Portland Trail Blazers' Bright Future Is Only Just Beginning

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistMay 16, 2014

Portland Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge, left, celebrates with guard Damian Lillard after scoring a basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls in Chicago on Thursday, March 21, 2013. The Trail Blazers won 99-89. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

Only those with short memories will look back on the Portland Trail Blazers' 2013-14 season with disappointment. 

Yes, the postseason push ended on a sour note. Yes, this team was arguably capable of putting up a better fight against the San Antonio Spurs. Frustration is understandable. That's the appropriate emotion when a club is finally good enough to accomplish something and comes up short.

But these Trail Blazers did accomplish something and no, I'm not just talking about the fantastic cameo on IFC's Portlandia.

Portland's emergence as a playoff force had to start somewhere and it started in style. The team won its first-round series in six games over the Houston Rockets. Few expected that to happen. Still fewer expected LaMarcus Aldridge to combine for 89 points in Games 1 and 2 of that series.

This team proved it can outscore the best of them. It showed poise with games on the line down the stretch. It reminded us that it boasts arguably the best young point guard in the game. 

Damian Lillard's series-clinching three-pointer against Houston remains the defining shot of the postseason, with or without the Trail Blazers around.

But of all the promising signs shown by these Trail Blazers, the best news is that they're still very young. They will look back on their struggles against the Spurs as a pivotal learning experience, an opportunity to watch firsthand how a team makes it to the conference finals for three-consecutive seasons.

They will also look back on this as only the beginning. The best of the Portland Trail Blazers is yet to come.


The Leadership

Head coach Terry Stotts has done wonders for this squad and looks well-positioned to get even more out of these guys next time around. He spent four seasons as an assistant with the Dallas Mavericks, absorbing Rick Carlisle's basketball acumen and readying himself for a moment like this. To whatever extent Portland can build upon its initial climb, he's the man to see it through.

Cultures don't form and mature overnight. It wasn't long ago that the Trail Blazers were still rebuilding and watching the playoffs from the outside. 

Portland finished with a 33-and-49 record in 2012-13. It was 54-28 this season, tying the Rockets for the fourth-best record in the Western Conference. 

That kind of turnaround put Stotts in the Coach of the Year conversation. Though he finished far behind front-runners Gregg Popovich and Jeff Hornacek when the votes were tallied, his record should speak for itself when determining where he ranks in the upper echelon of coaches.

The 56-year-old recently had his contract extended, a sign that Portland has confidence in the franchise's direction and ability to improve upon this year's results. 

Per NBA.com, Portland general manager Neil Olshey said, "Terry has done an outstanding job during his first two years with the organization. This extension illustrates our confidence in him as our head coach as well as the Portland Trail Blazers' continued commitment to building a model of consistency and stability."

Consistency and stability.

Those are key words. The worst thing Portland could do is change course at a time like this. Stotts has turned Portland into a respectable franchise, making the most out of an untested team with a shallow bench. 

While there's room for minor roster tweaks, the best path to chart is one that continues utilizing in-house talent, allowing chemistry to grow within the unit it already has. Maintaining that continuity starts at the top.


The One-Two Punch

LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard form one of the league's very best inside-outside combinations. Their skill sets have blended to the effect of countless pick-and-pop opportunities, and they are still just beginning to realize their synergistic potential.

Individually, their production was impressive this season.

Aldridge averaged career-highs 23.2 points and 11.1 rebounds. He's still just 28 years old and has one more season remaining on his contract worth $15.2 million. Aldridge has gotten better just about every year he's been in the league. He's always been able to shoot from mid-range, but he's grown in his ability to score from the post and battle it out inside.

The Trail Blazers will work double-time to retain Aldridge beyond 2015. And it's hard to see him leaving given the opportunity he has to win in Portland. It's specially hard to see him leaving given the presence of Lillard.

The 23-year-old point guard put up 20.7 points and 5.6 assists this season. He made over 39 percent of the 6.8 three-pointers he attempted her contest. 

Lillard still has plenty to learn about being a floor general, but his sophomore campaign was an unequivocal indication that he's going to be one of the best in this business for some time to come. He is blessed and cursed by the duel ability to distribute and score so effectively. As he strikes that balance with improved decision-making, there's nothing stopping Lillard from becoming the most elite point guard in the NBA.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the young star is his maturity. His even-keeled personality fits the Trail Blazers' professionalism nicely.

He even had sound perspective regarding the season's end, per The Oregonian's Mike Richman:

A lot of people had us ninth or 10th in the West, they didn't think we would be able to compete the way that we did. We worked hard, we believed in ourselves. Tied for the fourth seed, ended up being fifth and won a First Round series. We competed really hard against an elite team like the Spurs, and nobody picked us to be here. We're not settling for a moral victory, but we're proud of what we were able to get done this season.

Lillard wasn't just saying the right things. He had no incentive to. He was entitled to pout or bemoan his teammates' effort. No one would have faulted him for being grumpy.

But we should appreciate his message. It's a refreshing reaction, especially from a young player who played his heart out in these playoffs. 

It goes without saying, Lillard is a keeper. The only unknown is how much better he can get. 


The Supporting Cast

The addition of Robin Lopez finally cemented Portland's starting lineup as one of the league's best. The 7-footer had his best all-around season, averaging 11.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per contest.

More importantly, he afforded Aldridge the ability to play at the 4. That meant the star big man was often able to dominate smaller opponents and was spared the grueling task of battling the other teams' biggest players for rebounds. For Lopez's part, his biggest contribution didn't necessarily show up in his numbers. He bore the brunt of the opposition's physicality inside, and he played pretty good defense to boot.

But the bigger names also did their parts this season.

Nic Batum and Wesley Matthews give Portland a couple of very good two-way players to patrol the perimeter. Both of them can spot up for three-pointers. Both can take the ball to the basket. And both can defend the wing. They even took turns defending Tony Parker when Stotts ran out of options in the semifinals.

Matthews is signed through next season. Batum is under contract until 2016. The Trail Blazers have a team option to keep Lopez around for another season.

In total, that means Portland can keep this core together for at least another season or two depending on what Aldridge and Matthews decide to do about free agency. 

Enough time to become a contender? That remains to be seen, but there's a good chance Portland can turn the corner sooner rather than later.

The pieces are in place and the coach has the right pedigree for the job. All this group needs is a little more time.


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