Although they're all at home watching the NBA Playoffs from the comfort of their living rooms, it isn't all bad for the Portland Trail Blazers.
With an aspiring star at point guard and a few other solid pieces on their roster, the Blazers are already very close to being fringe playoff team. With a few tweaks here and there, there's no question we'll be looking at yet another youthful upstart squad in the Western Conference a la the Golden State Warriors.
Free agency is great in the short term, but nothing beats adding prospects you can build around for the future. Portland will have three picks to work with, and while no one would confuse this collection of talent with the 2003 NBA draft, the guys available in the first round aren't exactly scrubs.
The NBA draft lottery has yet to occur, but there are already whispers about the Blazers, wherever they may end up in the draft order, having their eyes set on UCLA prospect Shabazz Muhammad. After striking gold with Damian Lillard last year, the Blazers would love to have yet another impact rookie in their backcourt.
In terms of scoring, Portland needs help. Adding an offensive weapon like Shabazz, who averaged 18 points per game in his one season at UCLA, could improve their mediocre production. The hope for the Blazers is that Muhammad would develop a chemistry with Lillard and the two would be the foundation for a solid future.
As far as their remaining picks? Some draft analysts have them targeting Nate Wolters and Alex Abrines—two guards who would further bolster their backcourt down the road but will more than likely spend their rookie seasons in the D-League.
All in all, Portland's primary impact from this draft will hinge on how patient they are with Muhammad. He has all the talent in the world, but it largely depends on how he fits in with the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and others.
Contracts and Free Agency
In addition to the team's emphasis on getting younger, the Blazers have a handful of contracts that need sorting out. With numerous expired contracts, trimming some fat would provide a bit of much-needed cap flexibility.
As far as their expired contracts, J.J. Hickson absolutely needs to be a priority as far as re-signing.
Hickson was the team's leading rebounder, mostly because of his incredibly high motor. Portland cannot afford to lose Hickson, so again, inking him to another deal is priority number one.
On the other hand, guys like Elliot Williams, Sasha Pavlovic (team option) and Nolan Smith will most likely not be retained. It would also make sense for the Blazers to make a qualifying offer to Eric Maynor, who's a solid reserve player and a nice complement to Lillard. Other than Maynor and Hickson, most of these empty contracts are for players making questionable contributions to the team.
The Blazers would be better off going out and trying to acquire a Jarrett Jack or Nate Robinson with the freed up cap space. Yes, you'll have fewer bodies in the rotation, but Portland could really use a gunner like a Jack or Robinson coming off the bench—guards or wings capable of playing isolation offense. This team really lacked a punch when the first unit sat down, but an electrifying reserve scorer who knows his role would be a nice pick-up. However, that might mean you'd have to forget about matching Maynor's contract.
It's still a little too early to project how the upcoming offseason will play out, but Portland's primary objectives should be letting some of those lesser contracts walk and signing a key reserve.
Coaching and a Goal for the New Season
Most people would look at a bad record, and they'd be quick to blame the head coach for the team's failures.
Yes, they had down season, but head coach Terry Stotts, who just finished his first year at the helm, did a good job considering the pieces with which he had to work.
Names like Stan Van Gundy, Brian Shaw and Phil Jackson are likely being mentioned in just about every front office in need of a coach, but this franchise isn't one of them. Stotts should be given a little more time to work with this squad, as it seemed to respond to his easy-going, teacher-like approach. The Blazers are young, and they still need to be chiseled into form.
Unlike a team with established veterans, this unit isn't in need of a Zen Master to mentally manipulate them into contenders overnight; this is a team that just needs a teacher like Stotts, who can correct their errors and build these young players for the future.
Would the playoffs be a realistic goal for this team? Yes, absolutely. The Western Conference—especially the seventh and eighth seeds—is completely wide open. Anything can happen in the NBA, and although it's possible, this team shouldn't be too hung up on missing or making the postseason at this point and time.
What happens to the Blazers next season?
Stotts should have this team shooting for a .500 record—or at least a significant improvement on last year's record. For Stotts, being a teacher means being patient.
He needs to teach his team to crawl, walk and then run.
Right now, they're somewhere between the crawling and walking phase, but when Lillard and the rest of these young guns eventually get more NBA experience and confidence under their belts, you can rest assured they will be ready to run way past the expectations that people will have set for them.