The Portland Trail Blazers finished with a disappointing 33-49 record last season, but with four draft picks coming up, the franchise has an opportunity to give the starting lineup some help.
Portland has a total of five free agents (four unrestricted, one restricted) and is currently only paying out just over $43 million in guaranteed money for 2013-14, according to Hoopsworld.com. The Trail Blazers will have plenty of options to consider on how to improve their roster.
The first thing they can control is the 2013 NBA draft. Portland has the 10th overall pick in the first round with three second-round picks coming at 39th, 40th and 45th.
While there are several areas the franchise needs to improve for Portland to return the playoffs, it must prioritize.
One of the unrestricted free agents this offseason will be starting center J.J. Hickson. According to Jason Quick of The Oregonian, general manager Neil Olshey wants to see improvement at this position.
“For us to make a jump next season, JJ can’t be our starting center,’’ Olshey said, referencing the Blazers’ 47.4 points allowed in the paint per game, an NBA high. “I’m not saying he can’t be part of the roster. But we need to find a starting-caliber center who protects the rim and gets defensive rebounds at a high rate and that has a presence. And we have to do a better job at defending the paint. So you have to ask: Is it likely there is enough minutes to commit the kind of dollars JJ will command, when clearly there are other positions that need to be upgraded? Probably not.’’
Olshey is exactly right. The Trail Blazers need someone that compliments LaMarcus Aldridge, and the 6'9" Hickson isn't it.
Along with being last in the league in points in the paint allowed, the Trail Blazers were 24th in rebounding. This is why Portland went 1-3 against Memphis with Zach Randolph not even playing in the one win but was able to beat Miami at full strength.
Looking ahead, this is a deep draft class when it comes to centers. If he's available, the Trail Blazers should select Alex Len with their 10th overall pick.
There are several things to like about Len, who is 7'1" with a 7'3.5" wingspan, according to NBA.com. First and foremost, he's a defender, rim protector and shot-blocker.
Offensively, he is very active on the glass, has great footwork in the post and has a mid-range shot. Len can also get out and run in transition and play above the rim.
This is the kind of player Portland needs. He's someone that can do the little things and throw the hammer down to create momentum. He's a defensive presence that can be felt by the opposition when they drive to the hoop. He's a guy that can play in the post offensively both facing the basket and away from it.
Portland's bench last season was flat out atrocious. They were last in points, rebounds, efficiency and defensive efficiency.
Part of that is based on the fact that the starters played the most minutes combined of any team, but clearly the second string needs help. Meyers Leonard led all Portland bench players in scoring with 5.5 points per game.
This is how big of a setback the bench took from 2011-12 to 2012-13.
The Trail Blazers need to get a small forward that can score off the bench. Should Portland be fortunate enough for him to fall far enough, C.J. Leslie is the man.
Leslie is dynamic offensively, as he averaged 15.1 points and 7.4 rebounds last year at N.C. State. He has incredible athleticism, is powerful in the post at 6'9" and has a solid jumper. He's effective because he has something new for the opponent each possession.
Outside of scoring, he runs the floor well, can elevate over people for rebounds and loves to swat shots away at the rim.
The one downside to Leslie for this role is that he's not a three-point shooter. However, Portland can address that with its next pick, assuming none of the draft picks are traded.
This is where James Southerland comes in. He thrives in the fast break and can fly through the air, but it's Southerland's outside shot that has really come into form. While playing a majority of his games against Big East opponents, he shot an impressive 39.8 percent from behind the arc his senior year.
Most of Southerland's offensive game comes from jump shots and making things happen on the perimeter, but playing with Leslie off the bench would make an excellent duo.
Backup Point Guard
Damian Lillard was not only one of the great surprises in the league last season, the 2012-13 Rookie of the Year was playing like a veteran going up against the superb point guards in the West.
He is certainly one of the strengths on the team, but Lillard needs some support behind him. He played all 82 games last year and was tied for second with Kobe Bryant for playing the most minutes per game in the league at 38.6. Even though Damian has young legs, you don't want to run him that hard with that consistency.
The Trail Blazers did pick up Eric Maynor just before the trade deadline last year to serve as Lillard's backup. However, Maynor is a restricted free agent this offseason and the Trail Blazers may want to take a shot at someone who could be one of the steals of the draft.
He played all four years of college. He's only 6'0" and played at a small school. His name is Isaiah Canaan from Murray State.
If you've never heard of him, take a look at his shooting range, his ability to create his own shot with a nasty crossover and the incredible hops he displays.
Yes, he's only 6'0" and some guards will be able to shoot over him or try to get a mismatch on a switch inside. Although, Canaan has outstanding ball-handling and is tenacious on defense, he will get into spaces where the defense doesn't want him and will put a lot of stress on the opposition after dealing with Lillard.
Furthermore, Canaan has the experience, having played over 20 minutes per game and scored in double figures all four years at Murray State. He shot 45 percent from the field, 41.9 percent from three and 80.2 percent from the free-throw line in his college career. He also dished out 4.3 assists his senior season.
Again, the Trail Blazers may not want to keep all four picks, but this is how they should prioritize their biggest draft needs.
There's no doubt a center comes first because the Portland Trail Blazers aren't going back to the playoffs without protecting the paint more effectively. Then the bench can be assessed in trying to improve all the deficiencies to give the young starting talent some support.