The Portland Trail Blazers are gearing up for what truly could be a turning point type of year.
After a few years of stagnation (if not outright regression), the Blazers finally seem poised to take a major step forward this year.
However, if they are going to realize their impressive potential they are going to need to see major contributions from some key players on their roster.
But how exactly will Nic Batum fare in this his second season with a budding superstar at the point?
How well will Robin Lopez play as the starting center and can the team withstand the loss of J.J. Hickson's double-digit rebounding nights?
And just how good is this year's bench going to be after the team improved nearly every position on the roster?
Here is this year's season preview power rankings for the Portland Trail Blazers.
Earl Watson is just the type of player that every coach loves.
He works hard, he rarely makes mistakes and he is an intelligent player.
The veteran point guard does have his drawbacks however. He no longer has good enough foot speed to play elite defense or get to the hoop.
He has never been an overly strong shooter and that hasn't exactly gotten better with age. Last year Watson shot only 17.9 percent from three-point range.
He probably makes the team but just as a veteran voice.
Joel Freeland has one thing going for him, the one thing that can't be coached. Freeland is big.
In fact, he is one of only a handful of true big men on this roster.
That being said, he doesn't offer a whole ton to this team.
The 2006 first round pick has failed to live up to his draft status.
Allen Crabbe was a heck of a college ball player that seemed to regress towards the end of his scholastic run.
Crabbe's bread and butter, if he makes it in this league, is shooting. He is going to need to knock down shots from deep if he is going to make this roster.
However, he looked lost in the summer league and he likely will end up in the D-League.
The Blazers had high expectations for Victor Claver when they made him a first round pick in 2009.
Claver, besides a nice stretch of games late last season, has failed to live up to his potential and is in danger of losing his roster spot.
The only hope he has is that C.J. McCollum's injury keeps the rookie on the shelf the majority of the year.
If Claver's hope for making this team is the continued ailments of McCollum and his feet, then that goes doubly for Will Barton.
Barton is a high-flying shooting guard that knows how to get to the rack and finish with style.
The McCollum injury opened up a rotation spot for Barton and he doesn't seem poised to want to let that spot go.
Barton adds an element of excitement to this team that has been sorely lacking over the years.
Of all the players on this slide, Barton is the one that figures most prominently into the Blazers' plans this year.
Talk about the continued curse of the Trail Blazers.
After a few decades of countless injuries to key young players, C.J. McCollum is the latest rookie to fall victim to the curse.
McCollum broke the same foot that gave him trouble in college and derailed his final season.
The hope was that McCollum would back up both guards and provide an added dimension of offensive ingenuity to the bench.
I personally even thought that a good first half of the season could lead to a shakeup in the starting lineup.
But lady luck had other plans for the Blazers and McCollum is out indefinitely.
McCollum is such a dynamic scorer that he can play equally well off the ball or with the ball in his hands.
Had he been healthy, he easily would have cracked the top six of this list.
For those with savvy NBA memories, Dorell Wright's physical presence calls to mind Darius Miles.
However, those two could not be any more different.
Wright has spent the first few years of his career as a situational scorer off the bench that mostly just sits in the corner and launches threes.
But the Blazers are looking to add a new dimension of danger to the mix by giving Wright some run at the 4.
Physically, this could be a major challenge for Wright. While he has the height to play down low, he lacks the build or girth to withstand much physicality.
However, as a stretch 4 he could certainly free up some space offensively for LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez.
The Blazers had high, albeit tempered expectations for Meyers Leonard when they took him as their second lottery pick last season.
And while Leonard showed some life on the offensive side of the ball, particularly in the second half of the year, he was a train wreck on defense.
He showed terrible shot-blocking instincts and committed way too many fouls.
Leonard is a physical freak, possessing supreme athleticism in a frame that calls to mind Brendan Haywood.
The Blazers really need Leonard to step up his game defensively if he is going to make a major contribution to this team.
The only reason Leonard is higher on this list than Wright is because he is the only real backup center on the roster.
Look for Leonard to show improvement but he still isn't going to make people forget about Bill Walton, let alone Marcus Camby.
I'm not going to lie, but Thomas Robinson is the player that I am most intrigued by on this Blazer roster.
Robinson was an absolute beast at Kansas, routinely grabbing double-digit rebounds and playing impressive interior defense.
He even showcased the beginnings of a nice post game on offense.
Robinson looked lost at times as a rookie although he certainly improved once he left Sacramento.
Robinson will be LaMarcus Aldridge's primary backup at power forward and will be counted on to provide toughness and rebounding.
The Blazers already have enough scorers, they need someone to do the dirty work.
If Robinson can embrace that role he could turn his career around.
Last season, the Blazers spent the first half of the year without a viable backup point guard on the roster.
This put way too much pressure on Lillard to perform and led to a second half swoon by the team as a whole.
The Blazers were determined to start limiting Lillard's numbers at least somewhat this year and that begins with bringing in a good backup.
Enter Mo Williams.
Williams is just the type of veteran that young players like to play with.
He keeps things loose while bringing credibility in the form of his past exploits around the league.
Williams is one of the few members of this team with some true playoff experience.
And while he has spent his career mainly as an overachieving shoot-first guard, in recent years he has begun to become a better distributor.
The Blazers don't need a miracle worker but they do need a veteran that can help mentor Lillard. Williams is a perfect match for this team.
During the Blazers Media Day, it came out that LaMarcus Aldridge had lobbied management to bring in a true center to play alongside the talented power forward.
Last season, Aldridge was stuck next to J.J. Hickson who was a terrible defender. Sure, Hickson can take up some space and grab plenty of boards, but he lacks the leaping ability or instincts to make a big difference on defense.
This forced Aldridge to have to overcompensate on the defensive side of things which in turn affected his offensive numbers.
Robin Lopez is a nice addition for Portland. Besides having a look that practically screams Portland, Lopez is a true big man that likes to mix it up down low.
The biggest problem with Lopez isn't his sometimes slow feet or his lack of elite athleticism. His biggest problem is the fact that he can't rebound to save his life.
Lopez rarely grabs more than six rebounds per game which is a terrible total for a guy Lopez's size.
The Blazers can get along without a repeat of Hickson's numbers but they will need Lopez to start to pick up the pace on the boards.
Either way, Lopez was a fine pickup.
When the Blazers drafted C.J. McCollum with their first round pick this year, it was understood that he would naturally cut into some of Wesley Matthews' minutes.
After all, McCollum was a much more dynamic scorer than Matthews and could create more offense when he had the ball in his hands.
Matthews has had a fine run here in Portland but he has to see the writing on the wall.
That being said, McCollum's injury pushes Matthews back into the forefront of the conversation.
Matthews can shoot from distance, play solid defense and rarely makes a mistake.
But he likely has reached his ceiling as a player, and the Blazers are looking for a flashier option at the 2.
However, until McCollum returns, Matthews figures to be either the third or fourth option offensively for the Blazers this year.
For years I've been hearing about how Nic Batum was going to be the next Scottie Pippen.
Heck, just looking at his style of play and physical build lends some credibility to that notion.
But Batum has yet to realize that vast potential of his.
Instead, he has resembled a player like Tayshaun Prince. He can shoot from deep, he has the length to be a pesky defender and he has good athleticism.
But he has yet to really distinguish himself as a player.
However, the one encouraging sign about Batum is his assists total. Batum jumped from a career 1.4 assists per game guy all the way to just under five.
Batum also increased his rebounding, steals and blocked shots last season.
The thinking here is that Batum is always going to be a supporting player on this team and will frustrate the fans from time-to-time.
When the Blazers drafted Damian Lillard early in the lottery last year, one question immediately sprang up.
How would his lack of elite competition in college effect his development as a pro?
Lillard went on to become the Rookie of the Year and unanimous All-Rookie first team selection.
Lillard reminds me a lot of a mix between Chauncey Billups and Terry Porter.
He can shoot from anywhere on the floor and he began to show real life in the pick-and-roll game this year.
The key for the Blazers will be how Lillard develops as a defender. As a rookie he looked lost at times which led to easy buckets and fouls on his bigs.
Lillard needs to show more effort defensively and part of that starts with the Mo Williams acquisition.
The Blazers need to limit Lillard's minutes if they want to see some meaningful development from their young point guard.
LaMarcus Aldridge may in fact be the best power forward on the planet.
Aldridge did struggle at times last year having to compensate for the defensively-challenged J.J. Hickson as well as Lillard's matador style approach to defense.
The added minutes and defensive responsibilities led to a tough second half of the season for Aldridge.
But this year, the Blazers addressed this problem and now they have to tough big guys in Lopez and Robinson to help take the pressure off of Aldridge.
Offensively, Aldridge just keeps getting better. He has added more range to his jumper and continues to have the most difficult shot to block in the league.
The next step will be for Aldridge and Lillard to really embrace the pick-and-roll offense.
These two, with their skill set, could be a poor man's version of Karl Malone and John Stockton.
Aldridge also needs to start making shots in the clutch. He is this team's top player and it is time he started to put his own stamp on this roster.