5 Areas Portland Trail Blazers Must Improve This Offseason
What a wild ride.
After starting the season on a terrific run, the Portland Trail Blazers looked like a contender. They benefited from an easy schedule but still overachieved based on their roster. The Blazers then struggled during the stretch run but recovered in time to make it to the second round of the playoffs.
The end result was a disappointing postseason exit, dropping 4-1 to the San Antonio Spurs, but Portland can look to next season to make improvements. The Blazers have a talented roster that is full of young prospects who can contribute.
But Portland must also home in on a few key areas to repeat their efforts this season and beyond.
Get Damian Lillard More Involved
After a breakthrough postseason, Lillard showed he’s ready to take the reins of this Portland team.
That might be a stretch, considering the dominance of LaMarcus Aldridge down low. But the Blazers should look to even out the ball distribution between the two.
During the regular season, Aldridge netted a 27.9 usage rate compared to Lillard’s 24.7 rate. It doesn’t appear to be a huge difference, but it’s essentially the separation of plays that are run between Miami Heat players LeBron James (29.1) and Dwyane Wade (26.1).
With Wade’s continued injury troubles, the majority of the offense was shifted onto LeBron’s shoulders. It’s a sensible way to go about things, but the same gap shouldn’t be apparent between Lillard and Aldridge.
The second-year guard showed a potency both on and off the ball, and Portland needs to take full advantage. The Blazers are lucky that their All-Stars can both play off the ball, so forcing the ball into Lillard’s hands more frequently won’t disrupt the offense.
He has rounded into one of the best offensive guards in the NBA, and it makes little sense to limit his contributions. He should be considered the first option, with his shooting and playmaking adding more to open games than Aldridge’s post-ups down low.
Portland is already an overpowering offensive team, so the addition-by-subtraction method to get Lillard the ball more could be risky. But the Blazers are too talented for it to be an issue.
What to Do with Mo Williams
The Blazers crushed the Houston Rockets early on in the first round, despite almost losing a grip on the series by the end of it. With all due respect to the Rockets, Portland played a role in that too.
A lack of veteran leadership was a reason, with the majority of the team’s players being either very young or deficient in postseason experience. The Blazers still had Mo Williams and Earl Watson in tow, who had 24 years of professional basketball between them. But neither was on the court enough to make a difference.
And now Portland must make a decision on the former.
Williams shot only 37.3 percent from the field and 23.8 percent from three-point range in the playoffs, in addition to committing 1.8 turnovers for every 1.9 assists per game. Watson played in only four games in the playoffs, averaging 3.5 minutes per contest, so his contributions came largely as a mentor/adviser on the bench and in the locker room.
What Portland needs is an “on-court coach” of sorts to keep things steady. Williams can provide that as a seasoned point guard, but he was far too inconsistent to lead by example. His player efficiency rating of 11.9 during the regular season demonstrated this, ranking ahead of only big man Joel Freeland (11.3 PER) amongst those who played 40 games or more for the Blazers, per ESPN.com.
Williams has already expressed his desire to return, so it could be a tricky situation for Portland if management decides against it. It was just his first season in the Blazers system, so giving him another season to adjust could prove beneficial.
He was a great contributor for the Cleveland Cavaliers alongside LeBron James, as well as off the bench with the Los Angeles Clippers. Williams offers little defensively, but he ticks all the boxes in terms of offensive production off the bench, veteran know-how and leadership, which are all imperative to every NBA team.
Improve the Defense
At a glance, Portland’s defensive numbers were perfectly sound. The Blazers allowed 102.8 points per game, which can be attributed to their pace of play, on 45.1 percent from the field and 35.5 percent from beyond the arc.
But this team can go even further.
During the regular season, Portland ranked dead last in forcing turnovers at 11.6 per game. With just 5.5 steals per game, the Blazers had little room to get out on the fast break and get some easy shots. Every team has its own style and trademarks, but Portland would benefit by incorporate such a facet.
With the quickness of Wesley Matthews and the seemingly endless 7'4" wingspan of Nicolas Batum, it's surprising to see the Blazers somewhat reserved defensively on the perimeter. It's always more sensible to stay at home on defense rather than try to cash in on steals in the passing lanes, but forcing more turnovers needs to be a focus for next season.
With the speed that Portland plays at, it's very easy for opponents to get caught up in the tempo. Per ESPN.com, the Blazers ranked No. 10 in pace with 97.5 possessions per game during the season but forced the fewest turnovers per game.
Portland needs to bring that same tempo defensively, becoming a smothering collective force. The team lacks many defensive specialists; hence using man-to-man sets can be a disadvantage. Lillard and Aldridge are average players on that side of the ball, and while they need to make strides, changing up the defensive identity could prove beneficial.
Matthews was tasked with defending Tony Parker for much of the second round, with Lillard's troubles in full display. Yet if the Blazers utilized a different defensive system, much like the trapping and switching style of the Miami Heat, it would better suit their personnel.
Lillard, Matthews and Batum on the perimeter should be potent, with the length and size of Aldridge and Robin Lopez down low to back them up. Both are able shot-blockers and careful defenders, averaging 2.1 fouls and 2.4 fouls, respectively.
Portland is a young, quick and athletic team, and it needs to play like it defensively.
Develop the Younger Players
The Blazers don't have a huge amount of untapped talent on the bench, but there's enough there to be intrigued.
Rookie guard C.J. McCollum played in only 38 games this season, missing time with a broken left foot. By the time he officially joined the team for his debut, it was well and truly past the time for him to adjust. His first game was on Jan. 8, though he never had the chance to break into the rotation and make an impact.
After being drafted No. 10 overall last season, he's expected to blossom into a talented guard for the Blazers. McCollum will have a better chance next season, with a fresh bill of health and the ability to get started earlier on.
Portland's coaching staff needs to do everything to help him along though, in order to ensure his confidence remains high. McCollum averaged 0.7 points on 0.09 percent in 4.0 minutes per game during his debut postseason; hence it's vital he comes into next season with the belief he'll be successful.
The Blazers also have forward Thomas Robinson on board, who was taken No. 5 overall in the 2012 NBA draft. He's bounced to three teams since then, including Portland, and has yet to start a single game for his career.
He's an athletic big man, averaging 4.8 points and 4.4 rebounds in 12.5 minutes during the season. He has a tendency to foul often, with 2.1 fouls per 11.1 minutes in the playoffs. That's a central reason behind his limited playing time, but it's a fixable component of his game.
The Blazers are without any draft picks in the upcoming draft, with their selections referred to the Charlotte Hornets and the Denver Nuggets. As such, Portland can focus on developing talent that is already on the roster.
Guard Will Barton showed promise in the playoffs, putting up 6.4 points on 50 percent shooting in 11.6 minutes. He's an athletic cutter and shooter but offers little else on that end of the floor. Center Meyers Leonard is another prospect the Blazers have in tow, although he's been limited thus far.
He was taken No. 11 in the 2012 draft and has great size at 7'1" and 245 pounds. Leonard played just 8.9 minutes per game during the season, averaging 2.5 points and 2.8 rebounds with 1.9 fouls.
Barton and Leonard do not have to become spectacular players, but they need to develop a little further to be useful to the team. McCollum and Robinson have already shown flashes; they just need to be more consistent.
And that comes with experience.
Add Veteran Players to Improve the Bench
A lack of experience was ultimately the Blazers’ downfall in the second round against the San Antonio Spurs. The offensive and defensive dominance by Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Co. did have something to do with it, but that all came from experience.
Portland's roster is rife with young players and full to the brim in terms of guaranteed deals. According to ShamSports.com, just Will Barton's option for next season is nonguaranteed, bringing the Blazers' roster to 11 filled spots (excluding Mo Williams' player option).
Portland's core just had a terrific run, so any changes there aren't ideal. Lillard and Aldridge complement each other well, with Matthews, Batum and Lopez providing excellent help in supporting areas. The Blazers do need more help off the bench, though.
Williams was the only reserve to average more than 20 minutes per game, with Dorell Wright coming in second at 14.5 minutes per game. Robinson, Leonard and Freeland offer a solid contribution in the middle off the bench, but none is experienced enough to be as efficient as the team needs.
The NBA will have a plethora of free agents available this season, with the likes of Elton Brand, Kris Humphries, Chris Kaman and Kenyon Martin available to sign. With the Blazers being over the cap, they can only offer a minimum deal or the mid-level exception, which would attract a reasonably talented big man.
Given Portland's playoff run and the talent on the roster, the team has an enticing scenario to pitch to a free agent.
The Blazers could also waive the likes of Allen Crabbe and Victor Claver in an effort to open a roster spot (or two) for some additional help. Adding experienced players won't launch this team's chemistry to another level, but it can help the Blazers inch closer to being a seasoned squad that can contend.
Portland's bench ranked last in the league in terms of bench efficiency, which led to Lillard, Aldridge and Batum playing 40-plus minutes in the playoffs. You always want your stars playing the majority of the minutes, but they need a rest every now and then.
A lack of help off the bench limited that option in the long run for the Blazers. It's an easily fixed scenario though, which will also pay dividends in terms of adding more experience and veteran leadership to a team that is bursting with young talent.