The Portland Trail Blazers season has been filled with many positive surprises as well as many disappointments as the team deliver up-and-down performances. While the playoffs were once a possibility, the Blazers will end the year about 10 games back of the eighth spot in the Western Conference.
This team wasn't initially expected to compete this season, but it proved throughout the year that it was better than the preseason rankings. While the end of the year has been disappointing, the Blazers have a bright future.
Here are the biggest surprises and disappointments from Portland's 2012-13 season.
While big things were expected from the sixth pick in the draft, Damian Lillard has completely blown expectations out of the water. He has run away with the Rookie of the Year Award, making the announcement at the end of the year a mere formality.
Lillard has been spectacular with this well-rounded game. His scoring ability has made him a huge weapon for the Blazers. He can beat opponents with his smooth jumper or use his agility to get by defenders on his way to the basket.
The biggest surprise this season with regard to Lillard has been his play against some of the best teams in the league. He scored 33 points against the Miami Heat, dropped 35 in a thrashing of the San Antonio Spurs and poured in 38 against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Lillard is on his way to stardom in the league. Expect to see him in the All-Star game for years to come.
The Blazers bench has been by far the worst in the league in terms of points, assists, rebounds and minutes. In a rebuilding year, there wasn't much expected from the bench mixed with journeymen and inexperienced young players. Heading into last night's game, the Blazers benched was averaging just 18.4 points, 10.5 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game.
Throughout the year, the Blazers have been too reliant on their starting five, which has had to play major minutes. The number of injuries that starters suffered down the stretch brings into question whether or not they were playing too many minutes.
During the offseason, the Blazers really need to address their bench and add some depth and production.
At many points during the season, the Blazers were competitive. Before a seven-game losing streak in February, the team was actually competing for a playoff spot.
The second half of the season has been mostly a disaster as Portland has endured both the aforementioned streak and the current 12-game slide that started at the end of last month.
The Blazers weren't really expected to compete this season as they entered a rebuilding year. Damian Lillard sped up that process, and Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and LaMarcus Aldridge have had very fine seasons.
While the Blazers didn't have the composure or talent to make a legitimate postseason run, the team's competitive nature has to be viewed as a huge positive heading into next season.
These two disappointments are connected because I think they stem from the same issue: the Blazers lack of a true center.
While J.J. Hickson has been ultra-productive as a fill-in starter, he's a power forward through and through. The lack of size at the center position has allowed opponents to shoot 47.4 percent from the floor—the second-highest percentage in the league.
Meyers Leonard has shown some potential and could still end of being the guy in the middle. But he still has plenty of work to do before becoming that player.
The Blazers success next season could largely depend on how they address the center position. They have the offensive components to field a strong team, but they have to get stops and limit the other team's offense.
The Blazers knew a little bit of what J.J. Hickson could do after he averaged 15.1 points and 8.3 rebounds per game during his 19-game stint with the team last year.
This year, he's completely exceeded expectations with nightly averages of 12.9 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. The double-double machine has done all of his work playing out of position.
While his play has been great for the Blazers, it makes their summer a little more difficult. The front office now must decide whether or not Hickson is worth big money, weighing that commitment against the possibility of bringing in a more natural center.
Depending on the market, Hickson could definitely be a part of the Blazers plans going forward. His active play on the offensive end is a great fit with the rest of the offense. His ability to run the lane and his understanding of spacing make him a great weapon alongside Damian Lillard.
The most disappointing aspect of the Blazers season has been the multiple long losing streaks that took the team out of contention.
In the middle of January, the team lost six straight games, including four home games. In February, they lost eight straight games, including one at home. And now, they are on a 12-game losing streak (seven home losses) with one game remaining on the year.
If the team hadn't played so well at other times during the year, these losing streaks wouldn't look so bad. Throughout the year, this team proved it could play with anybody in the league on any given night. The fact that they can't find ways to stop losing streaks sooner is a huge a disappointment.
While the Blazers need personnel upgrades, they also need to improve their focus in order to avoid giving away too many games.