There’s been no shortage of feel-good stories this NBA season. Near the top of that list: the Portland Trail Blazers’ unlikely ascendance from playoff afterthought to upstart prodigies with plenty of promise for the future.
The NBA’s cognoscenti were split on whether the Blazers—the ninth-youngest team in the league—would wind up cresting the playoff picture or playing for a lottery largesse.
Portland’s impressive march to the Western Conference Semifinals, where it met its ultimate demise at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, may have seemed validation enough.
To the contrary, general manager Neil Olshey saw in this season the seeds of a potential contender in the making.
#Blazers GM Neil Olshey says the organization is out of the asset acquisition phase and says now it's about winning games.— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) May 16, 2014
Obviously, Olshey’s sentiments speak as much to his team’s impressive playoff performance as it does the hard reality of Portland’s financial situation. As CBS Sports’ Matt Moore notes, the Blazers will enter the 2014-15 season with close to $65 million in committed salaries—or slightly over the projected salary cap.
Facing a 2015 offseason rife with potentially franchise-altering decisions (whether or not to extend forward LaMarcus Aldridge being by far the most pressing), the Blazers are banking on a few things to yield them their desired outcome: genuine contention.
The first is the next-level leap of second-year point guard Damian Lillard, fresh off his first All-Star Game and the team’s clear-cut leader of the future.
Bleacher Report’s Stephen Babb spoke to precisely this point in a column trumpeting Portland’s forward-facing future:
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.
The second is whether or not Aldridge—28 years old and coming off the most productive season of his career—has another gear ahead of him.
Ditto Wesley Matthews (27) and Nicolas Batum (25), Portland’s highly productive wings and so often the team’s sneaky X-factors.
Finally, in what has become an annual concern, can the Blazers bolster their bench, which finished at the bottom of the league in sheer output for the second straight year, per HoopsStats.com?
Think the Blazers are doomed to another year of bad bench play? Think again.
In owner Paul Allen, the Blazers boast not only one of the deepest sets of pockets on the planet, but also a certified sports junkie who might well look to double down on the Super Bowl fortunes of his Seattle Seahawks by going straight-up Mikhail Prokhorov on the rest of the league.
That’s all speculation at this point. Still, depending on how the free-agent market shakes out this summer, Portland might well—with the right ancillary moves—enter next season even further up the Western Conference totem pole.
As a businessman, Paul Allen has doubtless doubled down on investments that wound up backfiring spectacularly. But Portland—with its frantic fanbase and phenomenal talent to match—isn’t one of them.