview: Can Lillard and Aldridge Lead Their Team to More Playoff Success? - Blazer's Edge
The overall goal is to progress past the second round of the playoffs next spring and join the conversation as one of the NBA's elite teams. Focusing on and improving the team's weaknesses mentioned above -- pick-and-roll defense, help-side defense and bench production -- are smaller goals that should lead to more playoff success. Individually, Lillard hopes to continue his ascension into the upper echelon of NBA point guards. Defending effectively against screens topped his to-do list this summer, while seeing an improved ability to finish in traffic would make his offensive game even more potent. To Lillard's credit, he did get better at scoring at the rim as last year progressed, and Blazers fans hope to see that carry over into this season.
2013-14 IN REVIEW
2nd in Northwest Division - 5th in Western Conference
The 2013-14 season was a very energetic and exciting time for Rip City. The Trail Blazers entered the year coming off of a tough 33-win season, but hope was restored throughout the organization and fan base on account of LaMarcus Aldridge's progression into one of the best big men in the NBA along with their budding star rookie Damian Lillard, who proved to be a game changer right away.
We saw flashes of brilliance in 2012-13, but last season would be a different ballgame. In Terry Stotts' second year as Portland's head coach, his Blazers improved drastically on both ends of the floor and not only transformed into a Western Conference threat, they experienced their largest single-season turnaround in franchise history. Portland won 54 regular season games, improving their win total by 21 and jumping from 11th in the west to fifth in 2014-15.
The tandem of Aldridge and Lillard not only continued to elevate their games, they became one of the most dynamic duos in basketball and were a nightmare for all 29 teams to defend every single night. Aldridge would put together his best season as a pro, earning his third consecutive All-Star selection behind career highs of 23.2 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. His backcourt sidekick was virtually just as impressive, joining him in the All-Star game in just his second season in the NBA and scoring 20.7 points per game to go along with 5.6 assists and 218 three-point field goals, good for third in the league.
They weren't the only ones to play their best basketball to date, however. In fact, the entire starting lineup performed at higher levels than ever before. Wesley Matthews posted a career high 16.4 points per game and finished fifth in the NBA in three-point makes for the second time in three years, while Nicolas Batum easily played the most consistent all-around ball of his career thus far. Batum scored 13 points per contest along with career highs in rebounding (7.5 RPG) and assists (5.1 APG), not to mention his most efficient year from the field (46.5%) since his second season in 2009-10.
On top of that, one of the biggest components of Portland's improved defense was attributed to the presence of Robin Lopez, who exceeded expectations in terms of his impact on the floor in his first year with the team. Lopez appeared in all 82 games for the second straight season and played his most disciplined basketball as a pro. The seven-footer provided a big time defensive presence, vocal leadership and a nonstop level of activity that ultimately changed the entire landscape of Portland's defense. Lopez scored 11.1 points per game to go along with a career high 8.5 rebounds, a significant jump from his previous best of 5.6, and ended up finishing third in the NBA in total offensive rebounds (326), fifth in total blocks (139 - 1.7 BPG) and seventh in field goal percentage (55.1%).
Lopez was expected to provide a lift down low, but nobody anticipated that kind of performance.
Portland earned the fifth seed in the Western Conference playoffs, where they matched up with the new-look Houston Rockets that were headed by a dynamic duo of their own in James Harden and Dwight Howard. They would be no easy out, but Terry Stotts' gang was more than ready for the challenge.
LaMarcus Aldridge opened up their 2014 postseason campaign with one of the best games of his life, if not the best, by putting up a monstrous 43 points and 18 rebounds to lead Portland to a two-point victory to set to tone in the series. Perhaps just as impressively, he followed up in Game 2 with 43 points while Damian Lillard flirted with a triple-double as the Blazers put themselves in the driver's seat.
Lillard came to play in Game 3, coming correct with his second 30-point performance of the series. Portland was unable to hang on to win in another fast-paced affair, but that would also be far from his best individual moment. With a 3-2 series lead, Portland was down on 98-96 on the scoreboard with 0.9 seconds to go in Game 6. This, as they say, is where amazing happens. In the closing milliseconds, Damian Lillard flashed high to the left corner and absolutely rocked the Moda Center with a cold-blooded series-clinching game-winner in the face of Chandler Parsons at the buzzer.
The kid is a stone cold killer, and that miraculous clutch shot advanced the Trail Blazers to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2000, where they lost that epic seven-game series to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. Simply put, Damian Lillard has arrived and so has his team.
Their Western Conference Semifinals appearance would be short and sweet, however, as they ran into the hungry eventual champion San Antonio Spurs and were taken out in five games. Even without any hardware to take home, the Blazers ended their season with their heads held high. They may not have been quite ready for a championship run, but we saw glimpses of what is to come and you can't help but get excited about the potential this team has going forward.
SUMMER OF 2014
Key Additions - Chris Kaman, Steve Blake
Key Losses - Mo Williams
The Trail Blazers didn't necessarily make any blockbuster headlines this summer, but they improved their depth by adding to a bench that was in need of a lift.
Portland's best bench performer from last season, Mo Williams, decided to move on after just one year with the team and ended up signing a one-year deal with a division rival in the Minnesota Timberwolves. This was an impactful loss, but they found a very serviceable replacement at backup point guard by reintroducing Steve Blake to the Trail Blazers family. This will become Blake's third stint in Portland, as he played under head coach Nate McMillan in 2005-06 and again from 2007-2010. In 269 accumulative games in the red, white and black, Blake has put up 8.9 points and 4.7 assists per game.
In 27 games for the Lakers in the first half of last season, Blake put up 9.5 points and 7.6 assists per contest in Steve Nash's absence, and was well on his way to one of his best years as a pro before the mid-season trade that sent him to Golden State. Blake is a fiery competitor that will bring an outside shooting threat, an excellent pick n' roll option and a savvy veteran that knows how to run an offense. He also plays well in an accelerated pace, something Portland is able to successfully do opportunistically.
Portland also improved their frontcourt depth by signing Chris Kaman to a two-year, $9.8 million deal with the second year coming as a team option. Kaman is not quite the impact player he was as a Los Angeles Clipper five or six years ago, where he even earned an All-Star appearance, but he is still a legitimate seven-footer that can clog the lane, provide a lift offensively and give you double-digit scoring production on any given night. In fact, he has averaged at least 10 points per game every single year since 2005, including last season when he scored 10.4 points in only 18.9 minutes per game with the Lakers.
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
C - Robin Lopez / Chris Kaman / Meyers Leonard
PF - LaMarcus Aldridge / Thomas Robinson / Joel Freeland / Victor Claver
SF - Nicolas Batum / Dorrell Wright / Will Barton
SG - Wesley Matthews / C.J. McCollum / Allen Crabbe
PG - Damian Lillard / Steve Blake
X-FACTOR - Bench Production
As excellent of a season as the Trail Blazers put together last year, one thing they were certainly lacking on a consistent basis was strong bench production. This summer, they lost their top bench performer from last year's squad in Mo Williams, and they're going to have to find a way to produce at a higher level.
Portland has added some solid pieces off the bench this offseason by upgrading at backup center with Chris Kaman, along with replacing Williams with a quality veteran like Steve Blake. The biggest key off the bench, however, may end up being C.J. McCollum. The electric combo guard began his rookie season behind the ball as he suffered a broken foot prior to his first year as a pro, and only played 12.5 minutes per game in 38 appearances. With that said, McCollum is one of the most talented players to come out of the 2013 draft, and he is eager to burst on the scene. He may very well act as the top source of offensive production with the second unit in 2014-15.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2014-15
As long as the Trail Blazers stay healthy, you can expect a similar kind of regular season as last year, where they reach the 50-win plateau and earn a mid-seeded Western Conference playoff spot. Once we hit playoff time, advancement comes down to matchups and execution but this Blazers team is going to have a chance to make an even deeper run.
If Portland continues to improve defensively and the second unit can give them more of a lift than last year, this team can make some noise as a potential Western Conference finalist. In 2014-15, you can expect the Blazers to be one of the most enjoyable teams to watch in the NBA and the potent duo of LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard is only going to get better as we move forward.
Sit back and enjoy, Blazers fans. Rip City is on the rise.
2nd - Northwest Division
5th - Western Conference
Keep your eyes peeled for the Milwaukee Bucks team preview, coming tomorrow morning.