ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Portland Trail Blazers

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Last season: For the first few months of the season, the Blazers had the best record in the Western Conference, something nobody saw coming. They cooled off a bit after that hot start but still finished 54-28, good for the fifth seed. Damian Lillard made his first All-Star team, LaMarcus Aldridge made his third straight, the addition of Robin Lopez gave them the rim protector they had sorely needed, and starters Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews had solid years. They beat the fourth-seeded Houston Rockets in six games in the first round, their first playoff series win since 2000.

Signature highlight from last season: Try “Signature highlight of the franchise’s existence.” Lillard’s buzzer-beating three to give Portland its first postseason series win in 14 years wasn’t just the defining moment of the Blazers’ season, it was one of the greatest shots in playoff history, period.

Key player changes: With no draft picks and no significant cap space, the Blazers had a quiet offseason. They let backup point guard Mo Williams walk and signed Steve Blake and Chris Kaman. Not the flashiest pickups in the world, but both are veterans who fill positions of need off the bench.

Keys to the Blazers’ season:

Will the streak of good health continue? Just about everything broke right for Portland last season, injury-wise. Aldridge missed a couple weeks with a back injury, but other than that, the Lillard-Matthews-Batum-Aldridge-Lopez starting five was stable and productive. It’s a lot easier for head coach Terry Stotts to tinker with the bench rotation when the starters are as locked-in as they were. Two straight years of that kind of stability is a lot to ask.

How much will the young guys improve? Since the Blazers are bringing back essentially the same team they had last season, their best hope for improvement is in some of their younger bench players.  Will Barton was one of the few bright spots in the Blazers’ second-round loss to the Spurs. Rookie C.J. McCollum missed the first three months of the season with a broken foot and never really cracked the rotation when he returned. Meyers Leonard still hasn’t proven he’s an NBA player. Last year’s starters played the second-most minutes of any five-man unit in the league (1,373) and their next-most used unit played just 119 minutes. As good as their starters are, somebody is going to get banged up or get into foul trouble at some point, and at least a couple of that group of young players needs to step up as a reliable contributor night-to-night to take some of that pressure off.

Can the defense improve? The Blazers have a top-five offense (108.3 points per 100 possessions) and plenty of scoring firepower, but if they want to jump from fringe contender to actual title threat, they need to improve on the other side of the ball. This improvement, like their overall bench play, also needs to come from within after a quiet offseason. They have the raw tools for a good defense, but they lack consistency on that end. That needs to change, and it should in this core’s second year together.

Why you should watch the Blazers: They’ve got one of the fastest-rising stars in the game in Lillard, a cold-blooded shooter who thrives in big moments. Aldridge is at least in the conversation for best power forward in the league, a reliable, versatile presence who can score in the post and from midrange. Stotts’ offense is heavy on shooters and extremely tough to guard when things are clicking.

Prediction: 50-32. Nobody saw Portland winning 54 games last year, and that number was at least partially due to a soft early schedule and an unsustainable record in close games. But even if they don’t finish as high in the Western Conference standings as they did last season, this is still a playoff team, and a very good one.