The Portland Trail Blazers are a team on the rise. They have a plethora of young, proven talent headlined by Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Steve Blake, as well as developing talent, like Greg Oden, Jerryd Bayless, Travis Outlaw, and Rudy Fernandez.
They won 54 games last season, and there is no reason why they can't improve upon that. So, with all of their positives in Rip City, why do they face so many questions?
To improve and make a run in the playoffs, here are five questions that need to be answered.
Are they buyers or sellers this summer?
The Blazers have the chance to be both. They are high on Bayless, a point guard, whom they traded for during the 2008 NBA Draft, and, if they are ready to insert him as their full-time backup, Sergio Rodriguez could be trade bait. The fact is, they currently have three capable point guards, and only two is necessary to succeed.
Portland, with Sergio Rodriguez running the point, have a substantial amount of chemistry. The Spaniard, especially, loves finding fellow countrymen Rudy Fernandez; they seemed to know where each other was at all times. Whether it was lobs or other flashy passes, their chemistry was magical.
Yet, this connection could easily be broken, as Rodriguez is on the New York Knicks radar, and is likely on his way out.
Martell Webster is returning after a season full of injuries. Because of this, the Blazers have yet another guard at their disposal. This not only means that he could be traded as well, but furthers the point that Portland doesn't need to draft a guard or sign or trade for one this offseason.
So, they can trade some of their young talent, and, if need be, fill holes they may have (a backup power forward, perhaps).
Will Greg Oden morph into a dominant force in the paint?
He has the skills and the demeanor to, but it's just a matter if he can stay out of foul trouble consistently. When he played over twenty minutes, he made a considerable impact, and made the Blazers a better team. When he spent this amount of time in the game, he was a threat to boast a double-double. Time and time again, though, he would commit a plethora of fouls early, thereby lessening his impact, and hurting his team's interior defense.
If he can stay away from committing unnecessary fouls, and, on offense, is able to keep the ball at eyes level, instead of taking it below his knees, where he is susceptible to turnovers, then he can become the dominant center the Blazers hoped they would get when they drafted him first overall in the 2007 NBA Draft.
Can LaMarcus Aldridge continue to improve offensively and defensively?
Aldridge, behind Roy, was their second most valuable player this past season (center Joel Przybilla is a close third). As the season progressed, he got more tenacious and physical. His forte was the outside jumper, but his improvement and maturity took his game into the paint. If he continues to use his 6'11" size to his advantage, he can up his scoring average from 18 to the low-20's and, with his rebounding ability, should boast numbers worthy of his first All-Star selection.
His defense needs improvement as well. Throughout his career, he has had trouble defending stronger power forwards. He did improve as the year went on, but to consistently give the Blazers what they need from the power-forward position, he needs to be as aggressive on the defensive end as his is offensively.
If he can live in the paint more often and get angrier on defense, he will continue to improve, and become a recognized star in the NBA.
What issues do the Blazers need to address in the NBA Draft?
Portland, as their role players get more comfortable, will be potent offensively, but there is concern about their defense. Their starting lineup was moderately good in this category, but their bench was lackadaisical. Channing Frye, Rodriguez, Outlaw, and Fernandez's weaknesses were showcased on the defensive end. When they were on the floor, countless times their opponent went on a run.
Therefore, Portland needs to upgrade their defense. This can be done by drafting a tough rugged power forward. They have the 24th selection in the first round, but few may be available at that juncture unless they want to reach for second-round talent.
There has been talk that Kevin Pritchard, their General Manager, would trade up. By doing this, he could be able to nab Pittsbugh's DeJuan Blair or North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough. Both have their weaknesses offensively, but their defense and physicality is what should be enticing to the Blazers. This, amazingly enough, is Portland's only area of weakness; they don't need any guards or centers.
Can the Blazers be a title contender?
A case can be made that, with their current roster, they can contend for a championship. Their young players have another year of experience under their belt, and have matured enough to recognize their strengths and weaknesses, and how they can improve.
The Blazers need someone besides Aldridge to step up and take the pressure off Roy. With a matured Outlaw and Fernandez, and a healthy Martell Webster, Roy is certain to get consistent help.
Also, Oden is sure to improve every aspect of his game, which will help their defense considerably. Center Joel Przybilla's defense has always been steady, so the Blazers can only get better defensively in their frontcourt.
Similarly, their backcourt should be more comfortable on both sides of the ball; Bayless has learned the ropes, and Blake is as savvy as they come.
Roy, considering everyone else will improve, will have less pressure, and can be more unselfish. This will balance their scoring and make their team that much more lethal.
So, yes, they can compete for a title with some minor adjustments, a few acquisitions, and continued improvement from their bevvy of rising stars.
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