Immediate Hurdles the Portland Trail Blazers Will Face This Season
The Portland Trail Blazers and their fans finally have some reason for optimism.
They have arguably the best power forward on the planet in LaMarcus Aldridge. They have one of the league's best young point guards in Damian Lillard. And they have a completely rebuilt bench that should turn last year's biggest weakness into a strength.
Yet through all of this good news, the Blazers still are quite a bit away from title contention.
And in the immediate future, the Blazers have some hurdles that they will face during this upcoming season.
Interior defense needs work
Last year, the Blazers were incredibly soft up front. In fact, they were the NBA version of fabric softener in the frontcourt.
LaMarcus Aldridge certainly stepped up this part of his game, but he did so out of pure necessity. He no longer had someone like Marcus Camby to take the pressure off of him on the defensive side of the ball.
J.J. Hickson, last year's center, was an excellent rebounder, but he contributed zilch as an interior defender.
Rookie Meyers Leonard was expected to help in this regard, but the 7-footer looked lost and helpless on defense.
And to make matters worse, Lillard struggled mightily on defense which led to lots of traffic in the lane. When the big men were struggling with their own assignments, helping out the guards proved to be an impossible endeavor.
The Blazers did their best in the offseason to address this issue.
They signed Robin Lopez to replace Hickson in the starting lineup and brought in Thomas Robinson to backup Aldridge at the 4.
Those two moves alone should improve the interior defense.
However, Lopez and Robinson will never be confused with Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas. Lopez is a willing defender with a big body, but he isn't athletic or exceptionally instinctual on the defensive side.
Robinson has thus far had a very disappointing career, but he will have the opportunity to show that it was more a case of bad situations than a reflection on his skills.
Rotation issues need settling
Last year's Blazer bench was historically bad. When Luke Babbitt, one of last year's main subs, ends up immediately in Russia following the season, you know things were bad.
But before the new faces become a strength, the Blazers will need to find a rhythm with their rotation.
The biggest issue is going to be the guard rotation. The smart money is that Wesley Matthews will retain the shooting guard gig and rookie C.J. McCollum will be the first guard off the bench, but this is far from settled.
In fact, it isn't known yet what type of role McCollum will have. Will he be a combo guard that backs up both Lillard and Matthews depending on the foul situation and matchup? Or is he going to be strictly used as a scoring guard when Matthews isn't in the game?
Other rotation issues seem easier to predict but still far from done. Robinson likely will be the first big man off the bench, allowing Aldridge to shift to center on occasion. But how will Aldridge fare with a move up front?
Meyers Leonard showed some potential on offense, but he was a mess on defense. Can he improve drastically in his second season? He still represents the most likely backup for Lopez at the 5.
Mo Williams shouldn't have any trouble beating out Earl Watson for the backup point guard spot, and Dorell Wright should beat out Victor Claver at the 3, but the Blazers will need to sort out this rotation and settle on an eight- or nine-man group.
Lillard needs to step up
Don't get me wrong, Lillard was a revelation last year. From day one he looked the part of the next great Portland point guard.
He knocked down big shots, he set up teammates and he basically reinvigorated the Blazer nation.
But he wasn't without his flaws.
His defense was atrocious most of the season and didn't appear to improve as the year wore on and the minutes piled up.
And while he looked good for the most part running the offense, there were certainly missed opportunities throughout the year.
This season, Lillard is going to have to do a much better job of keeping his man out of the lane.
In the season's first month, he will be matched up against guys like Ty Lawson, Tony Parker and Rajon Rondo, so he will be tested immediately.
Lillard doesn't possess elite quickness, but he does have the advantage of good size and strength. He needs to pattern his defensive game after Chauncey Billups and use his strength to his advantage.
Offensively, Lillard needs to sit down and watch a ton of tape on John Stockton and Karl Malone. Those two revolutionized the pick-and-roll offense, and there is no reason why Lillard and Aldridge can't be Stockton/Malone-like.
Aldridge's ability to knock down the perimeter jumper and Lillard's ability to make deep pull-up threes should make them the ideal pairing.
Additionally, Lillard is going to have to make life easier for his big men. Robinson, Lopez and Leonard will all need their point guard to spoon-feed them in order to get easy buckets. None of the three are gifted post offensive players, so it will be on Lillard to set them up.
Get out to a quick start
One of the biggest challenges for the Blazers will be to keep the fans interested. There is some excitement right now surrounding this team, but that excitement can quickly turn to apathy if the losses start piling up.
The overall schedule for November is far from a gauntlet. With multiple games against the likes of the Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and what should be a very weak Boston Celtics squad, the Blazers should be able to stamp out some momentum.
The Rose Garden, when it's jumping, can be an awesome home-court advantage.
The key for the Blazers will be to incorporate their new moving parts quickly, eliminate some of last year's biggest weaknesses from the start of the season and smooth out the defense throughout the year.
Portland has a rich basketball tradition. They just need to show the fans that there is truly reason for optimism this year.
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