The Portland Trail Blazers are finally embarking on a new road in their franchise's history.
Rose City's NBA representative has been snake-bitten over the years. There have been disastrous draft picks, terrible injuries and unrealized expectations.
But there is finally some real reason for optimism surrounding head coach Terry Stotts' team. They have addressed some of their major weaknesses and have improved the overall talent level of the squad.
And while a trip to the Finals is certainly a pipe dream, a playoff berth is definitely within reach. But the road to the postseason won't be easy, as many Western Conference teams have improved during the offseason.
Blazers 2012-13 Results
4th in Northwest Division
11th in Western Conference
Last season the Portland Trail Blazers nailed quite a few three-pointers, drilling 8.2 per game, which was good for sixth in the NBA.
This statistic should continue to go up this year as they were able to add Dorell Wright and C.J. McCollum to the mix.
On the flip side, the interior defense of this team was atrocious at best, and this was reflected in their blocks. Toting an interior line of defense that included LaMarcus Aldridge and J.J. Hickson, the Blazers averaged a paltry 4.3 blocks per game, which was good for fifth-worst in the league.
The addition of Robin Lopez could help a little bit, but the only way this number goes up is if Meyers Leonard suddenly develops defensive instincts.
Biggest Storylines Entering Camp
The Blazers have been forced to alter their team philosophy several times in the recent history.
Initially, this was going to be a team built around Brandon Roy. However, the All-Star's knees gave way and he is no longer with the team.
Next, the Blazers were going to be a post-dominated team led by Greg Oden. But alas, injuries also robbed Portland of ever realizing this dream and Oden is just a faded, dark memory in the past.
The latest plan is centered around All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, and this seems to be the most solid of the previous plans.
However, there have been rumblings that Aldridge is no longer happy in Portland and is looking to walk.
Aldridge, for what it's worth, has been avidly defiant in defending himself against these rumors and vows to help his squad.
From an outside perspective, it could be easy to see a reason for frustration. Aldridge is perhaps the league's top power forward and is in the middle of his prime. And recent years have shown that the Blazers haven't exactly been serious about putting a winner on the court.
So just how likely is it that Aldridge could walk?
He is under contract for the next two years, so he would have to be traded. Given the lack of elite talent on this roster, it seems that it would take an extremely unhappy Aldridge to force the hand of management.
Sure, a team with a ton of cash to spend could kick the tires on Aldridge and who's to say that the talented big man won't eventually look to be dealt.
The simple fact is that the Blazers need to improve over the next year if they hope to not only retain but eventually re-sign their star.
Key Additions and Losses
Key Additions: Thomas Robinson PF, Mo Williams PG, Robin Lopez C, Dorell Wright SF and C.J. McCollum SG
Key Losses: J.J. Hickson C/PF, Eric Maynor PG
Biggest Addition: Thomas Robinson, PF
Now, this addition needs to be given a caveat. C.J. McCollum is the biggest addition for this team heading forward. However, Robinson is the biggest addition for this upcoming season.
Robinson came out of Kansas as one of the country's biggest stars. He was a beast near the hoop, scoring in a myriad of ways and grabbing rebounds with reckless abandon.
Unfortunately for him, he was drafted by the Sacramento Kings, who never really realized how to use their young forward properly.
He languished in Sacramento until he was traded at the deadline to the Houston Rockets, where he was able to finally show some potential.
However, he was dealt in order to make room for center Dwight Howard and finally found himself in Portland backing up the top 4 in the league.
For both Robinson and Portland, this could be a good thing.
The Blazers need an interior presence off their bench that can grab boards and score easy buckets.
Robinson needs to be in a no-pressure situation where he can finally start showing off some of the moves that made him a sensation as a Jayhawk.
Biggest Loss: J.J. Hickson, C/PF
An honorable mention must go to Eric Maynor here, as he helped solidify the backup point guard role upon arriving from Oklahoma City.
But J.J. Hickson provided the Blazers with fantastic rebounding (led the team with over 10 per game) and fairly versatile scoring down low.
That being said, Hickson was a terrible interior defender, couldn't block a shot to save his life and didn't contribute much in the line of passing.
The hope in Portland is that between Robinson and Lopez they should be able to replace, and potentially exceed, Hickson's rebounding numbers.
Training Camp Battle to Watch
C.J. McCollum vs. Wesley Matthews
Wesley Matthews enters camp as the favorite to start at shooting guard. He's been the starter each of the past three years and has played well.
Matthews is a good shooter, a solid defender and an excellent teammate. He also plays very well with stud point guard Damian Lillard, which certainly works in his favor.
McCollum, however, is the wild card. He is a dynamic scorer who could become a stud out at the position for years to come.
McCollum is not without his knocks. He lacks ideal athleticism and size for the position and could be a liability against bigger off-guards.
However, McCollum's ability to create his own offense while also being able to catch and shoot and play off screens could make him a difference-maker for the Blazers.
The likely outcome will be Matthews winning the job with McCollum coming off of the bench as a super sub, likely backing up both Matthews and Lillard.
That being said, it isn't outside the realm of possibilities for McCollum to supplant Matthews as the starter by midseason.
Roster Spot Battles
Earl Watson vs. Will Barton and Joel Freeland
This roster battle should be interesting.
The regular rotation is likely going to be set even before training camp begins.
Mo Williams will be Damian Lillard's primary backup, C.J. McCollum will be spelling Wesley Matthews, Dorell Wright will be backing up Nic Batum, Thomas Robinson will give LaMarcus Aldridge a blow and Meyers Leonard will be behind Robin Lopez.
Victor Claver should also receive some minutes depending on matchups.
That's essentially an 11-man rotation, which would be incredibly rare for most NBA teams.
Given that teams only dress 12 players, that leaves three regular players battling for one spot.
Joel Freeland likely gets the nod here, as he has the most size. The Blazers will need a big man available in case one of the regular bigs gets into foul trouble or gets injured.
However, Earl Watson is also a valuable player to have around. He is your prototypical pass-first point guard that rarely makes mistakes and can run the offense effectively.
He isn't going to provide much offense, but then again, he doesn't need to.
Barton, however, is a tough guy to leave out.
He can back up both shooting guard and small forward and can jump out of the gym.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out, though I would imagine that both Barton and Watson will spend a healthy amount of time in street clothes this year.
X-Factor: C.J. McCollum
Dorell Wright and Meyers Leonard certainly merit mention here. Wright's shooting ability and size could make him a nightmare for opponents, and Leonard has the size and athleticism to eventually become a monster if he develops instincts.
But the nod here goes to McCollum, as he has the most upside.
McCollum, as noted earlier, could start the year as a sixth man in Portland.
A likely scenario has him backing up both Matthews and Lillard at both guard spots. But both spots offer up challenges for McCollum.
As a shooting guard, McCollum will be at a disadvantage size-wise and could get overpowered.
As a point guard, McCollum lacks elite quickness and passing instincts.
However, McCollum is a playmaker. He is an excellent ball-handler and can score in a variety of ways.
His ability to improvise and create should open up big opportunities for teammates, and coach Stotts has to be salivating over the thought of McCollum and Aldridge running the pick-and-roll.
McCollum also has the largest range of possible outcomes this year.
He could be an 8-10 PPG scorer that struggles against superior competition.
Or he could be the offensive catalyst for a revamped second unit.
I'm personally betting on the latter.
The overall talent level of this team has gone up by a huge factor.
They have improved every position on the floor with the possible exception being the center position.
At the very least, this team should have no trouble improving on last year's 33 wins.
However, if McCollum blossoms, Aldridge continues his improvement and Lillard takes his rightful place as the next great young point guard, this team has the potential to be really good.
Will they contend for a title? Probably not. But if they really improve all these aspects they could be a 45-50 win team that challenges for the fifth or sixth seed.
This team is introducing a huge number of new moving parts.
The entire second unit is new, and oftentimes this type of sea change can present unique challenges.
Perhaps McCollum struggles as a super-sub, Lopez fails to provide interior defense and Robinson proves to be a bust.
Lillard could in theory take a step back and have a sophomore slump and Aldridge could pout when the losses start stacking up.
That being said, given the influx of talent, this team still is probably a lock to win upwards of 35-40 games.
This team has just improved way too much to not see an increase in wins.
But that improvement coincides with an improving Western Conference.
There are plenty of teams that should have better records out West, so even if the Blazers win eight or nine more games, they could still be looking at a fringe playoff spot.
My prediction: 43-39, third place in the Northwest Division and the seventh seed in the Western Conference.
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