The Portland Trail Blazers made great strides this season, but they'll have to make a few more over the summer to ensure the 2013-14 campaign is a starting point—and not a high point—in their path to legitimate contention.
The San Antonio Spurs sent the Blazers home in a gentlemanly fashion, capping off a 4-1 series win with yet another blowout victory Wednesday—this one by a final margin of 104-82.
It was the sort of thorough, workmanlike win true contenders notch. You know, the kind the young, exciting, not-quite-there Blazers would like to achieve one day.
A Job Well Done
Before getting into what Portland must do to reach the next level, it's worth praising the way it got to its current one.
This was a team that wasn't supposed to be here. The Blazers missed last year's playoffs by a whopping 12 games, and everybody figured "improvement" would constitute sniffing a .500 record and playing respectable ball.
Even when Portland got out to a hot start, skepticism persisted.
But the Blazers entered the postseason as the No. 5 seed in a brutally tough West, owners of 54 regular-season wins. Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge were All-Stars, the offense was a force to be reckoned with and the home crowd in Portland became a real factor.
And then the Blazers knocked out the Houston Rockets in convincing fashion.
Yes, Portland fell flat against the Spurs, but there's no shame in that. Plenty of good teams have suffered the same fate.
Clearly, the Blazers did a few things right this year. They played a beautiful brand of offense, marked by loads of space, efficient off-ball movement and a savvy use of Aldridge's unique mid-range game. On the season, Portland ranked fifth in the NBA in offensive efficiency, per NBA.com.
Put simply, the Blazers were good. They've started something in Rip City, and they can keep it going by focusing on a few key areas during the offseason.
Playing Both Ends
The Blazers were a poor defensive team this season, despite the presence of capable wings such as Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews and a great anchor in Robin Lopez. Aldridge, too, was perfectly fine as a defender.
That leaves Lillard, secretly one of the worst defensive players in the league, as the culprit for Portland's substandard stopping power.
Beyond the numbers, there was a startling amount of anecdotal evidence to highlight shortcomings. He struggled to navigate screens, routinely fell asleep off the ball and resorted to lazy reaches in lieu of proper positioning.
For a guy so athletic, and so otherwise capable, Lillard's defensive ineptitude was perplexing. The positive spin, though, is that he should be able to improve by simply making defense a priority and giving it the focus it deserves.
He has to put ego aside and embrace the basics of body position, angles and footwork. There's really no reason he can't be an above-average defender. And that'll go a long way for the Blazers because their perimeter scheme puts a fair amount of pressure on individual efforts by their guards.
Portland drops its big man in pick-and-roll defense, forcing guards to chase ball-handlers over the top of screens. And the Blazers' emphasis on denying three-point shots requires hard closeouts and attention off the ball.
Moderate growth by Lillard could pay huge dividends going forward. He can't transform his team into a top-10 defense on his own, but Lillard has the power to lead by example in a critical area.
And it sounds like he's ready to get to work:
The Blazers thrived in space this year on offense, a strength that made up for their subpar defense.
But Portland struggled to score against San Antonio, eclipsing the 100-point barrier just twice in five games. Watching a once-powerful offense face such difficulty prompted an intriguing suggestion during Game 5:
Imagine how difficult Portland would be to cover with Aldridge as a stretch 5. The middle would be wide-open and guards could have a field day getting into the lane. There'd be ample drive-and-kick opportunities and chances to run like crazy.
Aldridge has the size to defend centers, and if Portland doesn't think it can improve its defense enough to make a real difference this summer, maybe going for broke on a mid-2000's Phoenix Suns-style attack is worth a shot.
It's hard to know how effective a smaller lineup would be because the Blazers so rarely tried the tactic this year. Aldridge was always on the floor with a center, but in the rare occasions head coach Terry Stotts tossed him out there with four smaller players, things got pretty interesting.
For instance, a lineup of Aldridge, Batum, Matthews, Lillard and Thomas Robinson racked up a plus-27.1 net rating in 38 minutes this season, per NBA.com. Hardly a huge sample, but it's one worth considering going forward.
If nothing else, making small ball a bigger part of its regular attack could help Portland switch things up against teams like the Spurs in the future.
And selfishly, I think we can all agree it'd be fun to see what someone such as Lillard would do with even more space on the floor.
Bolster the Bench...Somehow
This is a big one, folks.
Portland's bench was awful in 2012-13. According to hoopsstats.com, the Blazers' reserves ranked dead last in the NBA with a per-game scoring average of just 13.3 points. This past season, it was hardly any better, checking in at No. 30 once again with a scoring average of 13.7 points per game.
Will Barton showed flashes in the playoffs, and he has the mentality to be a scoring sixth man if he can rein in some of his wilder tendencies. Up front, Meyers Leonard is young enough to develop, and Joel Freeland was a useful big until a midseason injury knocked him out. He returned for the playoffs but was hardly the same.
If Robinson harnesses his athleticism, he could become a valuable piece as well.
Mo Williams and Dorell Wright were Portland's most oft-used reserves this past season, and both posted efficiency ratings well below average. They're each heading into the final years of their deals. Neither is at a stage where improvement is likely, though they could be used as trade bait if the right team comes calling.
Portland is basically capped out, projected to have a payroll of nearly $65 million next season, according to Spotrac, with a salary cap that should sit right around $63 million. That means the Blazers' options are severely limited, and they'll likely have to rely on organic growth in order for their bench to improve.
Given the talent on the roster (we haven't even mentioned C.J. McCollum, who could become a useful scorer as a reserve), there's a good chance Portland gets marginally better off the pine. But marginal improvement won't amount to much when you're working from the very bottom of the pile in terms of bench production.
Satisfied but Uncertain
The Blazers are a flawed team, and the Spurs did what they always do against flawed teams: expose them.
That's fine. Portland took a step forward this season. It has one legitimate star in Aldridge and another player, Lillard, capable of becoming one if he defends more like a human being than a parking cone.
The West is only getting tougher, though, and some smart NBA minds are skeptical of the Blazers' chances to build on the foundation they laid this year.
It's very possible we don't see the current version of the Blazers make it this far again. The NBA is hard to predict that way. But there's also a chance Portland can get better.
The Trail Blazers were fun this year. If they attend to a few weaknesses this offseason, they can be more than that in the future.