The Portland Trail Blazers are in a position of assessing their biggest strengths and weaknesses as they look forward to next season. As the playoffs have faded during the last month of the season, the Blazers are in a position to retool and get to the point of being competitive next season.
The team showed that it's not far away from being a playoff-level team, but that it needs some improvements to actually get there. This will be a big offseason for the team as it tries to make moves to advance to the next level.
Here is a look at the Blazers' biggest strengths and weaknesses:
With Damian Lillard's emergence on the scene, the Blazers have a starting core of players to build around. Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum form a strong trio that should help the Blazers be competitive for years to come. Wesley Matthews is a key contributor, but he falls slightly below the other three in terms of importance.
Giving hefty contracts to Aldridge and Batum to keep them in Portland seems to have paid off. Now the challenge for the Blazers organization is putting talent around its three best players.
The NBA has shifted to teams needing to have multiple "star-quality" players in order to have postseason success. As Lillard develops into a better and smoother point guard, the Blazers should be right there among teams with strong, balanced stars.
The Blazers bench is woefully bad. They have averaged just 17.6 points per game, which happens to be the lowest scoring output. The team with the second-worst bench, the Indiana Pacers, gets 8.7 points more, scoring 26.3 points per game.
The Blazers are currently ranked last in average minutes, points, rebounds and assists in terms of bench production.
The only player that has provided a solid contribution on a consistent basis is Eric Maynor, who joined the team in February. He has added a spark to the bench, but there just isn't much talent or skill behind the Blazers starting five.
Having such an awful bench places a ton of pressure on the Blazers starters. Lillard, Aldridge, Batum and Matthews all play more than 35.1 minutes per game. If one of those players has an off-night, the Blazers are in trouble of not scoring enough points to compete.
Lillard's presence on the Blazers has completely turned around the franchise. Instead of another year of rebuilding, the Blazers are looking to compete next year after likely bringing in some reinforcements this summer. While I mentioned him in the first strength slide, Lillard deserves being considered a strength on his own.
The point guard has thrilled this season, showcasing an incredible arsenal of scoring ability. Lillard has been able to get it done in a number of ways, including his smooth shooting, quick first step and strong ball-handling. His overall play meshes wonderfully with Aldridge and the rest of the Blazers offensive system.
Lillard is quickly ascending up the point guard rankings. With a full season under his belt, big things should be expected from the Weber State product next year.
While the Blazers do have some solid individuals defenders (Nicolas Batum), their team defense has been abysmal. The Blazers give up the 11th-most points per game, allowing their opponents to score an average of 100.2 points per game. That's particularly concerning when the Blazers only score 97.8 points per game.
The deadliest aspect of the Blazers defensive deficiencies is allowing opponents to shoot 47.1 percent on a nightly basis. When a team allows that high of a percentage over 70-plus games, it's clear other teams are not just getting hot when they play Portland. Too often, opponents are scoring easy buckets, either on open shots or buckets in the paint.
As a team, the Blazers need to improve their communication and movement on defense. They have decent perimeter defenders, but their help defense is the main issue. J.J. Hickson doesn't pose a shot-blocking threat down low, and Meyers Leonard has failed to add that coming off the bench.
By likely finishing in the bottom 12 of the league, the Blazers will get to keep their first-round draft pick instead of sending it to the Charlotte Bobcats. Heading down the stretch, the Blazers have a great chance to land in the top 12 of the draft order and keep the pick.
This draft class isn't the strongest, but all it takes is finding the right guy to fill a need. If the Blazers can get a solid role player to add something to their bench, it makes them that much closer to competing next season.
The team has a lot of money committed to its top players, so getting rookies in for cheap will help the Blazers free up more space.
Perhaps one of the Blazers' biggest weaknesses is their lack of a true center. They have been forced to rely on Hickson, a natural power forward, to hold down the paint. While Hickson has been a double-double machine, there have been numerous times he's gotten out-muscled or out-sized around the basket.
The truest center on the roster is Leonard, but the rookie is still adjusting to the size and power of NBA bigs. At 7'1" and 245 pounds, Leonard has the body to be an effective player for the Blazers. His lack of confidence and consistency have been the concerns thus far for the Portland coaching staff.
Leonard has the potential to become a quality starting center, but that's far from a guarantee.
It will be interesting to see how the Blazers address the need during the offseason. As previously mentioned, they need to improve their bench, but getting a fully competent center is another huge need.