What We Learned About the Portland Trail Blazers This Season
Talk about exceeding expectations.
The Portland Trail Blazers weren't slated to make much noise this season, but proved to make quite a bit of it. The team was predicted to finish 40-42 and 37-45 in a pair of Bleacher Report projections, ultimately outdoing both with a final record of 54-28.
Given Portland's recent past and current roster construction, both predictions were fair.
As such, it's important for us to look back, see what we learned from this talented squad and what we can expect from it going forward.
They're a Dangerous 3-Point Shooting Team
In the video above, the Blazers knocked down a franchise-record 21 three-point shots in a game. Exactly three weeks later, they did it again, setting a new record in becoming the only team in NBA history to knock down 20 or more threes twice in a season.
It was a consistent trend for Portland throughout the season, sporting dead-eye shooters like Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews.
Throw in Dorell Wright, Mo Williams and rookie C.J. McCollum, and the Blazers are deadly from the outside.
They were tied for No. 7 in the league in three-point percentage as a team at 37.2 percent and tied for No. 2 in three-point field goals made per game at 9.4 (just short of the Houston Rockets' league-leading number of 9.5).
Coach Stotts and his squad did a terrific job of spreading the floor and running the offense, ranking No. 5 in terms of offensive efficiency.
Portland's ability to create space and find opportunities for everyone allowed the team to achieve success and will be a staple of its play going into next season. The Blazers' three-point shooting is a big part of their identity, and they showcased it in a huge way throughout the season.
Damian Lillard Is the NBA's Next Superstar
Welcome to the big league, kid.
Despite winning the Rookie of the Year Award last season, Lillard still flew under the radar to a certain extent. He's played right on par in the past two seasons, providing a steady and controlled dose of scoring and distributing at the point guard spot.
Lillard truly broke out in the playoffs, mostly due to his game-winner to push the Blazers over the Rockets and into the second round.
He averaged 25.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists in the first round, shooting 46.8 percent from the field, 48.9 percent from beyond the arc and 87.5 percent from the free-throw line in his postseason debut.
Lillard struggled against the Spurs, but that was to be expected with the opposing levels of experience.
Regardless of that, he showed a mental toughness rarely seen in second-year players. Lillard will turn 24 years old in July and was one of the few senior players taken in the 2012 NBA draft, so he's slightly ahead of others with the same level of experience.
Lillard looks ready to take a major leadership role and throw his name in the hat for consideration among the best players in the NBA. He proved to be one of the best point guards in the league in the postseason, as well as a leader when Aldridge was in foul trouble or on the bench.
In any case, it'll be exciting to see Lillard burst onto the scene next season and continue his outstanding play.
The Blazers Aren't Contenders...Yet
After handling the Houston Rockets in the first round, Portland was swiftly dealt with by the San Antonio Spurs in the second round.
The Blazers still made a ton of noise, but their inexperience showed down the stretch.
The NBA's Western Conference has long been the most competitive of the two, which makes Portland's rise this season all the more impressive. The Blazers finished No. 11 in the West standings last season at 33-49 before improving to 54-28 and tying for the No. 4 seed this season.
Portland jumped out to a 33-13 record by the end of January before struggling during the stretch run, and its lack of a veteran mentality showed.
The roster is rife with young, experienced players, but few who have that edge seen in those who have battled consistently in the playoffs.
The roster had the likes of Mo Williams and Earl Watson signed, but it wasn't enough to make a huge difference. The Blazers were handled mightily by the Spurs in five games, showing the enormous contrast in style and basketball knowledge between the squads.
To be fair, San Antonio has long been considered the epitome of professionalism in the NBA.
Comparing this up-and-coming Blazers team to that organisation this early isn't fair, but it shows the steps Portland still needs to take.
Lillard, Aldridge and their teammates are still considered young players, as none have yet to really hit their prime or be tested fully. Stotts is a very experienced coach, but has just six years of head coaching under his belt.
The Blazers will grow as a whole going forward and will be an even stronger and more cohesive team.
Led by a dynamic offense, Portland has one of the league's best core groups that is sure to contend over the years. It's just going to take some time.
Portland Has 1 of the League's Best Cores to Build Around
Few teams can boast an ensemble of talents to build around, but the Blazers are one of them.
We've already covered Lillard's potential and rise to stardom, so the focus can shift to his teammates.
Aldridge is entering his prime and contested the spot for the NBA's best power forward during the season. He put up 23.2 points and 11.1 rebounds per game during the season, dominating in the post and the mid-range area.
Aldridge did shoot a career-low 45.8 percent, but that can be attributed to how much the Blazers played through him offensively (No. 7 in usage rate).
Aside from Portland's two All-Star players, the likes of Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez and several others have the Blazers touted as a strong all-around team.
Each player provides something different, but they all come together to form this young Portland squad. The starting lineup played the second-most of any this season, trailing just the Indiana Pacers' starting group.
With NBA.com indicating that it played 1,373 minutes in 2013-14, the lineup of Lillard-Matthews-Batum-Aldridge-Lopez had an offensive rating of 111.5 with a defensive rating of 103.0 per 100 possessions. The Blazers can score from any position and each guy is expertly versatile.
Whether it's Batum's defense and passing, Matthews' feisty on-ball guarding and long-range shooting, or Lopez's shot-blocking and low-post offense, Portland has the luxury of entrusting any of them in any situation.
In addition, the team has yet to fully develop guards C.J. McCollum and Will Barton or forward Thomas Robinson.
Having young talents with plenty of potential on the waiting list is a luxury few teams can afford, but recent examples like the Oklahoma City Thunder have shown it's a strong model to build around.
The Blazers Strengthened Their Case to Re-Sign Aldridge
Aldridge's contract will expire at the end of next season, making him an unrestricted free agent in his prime.
Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote in August that there was an abundance of rumors suggesting Aldridge might be traded before being given the chance to leave, but the Blazers made a strong case as the ideal destination for the big man.
That was understandable given the Blazers' 33-49 record, but it's a different case after this season's surprise run.
Portland came together and played as a team, its players relying on each other down the stretch to break into the postseason. It marked the first time since the 1999-00 season that the Blazers got out of the first round and they have a very promising future.
Aldridge's $16 million deal finishes at the end of next season, but Portland will have plenty of cap space to try and re-sign the All-Star. Just $13.1 million is guaranteed on the Blazers' payroll for the 2015-16 season, while the options of Lillard, Robinson and McCollum could all be picked up.
Even if that were the case, there would still be an adequate amount of space under the cap to offer Aldridge a max-level deal.
The Blazers made significant progress this season, have a strong system in place and are committed to letting the big man run things. Even with the progress of Lillard's development, Aldridge remained No. 7 in usage rate compared to the point guard's rate (tied for No. 32).
Every star player wants the ball in their hands, a contract to pay their worth and a winning team. Aldridge can net all three by re-signing in Rip City.
Portland put it all out there this season, and it's a beneficial situation for both sides to remain together.
Next season will ultimately play a role, but if this season was any indication, the Blazers can repeat their efforts and contend—convincing their All-Star in Aldridge to stay all the while.
Salary information courtesy of ShamSports.