Power Ranking Every Key Portland Trail Blazers Player Before Season's End
The season is winding down in the Rose City, and the playoffs are imminent. The Portland Trail Blazers, for the first time in several years, will be playing in the postseason.
They didn't get here by accident. This is a team that has jelled considerably under coach Terry Stotts despite featuring only one new starter from last season's team that lost its last 13 straight games. Stotts has introduced a culture of accountability and effort that has spread like wildfire.
Second-year point guard Damian Lillard has grown considerably, power forward LaMarcus Aldridge has turned into one of the top 10 players in the game and Nicolas Batum has finally started to put it all together on the court.
As the Blazers forge through toward the playoffs, let's take a look back at their power rankings individually.
10. C.J. McCollum, G
C.J. McCollum entered this season amid hopes he would be a secret weapon coming off the bench.
And early-season injury certainly stunted his NBA development, and things have been slow for the Lehigh product this year.
But McCollum has shown flashes of the talent that made him a lottery pick last year, and moving forward, he should only get better and more comfortable in this offense.
McCollum is the rare player who can play both off the ball and as the focal point of the offense. He can initiate the offense, but he can also flow and let the game come to him.
So far, his minutes have fluctuated considerably from game to game, but so too have the minutes for every person on the bench not named Mo Williams.
Hopefully, during the last month of the season, McCollum will get more play.
9. Joel Freeland, C
Joel Freeland is the type of basketball player whom you hate to play against but love to have on your team.
He plays with a high motor and exudes toughness and determination. He rarely gives up on plays and shows the capacity to become a better player as he matures on the court.
But coach Terry Stotts has been very selective in giving out minutes to his bench, instead relying quite a bit on his starting five. Freeland has gotten the most consistent minutes of all the backup bigs, although it should be interesting to see as we head into the playoffs whether or not Meyers Leonard cuts into his court time.
Freeland has been out since the beginning of February with a knee injury, although he is hopeful he will be back for the playoffs.
Should Freeland miss the postseason, it will be a major blow to this team.
8. Thomas Robinson, PF
Thomas Robinson has been in a tough spot during his NBA career.
A high lottery pick, he was thought to have the talent to become a star at this level.
But inconsistent coaching, bad situations and slow development have certainly taken their toll on the Kansas product.
Landing in Portland offered Robinson a new lease on life. He no longer has the pressure of having to become a star or even a starter. He is firmly entrenched behind LaMarcus Aldridge on this team and is asked only to come off the bench and provide energy and toughness.
In small doses, Robinson has proven to be an effective player. He even chipped in with nine points and nine rebounds in the Blazers' thrilling victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday.
When Aldridge went down with an injury, it was believed that Robinson would step in and have the opportunity to show off his talents. However, the injury hasn't resulted in much extra work for him, and he continues to get inconsistent minutes.
The key for Robinson will be to continue to bring energy off the bench and crash the boards if he hopes to crack the playoff rotation.
7. Dorell Wright, F
It took nearly until the end of the season, but Dorell Wright finally seems to have found a role with the Blazers.
Early in the season, Portland tried to play Wright exclusively as its backup small forward. Wright certainly is used to that spot and did his best to fit into the offense.
But since LaMarcus Aldridge went down last month, the Blazers have plugged Wright into their starting lineup as a stretch 4. The result has been a more wide-open look to start both halves and additional spacing that has allowed Damian Lillard and others to slash to the hoop.
Wright offers quite a few excellent traits for this team. He has the length to disrupt opponents on defense and the range to make them pay when left alone. He also has sneaky athleticism and can get out on the break.
When the playoffs finally come, Wright will be a valued member of the second unit, adding a new dimension to an already-fantastic scoring team.
6. Mo Williams, PG
When Portland brought in Mo Williams during the offseason, it was widely wondered what type of role the veteran point guard would have.
Williams has had many roles as a professional. He has been the gunner, playing off the ball and knocking down threes.
He has also been the pass-first point guard who initiates the offense.
He's never been asked to be the mentoring point guard, the steadying hand that helps mature a young star.
However, he has flourished in this role.
Williams has matured as a player, finally figuring out when to shoot and when to set up teammates. For a team that relied for a large portion of last season on Nolan Smith to back up Lillard, Williams has been a huge upgrade.
And come playoff time, it will be crucial for the Blazers to have his experience and poise under pressure.
5. Robin Lopez, C
Without question, the biggest offseason priority for the Blazers was to upgrade their center position.
Last season's big man, J.J. Hickson, was perhaps the worst interior defender in the league. This placed way too much pressure on Aldridge, which showed on the power forward's face. He was visibly frustrated last season, and many around Portland were worried that Aldridge would eventually force his way out of town.
Enter Robin Lopez. The veteran big man has been a revelation this season, doing all the little things and putting in dirty work down low. He is a smart, physical player who asserts himself with energy and discipline.
He has had a career season, averaging 10.9 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game.
Lopez has drastically improved the interior defense and has become a huge fan favorite around town.
Entering the playoffs, he will be crucial for Portland. In order to be successful in the playoffs, you need to get stops. If the rest of the team can feed off Lopez and his energy, this team might just surprise some people.
4. Wesley Matthews, SG
Wesley Matthews is the ultimate NBA success story.
Originally an undrafted player out of Marquette, Matthews signed on with the Utah Jazz and played himself into the rotation.
He then came to Portland and quickly became the starting shooting guard.
Over the last few years, he has steadily improved and quickly became one of the most underrated 2s in the league.
Entering this season, it would have been easy for Matthews to get frustrated. The Blazers had just drafted C.J. McCollum in the lottery, and some folks wondered aloud if the Blazers were grooming his replacement.
Matthews took this as yet another challenge and has turned in his best season as a pro. He has become one of the league's top 10 shooting guards and is only getting better.
Matthews has a very quiet but effective game. He doesn't really do anything flashy; he just gets the job done.
Mathews has incredible range, has more athleticism than he's given credit for and is the best defensive guard on the team.
Heading down the stretch, it will be important for Portland to give him some more time on the bench, because it will not be able to succeed in May without Matthews.
3. Nicolas Batum, SF
I went back and forth on who should be No. 3 on this list. Both Nicolas Batum and Matthews are deserving of this spot. Both are turning in excellent seasons.
However, what Batum has done since Aldridge went down has been the clincher.
Batum always had a ton of potential but frustrated fans and management alike with his inconsistent play. One game, he looks like the second coming of Scottie Pippen, and the next, he looks like a poor man's Dorell Wright.
This year, Batum has put it all together. He is never going to be a focal point of the offense and a 20-point-per-game scorer like some had hoped. However, this season, he has improved his overall game.
Batum is averaging 13.3 points, as well as a career-high 7.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game.
Increasingly the Blazers have run their offense through Batum, allowing him to become more of a facilitator in the half court.
Essentially, Batum is a jack-of-all-trades for this team and should only get better.
2. Damian Lillard, PG
Damian Lillard certainly had his coming-out party at this year's All-Star weekend.
He became the first player in history to compete in all five events.
And while he failed in his bid to win all events, he succeeded in improving his visibility around the country.
Lillard is one of the league's top young point guards. His mix of shooting, explosiveness and leadership makes him a true gem.
The key moving forward will be how he develops as a facilitator and defender. His assist numbers are a little low (5.6 per game), and he still struggles with quicker opponents. But he has already become one of the top five pick-and-roll point guards in the game and could become one of the top five point guards overall in the next few years.
This kid is a star, and the sky is the limit for him. When his career wraps up, you may be looking at the best point guard in franchise history.
1. LaMarcus Aldridge, PF
For those who might be tempted to place Lillard in the top spot, they need only see what the Blazers have done since Aldridge went down with a back injury.
The Blazers have gone from a potential top-four team in the playoffs to a squad that may slip to sixth or even seventh in the Western Conference when the postseason begins.
Aldridge was having by far his best season as a professional, notching career highs in points and rebounds (23.4 and 11.1, respectively).
For the first time in his career, Aldridge is averaging a double-double. He finally is unlocking the potential that many knew was lurking beneath his quiet demeanor.
Instead of being thought of as the next Rasheed Wallace, Aldridge is now putting up Hall of Fame-caliber numbers and making folks forget about their talented former big man.
To say that Aldridge is crucial to a sustained playoff run is to state the obvious. But I would take it a step further. Without Aldridge, the Blazers are not a playoff team. They need their talented power forward to be 100 percent for them to have even a chance of making it out of the first round.