(SportsNetwork.com) - For the last few years, mediocre teams all around the
league have chosen the route of tanking, rather than building on their
Apparently Neil Olshey didn't get the memo.
The Portland Trail Blazers General Manager took over a franchise riddled with
injuries after the 2010 season and could have thrown in the towel. Greg Oden
and Brandon Roy, once thought to be franchise cornerstones, both suffered
multiple knee injuries which would derail their careers in Portland.
But Olshey stayed the course, opting to hold onto highly-touted young
forwards LeMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum, and is hoping that tanking isn't
the only way to turn around a struggling franchise.
"This is still a process, but everything we did this offseason was with one
goal in mind. We're going to continue to develop our young guys, it's just not
going to come at the expense of winning games," Olshey proclaimed at
Portland's media day. "I think we're talented enough (to make the playoffs)."
Portland has drafted well around its all-star Aldridge, who has averaged 18.3
points and 7.8 rebounds in seven years with the Blazers, and fortified its
bench via free agency. Now Portland, which finished last in the NBA with 18.5
bench points per game last season, 5.6 points worse than 29th-ranked Indiana
Pacers, has a deep, talented roster with a good mix of youthful exuberance and
Perhaps more important than Aldridge to the success of Rip City is the
reigning Rookie of the Year, Damian Lillard. The Weber State product and sixth
overall pick in the 2012 draft made an immediate impact with his new club,
tallying 23 points and 11 assists in a season-opening win over the Los Angeles
Lakers. Lillard led all rookies with 19.0 points and 6.5 assists per game, and
has no plans of slowing down.
"I think I can do a better job of making the people around me better,"Lillard
told the Oregonian. "I want to make the playoffs, I want to make the all-star
Lillard, the fourth ever unanimous Rookie of the Year, broke a rookie
record with 185 3-pointers and led the league with 3,167 minutes played.
Joining Lillard in the upgraded Blazers' backcourt is rookie C.J. McCollum.
Drafted 10th out of Lehigh this past June, the talented young combo guard was
expected to step in as the team's sixth man. Unfortunately, McCollum recently
underwent surgery after fracturing his left foot -- the same injury that ended
his senior season at Lehigh just six games in -- and will miss an undisclosed
amount of time.
If McCollum misses an extended period of time, veteran Mo Williams will be
called on to spell Lillard and play with him in smaller lineups. Capable of
creating or running off the ball, Williams' skill set makes him an invaluable
member of Portland's revamped second unit, especially with McCollum on the
Portland also made deals to solidify its frontcourt in the form of Robin
Lopez, Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson.
Lopez, acquired in a three-team deal from the New Orleans Pelicans, started
all 82 games last season after four years with the Suns and is known for his
energy and interior defense.
Robinson, drafted fifth by the Kings in 2012, failed to find consistent
playing time with Sacramento and Houston last season, but should thrive in a
reserve role playing behind Aldridge.
Wright's outside shooting ability and defensive versatility gives coach Terry
Stotts another weapon he was sorely lacking a season ago.
2012-13 Results: 33-49, 4th in Northwest, Missed Playoffs
ADDITIONS: G Earl Watson, G C.J. McCollum, G Mo Williams, G Allen Crabbe, F
Dorell Wright, F Thomas Robinson, C Robin Lopez
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- Damian Lillard
SG- Wesley Matthews
SF- Nicolas Batum
PF- LaMarcus Aldridge
C- Robin Lopez
KEY RESERVES: G C.J. McCollum, G Mo Williams, G Will Barton, F Dorell Wright,
F Thomas Robinson, F Victor Claver, C Meyers Leonard
FRONTCOURT: Undersized center J.J. Hickson left for Denver in free agency, but
Portland replaced him with a more traditional big man in Lopez. Aldridge, a
perennial 20-point scorer, likes to operate at the high-post. Lopez averaged
2.8 offensive rebounds per game last season -- tied with his brother, Brook,
and three others for 15th best in the league -- and should improve on that
total with Portland.
Batum might be the X-factor for the Blazers. Fresh off a career year in
2012-13 (14.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 4.9 apg) and Eurobasket Championship playing for
his native France this summer, the versatile wing demonstrated that he can
play well with or without the ball in his hands.
BACKCOURT: Lillard is the cog that makes this machine go. His ability to
operate in pick & roll and create for himself both from the outside and at the
rim makes him a dynamic talent. Lillard played a lot of minutes last season,
and should benefit from an improved bench and more rest.
Fifth-year shooting guard Wes Matthews returns to start next to Lillard.
Matthews, originally an undrafted free agent with the Jazz out of Marquette,
made a name for himself as a hard-nosed defender and spot-up shooter who
excels in transition.
BENCH: Gone are the days of Luke Babbitt and Nolan Smith. Portland lost a ton
of production when it went to its bench a season ago, but a handful of under-
the-radar offseason acquisitions should make this year's unit much more
McCollum, when healthy, and Williams will take turns handling and playing off
the ball, while Earl Watson should provide a steady veteran presence when
called upon. Rookie sharpshooter Allen Crabbe's minutes will depend on how
well he performs on the defensive end, whereas second-year Will Barton must
prove he can make shots in order to earn playing time.
Wright and Victor Claver bring terrific size (6'9) to the small forward spot,
which gives coach Stotts a lot of options with his lineups.
Second-year center Meyers Leonard, a raw athlete picked 11th overall out of
Illinois, will be tasked with manning the middle for Portland's reserve unit
next to Robinson, who hopes to have found a home with the Blazers.
COACHING: Stotts has gone 148-217 in five seasons as NBA head coach, making
just one playoff appearance in 2005-06 with the Bucks. Now expectations are
high for Portland and Stotts must deliver a playoff berth, or more, if he
expects to be employed past this season.
The Blazers were not a good defensive unit last season, giving up 100.7
points per game on 47.4 percent shooting, second worst in the league behind
the Bobcats. If Portland expects a significant increase in wins from last
season, it must improve on the defensive end of the floor.
"For us to do what we want to do this year, we have to improve defensively,"
said Stotts during the Blazers' media day. "We're going to change some of our
schemes, we're going to change out emphasis, our mentality about it."
OUTLOOK: The Blazers aren't OKC, or the Clippers or Spurs. But the Western
Conference is more open than its been in recent years. Perennial playoff teams
like Denver, Dallas and the Lakers are not as strong as they've been, leaving
the door open for a relative newcomer like Portland to sneak into a seventh or
If the Blazers manage to integrate their bench successfully and find ways to
get late stops, they should be one of the most exciting teams in the league
and back in the postseason for the first time since Roy retired.
The Sports Network