The Portland Trail Blazers have asserted themselves as a top-tier team this season, currently ranking third in the West. It's been a long road for the Blazers to get back to this level, as the team hasn't made it past the first round of the playoffs since the 1999-00 season.
Portland has a good chance to make it past the first round this season, but the future is very optimistic for the Blazers nonetheless.
Much like the Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland's roster is stacked with young talent. While the central focus of the team is on its stars, there remains developing talent on the bench.
LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews may be in their primes at age 28 and 27, respectively, but the rest of their teammates are up-and-coming players.
Damian Lillard needs no introduction, as he's averaging 20.7 points and 5.8 assists in just his second season. He's already been selected to his first All-Star appearance, announced as a reserve for the Western Conference on Jan. 31.
Nicolas Batum is the other core player for Portland, and he has quickly become one of the best two-way players in the league. His incredible 7'4" wingspan is a huge advantage on both ends, but defense has been Batum's staple thus far in his career.
If that wasn't enough, the Blazers then have developing talent as part of the reserves in C.J. McCollum, Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard.
Leonard may have a ways to go before he's a fully-fledged NBA big man, but he's still just 21 years old at this point. His 7'1", 245-pound frame is imposing in the lane, and it's just a matter of time before his game grows.
Robinson was a lottery pick in the 2012 NBA draft, but the Blazers will make the third team he's bounced to since. He's playing a career-low 10.9 minutes per game under head coach Terry Stotts, but has shown flashes of improvement with increased run.
A lot more comfortable. I feel comfortable playing with Joel (Freeland), especially RoLo (Robin Lopez), both of those guys. Being able to draw attention and make good passes to them.
McCollum has played just 16 games this season, missing the majority of his rookie campaign with a broken foot. He hasn't shown any signs of struggling though, as he's averaging 9.4 points on 48.5 percent shooting (46.7 percent from three) in the month of February.
In addition, the Blazers have an intelligent coach in Stotts. He has just three years of experience as a head coach under his belt, but his time as an assistant coach with the Dallas Mavericks has shown with Portland.
Stotts was largely in charge of coordinating the Mavericks offense, playing a key role on the sidelines as Dallas won the title in 2011. His work offensively has transitioned to the Blazers with ease, but with Aldridge playing the role of Dirk Nowitzki.
As such, Portland is one of the NBA's best offensive squads. The Blazers' offensive stats are below:
Overall, Portland has one of the best young rosters in the NBA. No matter how this season ends, the Blazers and their fans can look forward to what comes next.
Salary Cap and Draft Picks
Portland's payroll more or less plays off the fact that many of its players are on rookie-scale deals. As such, the Blazers have the ninth-lowest salary in the NBA, per Hoops Hype.
That total is just for this season, with Portland's payroll listed at $56.8 million for the 2014-15 season and $12.8 million for the 2015-16 season. That last part is particularly important, as that year is when the majority of the players become free agents.
How bright is the future for the Portland Trail Blazers?
The Blazers' lesser payroll when their players are off the books is seemingly obvious, but it's noteworthy considering the cap space the team will have. Portland is already a contending Western Conference team, but has the chance to reload and add complementary pieces in two seasons' time.
Aside from the 2014 NBA draft, the Blazers will have a first-round pick in each draft thereafter. This year's pick will go to the Charlotte Bobcats, assigned when Portland acquired Gerald Wallace in 2011.
The team's second-round picks are owed to various teams every which way, which makes it somewhat difficult going forward. While the prospects taken in the second round can be hard to judge talent-wise, it's still a situation where the Blazers will lose out on adding youthful players.
The first-round picks are the real focus here though, as all the best players out of college are taken sooner rather than later. Portland is only going to improve, which lessens the value and seeding of those picks, but it's still a positive that the team has retained their own draft rights.
What's next for the Blazers?
As aforesaid, Portland is one of the league's best teams. Sporting arguably the top offense in the NBA, the Blazers are on a tear and would need a dramatic falling out to lose out on a playoff seed.
The Portland Trail Blazers have matched last year's win total and it's only January 25th. Incredible.— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) January 26, 2014
Aldridge, Lillard, Batum and Matthews look to be locked in, both now and in the future. The rest of the roster is rife with young talent, which will only get better with a plethora of draft picks over the next few seasons.
The salary cap has been problematic for a few NBA teams in recent history, such as Oklahoma City having to trade James Harden due to salary reasons. Portland will face no such issues, with the team's financial health being very positive going forward.
The Blazers might not be the favorites to win the title this season, but you can bet they will be in the running for the next few seasons. The team has one of the brightest young rosters in the league, and in turn, one of the brightest futures as well.
All draft pick information courtesy of Pro Sports Transactions.