Sunday, October 7, 2012

Team Preview: Portland Trail Blazers

Okay, I've been really looking forward to doing this one, so let's get stuck into it. Portland's tale of woe is well known amongst NBA fans nowadays, how they cleaned up their image and formed a core which had championship written all over it, but were cruelly struck down by injury and are now forced into yet another rebuild.

However, thanks to some questionable decisions by the Brooklyn Nets and some savvy drafting, the Blazers were able to retain pieces of their old core whilst adding high draft picks and one of the better incoming rookie classes of any NBA team. So let's see what Rip City can look forward to next season.

The guard rotation for Portland is a youth movement, with only Wes Matthews and Ronnie Price having enough NBA experience to be called veterans. Outside of these two, Damian Lillard, Elliot Williams, Will Barton and Nolan Smith are all more or less new to the pro ranks. Wes Matthews, the undrafted wonder, is the sort of shooting guard every team would like to have, he's a hard worker, can play excellent defence, shoots the long ball consistently well (career 39% from deep) and doesn't need the ball in his hands for half of the shot-clock to get his numbers. That said, he can sometimes fall in love with his own shot, and can force tough shots at times, so ego is a slight concern. He's in a position to be a starter for this Blazers team until his contract runs out, but he's a glorified role player at best, and if the Blazers are going to improve their lot and rejoin the West's elite teams, they will need to find scoring and play-making from other positions, because Matthews can't be relied upon to create off the dribble, and open looks are hard to find in the playoffs. The other vet, Ronnie Price, will play sparingly in this young backcourt, but will provide a role model for their young guards as a guy who's been there and done that. Surprise lottery pick Damian Lillard will be immediately handed the keys to the offence, with Raymond Felton departing for the Knicks this off-season. Although I'm hesitant about Lillard's ability to thrive as a scoring point in the NBA, he's made the right start by destroying Summer League competition on his way to Co-MVP in Vegas with Josh Selby of the Grizzlies. Playing against inferior competition in his college years, nobody knows if his play in the Summer League was a sign of things to come or an anomaly. Whether he can get his team mates involved, develop some chemistry with incumbent franchise cornerstones Nicolas Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge will be a determinant of his future in the NBA; he could be a star, or just one of many athletic point guards in this generation. Either way, he's already done enough to prove he belongs in the NBA. Elliot Williams is also an unknown quantity for this team, despite two years already spent with the organisation. Unfortunate injuries have held him back from seeing significant time, but if he can stay healthy he'll likely be the first shooting guard off the bench in the early part of the season, but might lose out to second-rounder Will Barton if he doesn't impress early. Barton is a long-time favourite of mine and while I was stunned he fell as far as he did, Portland is the perfect situation for him; they have enough veterans to take the pressure off him and let him develop at his own pace, but the players ahead of him on the depth chart aren't cornerstones, and he certainly has the capacity to beat out any of their current off-guards given a bit of NBA seasoning. He was one of the best guard rebounders in college last season, despite his slender frame, and his competitive will to win is impressive. Although he's an unorthodox player right now, and needs to improve his jump shot, he's a battler who will put in the work to address those weaknesses. Most recently, Barton grabbed headlines by scoring 72 points against the likes of Brandon Jennings, Kemba Walker, Derrick Williams and other Under Armour athletes as part of the brand's promotional tour across the country. If you haven't seen the highlights yet, check them out, because although the defensive pressure wasn't NBA level, Barton clearly got under the skin of Jennings and simply scored at will, regardless of who tried to stop him. Nolan Smith is a combo guard who was surprisingly taken in the first round last season after a storied career at Duke, but he's best suited as a spark plug off the bench, and should backup Lillard at the point for lack of an alternate on the roster.

Small Forwards:
Although he tried to escape to the north this off-season, Nicolas Batum is once again a Trail Blazer after they matched his deal, and will take the lion's share of the minutes at the 3, with little depth behind him. Now that he's inked the new contract, the pressure is on Batum to improve his scoring output, continue his defensive excellence and provide leadership for the younger members of the squad. Batum should look no further than Luol Deng for inspiration; Deng has made a career of stingy defence and picking his moments to score with his smooth jumper, despite lacking a particularly tight handle. Batum has excellent size, a nice shooting stroke and great mobility, but he can be indecisive with the ball in his hands and lacks the confidence in his offensive game to take chances at times. If Batum wants to be a star, as he recently told the press, he can start by showing more self-belief. Backing up Batum will be Luke Babbitt. Babbitt was the 16th pick a few years back, but has failed to break into the rotation before now, with Batum and Gerald Wallace ahead of him on the depth chart, but with Wallace gone and Batum starting full-time, the position of backup SF is there for the taking if Babbitt has the drive to take it. He'll provide the outside shooting that saw him taken in the first round, but it's unlikely he'll bring much else to the table this season. Luckily, there isn't too much pressure and he can develop at his own pace. With Craig Smith off to Israel this season, there's a good chance the Blazers will sign another SF before the start of the season, and if rumours are to be believed, former 3rd overall pick Adam Morrison could be that guy. Morrison was supposed to be the second coming of Larry Bird, but a tough loss in college killed his spirit, and the fire that made him a star in college was never really seen in the pros. This is his last chance to stick on an NBA team, and for his sake I hope he can. If not, he'll just have to be satisfied with the two championship rings he earned while a part of LA's benchwarming unit.

The frontcourt is where Portland's future lies, with All-NBA power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, incoming rookie Meyers Leonard, J.J. Hickson, Jared Jeffries and new import Joel Freeland making up the rotation. Aldridge is the reluctant face of the franchise, a mobile seven-footer who has a smooth jumper, great defensive timing and a versatile offensive skill-set. However, while he flourished in Roy's absence recently, once the novelty of having all the shots he wanted wore off, Aldridge's intensity wore off, as the constant double teams and pressure got to him. That said, at his best, he's the best two-way power forward in the NBA, and with a new coach, a new aura of optimism in Rip City, Aldridge, now 27, will be entering his prime years at just the right time. Whether he can continue to elevate his game and embrace the pressure of being a franchise player will be a determinant of his place as the NBA's best power forward, or the most underrated. Joining Aldridge is Meyers Leonard. The freakishly athletic Leonard is extremely mobile for his size, has great length, and is surprisingly capable with the ball in his hands. That said, he is still raw offensively and has a tendency to coast, rather than assert himself on the block and use his size and strength to dominate games. Luckily, Leonard landed alongside a premier scoring big man, and his role will be to defend, rebound and run the floor, and if he can do these things in his rookie year it will be a success. As Aldridge ages and Leonard develops there's a good chance they can maintain a dominant presence inside between the two of them for many years to come. J.J. Hickson is an athletic beast, and despite bouncing around a few teams in the aftermath of Lebron's Decision, he seems to have found a niche in Portland as a scoring big man off the bench, with his ability to make tremendous athletic plays giving him an immediate edge against the majority of bench bigs in the NBA. That said, he's traditionally played his best in extended minutes, and whether he can produce in limited minutes will be a question that needs to be addressed before the season's end, when he'll be up for another contract. Jared Jeffries is a defensive specialist, and at the very least he'll be able to mentor Meyers Leonard on that side of the ball and provide minutes off the bench or as a starter without disturbing team chemistry. Joel Freeland was a player many thought would never make it to the NBA, but he's finally arrived, and while he's not going to turn the franchise around, he's a big body who's had plenty of experience playing professional basketball, despite being new to the NBA. The Blazers will likely take a "centre by committee" approach this season, with Leonard, Jeffries and Freeland all sharing minutes, as none of them is capable of extended play at the 5 for various reasons (age and offensive ability chief among them).

Interesting Storylines:
Whether the Blazers new point guard will put his License to Lillard to good use is going to be worth watching as the season progresses, but to me the most interesting storyline comes from the bench mob. With sixth man extraordinaire Jamal Crawford gone to LaLa-land, the role of bench scorer is up for grabs, with a number of worthy candidates in Barton, Smith and Williams. However, only one of these guys will be given the responsibility of putting up numbers off the bench, and with no precedent to fall back on given the relative inexperience of the group, this is a role that will be determined solely by merit. If I were a betting man, I'd go all-in on Barton cementing himself as first guard off the bench by season's end, but only time will tell.

Season Prospectus:
The Blazers have bottomed out as much as they can afford to with Alridge's peak years beginning now, so tanking another season to secure a high lottery pick isn't an option. However, the playoffs are likely out of reach, so Coach Stotts needs to use this season to install his systems, teach these guys how to win and prepare for a serious playoff push when his young team has another year of seasoning under their belts. Aldridge is too good a player for the Blazers to go much lower than 10th in a deep Western Conference, but if they can develop their young players and win 35-40 games this will be a successful year for a franchise and city that desperately needs a win.

Next up, Phoenix Suns.

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