Portland Trail Blazers Preview 13-14: Lineup, Roster Predictions, Team Analysis

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Portland Trail Blazers Preview 13-14: Lineup, Roster Predictions, Team Analysis
(Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)

Last year was all about the fan's perspective when it comes to the analysis of the Portland Trail Blazers season.

For the pessimistic fan, it was a lost season because the team had a losing record and missed the playoffs.

For the optimistic fan, it was all about the development of the eventual Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard and the further improvement of superstar power forward LaMarcus Aldridge.

The season began with a bang as Lillard immediately showed he belonged on the big stage, but it ultimately fell apart due to a historically bad bench.

The Blazers front office has sprung into action, wheeling and dealing their way to a completely revamped bench. As a result, expectations have been raised and now it is time for the young Blazers to make some noise on the court.

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Blazers 2012-13 Results

  • 33-49 record
  • 4th in the Northwest Division
  • 11th in the Western Conference

The Blazers season really was a study in an inconclusive plan. If there was a plan, the best that could be said was that it was highly guarded.

First, they assembled a team that didn't have a veteran center on the roster. Perhaps the hope was that lottery pick Meyers Leonard would eventually take off but nearly all scouts were in agreement that Leonard was raw and needed time to develop.

Second, the bench was ludicrously bad. Unproven players like Nolan Smith were called upon to play above their talent level and veteran players like Sasha Pavlovic were not up to the task of picking up the slack.

The oddest thing about the season was that midway through, the front office decided to trade for a legitimate backup point guard in Eric Maynor who they let walk after the season. 

It was as if the Blazers were planning to be really bad but then decided they might be able to salvage the playoffs.

Either way, the team eventually imploded, losing their last 13 straight games.

The biggest problem last season was not only the bench, but the porous defense. The Blazers couldn't stop anybody on the perimeter or at the hoop.

How the Blazers have addressed these two major issues will determine how far they go this season.

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Key Storylines

Key Additions: Robin Lopez, C; Thomas Robinson, F; Mo Williams, G; Dorell Wright, F.

Key Losses: J.J. Hickson, F/C; Eric Maynor, G.

 

Defense

Last season, team defense was a joke in Portland. 

The Blazers never were known as an elite defensive team during the Nate McMillan era, but they at least played hard most nights. 

Last season's Blazers squad looked as though they were unfamiliar with the concept of stopping the other team.

Damian Lillard struggled mightily in his rookie season on the defensive side of the ball. It wasn't for a lack of effort, he just simply exerted himself too much on the offensive side of things.

J.J. Hickson was never known as a good interior defender and never really figured things out. This forced Aldridge to step up his game, which ultimately made his game suffer offensively.

The perimeter defenders struggled to keep people out of the paint and once they got there they were treated to easy hoops.

The team hopes to change that primarily through a new dedication to effort. Sure, they improved their roster and Robin Lopez in particular brings an actual center into the fold. And Thomas Robinson certainly has the potential to become a good interior defender. But overall, this roster hasn't added a ton of defensive-minded players.

From the first day of training camp this year, it was obvious that coach Terry Stotts was focused on improving team defense.

Defense, like passing, is all about effort and can become contagious. A good defensive team is built as a cohesive unit that is comprised of players that don't want to let their teammates down.

Like the soldiers on the battlefield, nobody wants to be the weak link.

Through the preseason, it is obvious that the effort is there. Now it becomes about execution.

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Bench Cohesion

The Blazers undertook a major effort to drastically improve their bench.

They improved their talent level at every position.

Mo Williams has been a revelation backing up Lillard, giving the Blazers hope that the second unit will have sound leadership on the floor at all times.

Perhaps the biggest surprise has been the play of Joel Freeland. Freeland, who was basically an afterthought on last year's team, has exploded during preseason play and is averaging 5.6 rebounds in very limited minutes.

Lopez is the obvious starter at center but Freeland may have just overtaken Leonard as his primary backup.

Dorell Wright has been getting minutes not only at small forward but also at power forward, which could stretch the floor and allow for easy buckets down low.

Defensively the bench is still learning to play alongside one another but offensively they are showing that this could become a strength of this team.

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Two Guard Depth

Heading into this offseason, it was assumed that the guard positions were perhaps the biggest strength of this team.

At the very least, they represented one of the more intriguing aspects of this team.

Wesley Matthews returned as the starter, but behind him were rookie C.J. McCollum and Will Barton, who showed some real flash at the end of last season.

But McCollum injured his foot again and his return seems to be a long way off. He is due to be reevaluated in several weeks after a non-surgical procedure to help his fractured foot.

The latest news is that Matthews has been diagnosed with a heart issue and could miss some time due to that.

So a position that was brimming with promise is likely going to have to be cobbled together with a mix of Barton, Williams and perhaps even Wright.

 

Depth Chart Breakdown and Grades 

PG Damian Lillard Mo Williams Earl Watson
SG Wesley Matthews C.J. McCollum (eventually) Will Barton
SF Nic Batum Dorell Wright Victor Claver
PF LaMarcus Aldridge Thomas Robinson Dorell Wright
C Robin Lopez Joel Freeland Meyers Leonard

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Point Guard

This, along with power forward, are the strengths of this team.

Lillard established himself last year as one of the league's top young point guards.

In many regards, Lillard reminds me of a young Chauncey Billups. He can shoot the lights out, and although he doesn't have elite athleticism like Russell Westbrook or Eric Bledsoe he is able to get to the hoop and create for his teammates.

Lillard's biggest strength is his range. He really becomes a threat as soon as he passes midcourt.

This gives him the ability to spread the floor and attack the defense however he sees fit.

What will continue to be interesting is how Lillard develops in the two-man game. He has the potential to be a legendary pick-and-roll team with Aldridge.

Williams was brought in to add a veteran leader to the second unit and to allow the coaching staff to ease some minutes off of their young star.

Williams is your typical shoot-first point guard that never met a shot he didn't like.

That being said, last season in Utah he racked up some decent assist numbers (6.2 APG) while still scoring in his usual fashion (12.9 PPG).

The current bench dynamic will allow Williams to score as often as he likes but he still will need to be mindful of keeping the bigs involved.

Earl Watson was brought in to provide sound council and leadership for Lillard.

Watson is a smart player that specializes in defense and ball control while providing very little in the way of offense.

Grade: A-

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Shooting Guard

Matthews is the starter and will remain so even when McCollum returns.

He isn't a flashy player but he gets the job done with good perimeter shooting and solid defense.

He doesn't do a ton of creating with the ball but in this offense he really doesn't have to. Lillard enjoys having Matthews as a safety valve should a play break down.

Matthews' biggest contribution to this team is as a legit third option on offense and as a floor spacer. He also uses his solid frame to body-up strong shooting guards throughout the league.

Backing up Matthews will eventually be McCollum.

McCollum is a dynamic scorer who can create offense either with the ball in his hands or playing off of his teammates.

In college, he routinely had the ball in his hands and was forced to initiate the offense.

Once he returns, he will be asked to play off of the other ball-handlers.

Barton is an elite athlete that plays above the rim and provides highlight-reel excitement whenever he steps on the court.

He has a good frame and the capacity to develop into a good defender. However, what he really brings to the table is instant offense.

He struggles with the deep ball, preferring instead to slash to the hoop.

Grade: B-

 

Small Forward

This is a spot that has been stable if not spectacular for the Blazers over the years. 

Nic Batum, though not usually spectacular, has proven to be a consistent scoring option and a very underrated defender. 

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He is long, athletic and is developing solid instincts defensively. 

Offensively, he is a good shooter from deep and can slash to the hoop when needed. 

The next step in his development will be to become a better facilitator with the ball in his hands. Last season he improved quite a bit, averaging just under five assists per contest.

Backing up Batum will be Dorell Wright.

Wright is long like Batum but an even better shooter.

He also will see some time at guard and power forward and he has the versatility to make that happen.

Wright will need to improve defensively, but given his length he could potentially be disruptive.

Victor Claver also will be in the mix but to a much lesser extent. Perhaps early in the year he will see minutes while McCollum and Matthews are hurt, but once the team is at full strength he will no longer be in the rotation.

Grade: B

 

Power Forward

When the Blazers were able to land Aldridge seven years ago, few envisioned that he would become the franchise cornerstone.

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Over the years, the Blazers went from being Brandon Roy's team to eventually finding their future tied to Greg Oden and his balky knees.

In 2008, it looked like the trio of Roy, Oden and Aldridge would be together for years.

Of those three, Aldridge is the only one that materialized.

Aldridge possesses that rare blend of size and agility and the skill set of a post player with a nice touch from the perimeter.

The pick-and-roll will continue to be a point of emphasis for Aldridge and something he will need to master in order to reach the next level.

Backing up Aldridge is the enigmatic Thomas Robinson. Robinson was a lottery pick just a year ago but is already on his third NBA team.

Robinson was a good interior player on both sides of the floor in college but has struggled with both as a pro.

The Blazers just need energy from Robinson as well as rebounding. He doesn't need to be the second coming of Aldridge, just a competent backup that can allow the Blazers to rest their star.

Wright also figures into the mix here as well as potentially Freeland.

Grade: A-

 

Center

This was a major problem last year and something that the Blazers needed to address.

They did their best, bringing in Lopez to start next to Aldridge.

Lopez is not particularly gifted in any aspect of the game but is a big body.

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He can score near the hoop and is starting to develop a baby hook. But he is never going to be the team's first option on offense and instead will be asked to provide power next to Aldridge and take pressure off of the star power forward.

Lopez is also not known as a good rebounder and will be hard-pressed to replace even 75 percent of what J.J. Hickson gave them (over 10 per game).

Backing up Lopez will be both Freeland and Leonard.

Freeland is slowly figuring out the NBA. He is an energy guy that will continue to improve as he gets accustomed to the league.

Leonard looked lost defensively as a rookie but his offensive game certainly began to improve towards the end of the season.

He will need to limit his fouls in his second year and provide interior defense. He has the body and athleticism to be a good shot-blocker but he lacks the instincts.

Grade: C-

 

What to Watch for

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Breakout Player: Dorell Wright

The Blazers are counting on Wright to provide both offense and defense to the second unit. They also are hoping that he can play three different positions and improve both the transition offense and the perimter defense.

If the Blazers are going to see a huge improvement from last season, Wright will need to be a huge part of that.

Early returns show that he could in fact have a career season in Portland.

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Team MVP: LaMarcus Aldridge

Aldridge is already perhaps the best power forward in the game. It comes down to him and Minnesota's Kevin Love but Aldridge is the superior offensive player and is a much better athlete.

Aldridge took another step in his development, becoming a much better defender out of necessity due to the team's lack of a true center.

He already possesses an excellent 15- to 18-foot jump shot and a fantastic back-to-the-hoop game. He still is not an elite rebounder (less than 10 per game) and is not much of a shot blocker.

But this team really only goes as far as Aldridge.

Another hopeful sign is that Aldridge seems to be becoming a more vocal leader. This also should be seen on the court through a more forceful approach to the offense.

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Most Disappointing Player: C.J. McCollum

It seems unfair to label McCollum disappointing but how else can you view him right now?

McCollum was going to be the focal point of the second unit on the offensive side of the ball. Instead, he likely will miss the bulk of the season with an injured foot.

Blazers' fans were so hopeful that McCollum would be a difference maker for this team but instead he is added to the long list of injured players that have been connected to this franchise over the years.

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Player Most Likely to be Traded: Meyers Leonard

In all honesty, the Blazers don't figure to be a seller once the trade deadline comes around.

They are comprised of young talent that they are attempting to develop.

That being said, Leonard needs to show improvement quickly.

Last season, Leonard struggled mightily on defense and was only slightly better on offense. He didn't contribute on the boards like most hoped and his shot-blocking ability was negated by his constant foul trouble.

Now the likelihood of a trade involving anyone is probably remote. But if Leonard continues to struggle, the Blazers just might test the waters and try to get some value for their former lottery pick.

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Biggest Rivalry: Blazers vs. Lakers

Obviously the Blazers are no longer in the same division as the Los Angeles Lakers, but they are still the game that fans most get up for.

Last season, the Blazers opened their season with a big win over the Lakers that saw Lillard give a breakout performance.

Part of this rivalry will be diminished because of Kobe Bryant's injury. Blazer fans love to hate Bryant.

However, there is just something about that Lakers jersey that gets the blood going for the Blazers.

An honorable mention will be the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets and Blazers have always had tough matchups and Kenneth Faried seems to get under the skin of Aldridge.

Both of these series will be fun to watch this year.

 

Best-Case, Worst-Case Scenarios and Projected Win-Loss Record

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Best Case: 50-32

In the best-case scenario, the Blazers come together both offensively and defensively. 

Their newly improved bench generates instant offense, Lopez takes the defensive burden off of Aldridge's shoulders which allows him to take another big step offensively and improve as a rebounder

Lillard continues his offensive development and adds competence as a defender. 

Lillard and Aldridge become the elite pick-and-roll pairing in the league and strike fear in the hearts of their opponents. 

Batum takes another large step forward and makes up for the loss of McCollum who returns to action much sooner than expected and provides a huge boost off the bench. 

 

Worst Case: 38-44

In the worst-case scenario, Lillard regresses and has a sophomore slump.

Matthews is plagued all season by his heart condition and McCollum misses the entire season.

Leonard and Freeland struggle to provide support off the bench and Lopez is overwhelmed and does not alleviate the pressure on Aldridge.

The defense remains porous and the bench never answers the call the way everyone expected.

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W-L Projection: 44-38

The Blazers have to improve over last year. Their overall talent level has been massively upgraded and the bench is going to help immensely.

Aldridge is going to continue to dominate and Lillard should improve although his ceiling is probably not too much higher than where he is right now.

The defense should be slightly better but it likely won't be a game-changer. They still lack a consistent shot blocker in the post and Lopez can only help so much.

This is a team that should be in the mix for one of the final three playoff spots and should be a fun squad to watch all season.

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