So far, so good.
The Portland Trail Blazers' offseason hasn't been as busy or as spectacular as some, but it's safe to say the team is perfectly content with how it played out. As the Blazers continue to strive for success, few roster moves were made but enough was done to give Portland a step up on the competition.
Portland proved its worth last season, tied for the No. 4 seed (Houston) in the West and a 54-28 record, trailing the top spot by eight games. It was a 21-game improvement over the 2012-13 season, and while the Blazers won't make the same jump again (unless they post an all-time best 75-7 record), they'll still be a force.
With that being said, the competition is perhaps the toughest it has been in years.
The Blazers have squads like the NBA-champion San Antonio Spurs, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers to do battle with, not to mention the much-improved Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies. The Golden State Warriors are a worthy opponent, too, as well as the Houston Rockets, who, while losing a few valuable "role players," will still be strong.
That might prove problematic for the Blazers, but the chances are they'll be right up there with the best of the West once again. Here's how.
Improved Bench, More Experience
Portland's starting lineup, which played the second-most minutes of any lineup that walked onto an NBA court last season, was spectacular to a certain extent. While not smothering defensively, the Blazers' starters had remarkable chemistry early on and meshed extremely well.
According to Hoops Stats, the Blazers' bench ranked dead last in in terms of minutes and points per game. Aside from seasoned point guards Mo Williams and Earl Watson and forward Dorell Wright, no other player had any playoff experience or played more than two NBA seasons.
While the team was able to cover those flaws up with the brilliant play of Aldridge and Damian Lillard, it eventually showed. There just wasn't enough firepower or veteran savvy off the bench to keep up in the postseason, but those issues have since been addressed.
Both were in tow for the roller-coaster ride that was the Los Angeles Lakers' 2013-14 season, but both managed to put up respectable numbers despite their age. Blake was later traded to the Golden State Warriors, where he remained effective offensively as a reserve.
While injuries have plagued both for most of their respective careers, both are skilled shooters, adept passers as well as skilled pick-and-roll players. Hence, they fit in seamlessly with what the Blazers like to get up to on offense.
The ball can swing from side to side, down to the post or on the perimeter for a three-point shot with either player on the court, which will make it easier for head coach Terry Stotts to trust and rely on his bench.
Now that the younger players, like C.J. McCollum and Thomas Robinson, have had another summer league and soon-to-be training camp under their belt, they'll be more competent with how the team functions.
McCollum didn't make his pro debut until the second half of the season, omitting a crucial period of learning and adjustment in training camp and the first month of the season. The rookie guard came in unprepared and off a broken foot, trying to meet expectations, all the while battling with an established vet like Williams for minutes.
Blake is a lesser player than Williams at this stage of his career, which thereby allows his and McCollum’s roles to switch. He’ll assume a more reserved backcourt role, while C.J. can come off the bench as the team’s sixth man with Will Barton playing either at the 2 or at small forward depending on the lineup.
Kaman will act in very much the same way, shuffling Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard a little further down the bench. His role will be a little different to that of Blake’s, as he may see sporadic game time based on the opponent or game situation.
Aldridge and Robin Lopez are low-to-the-ground bigs who can score and defend in the low post as well as pass accurately. Kaman fills that same description but is a better mid-range shooter than Lopez is.
As such, Stotts may look to play Kaman against strong interior defenses more in an effort to space the floor better than if Lopez was playing. There’s no doubt he’ll play in every game for which he’s available, but it may come down to just who each game is against.
How It All Comes Together
As the Blazers have effectively flipped Williams and Watson for Blake and Kaman, it gives the team an overall level of improvement that will aid Portland in staying strong in the Western Conference.
But then again, it is the Western Conference.
While the NBA’s offseason has largely been about LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers burying the hatchet, some contending teams have become stronger.
The Grizzlies added Vince Carter to strengthen their bench and offense, the Thunder added more youth with Anthony Morrow and Sebastian Telfair, while the Clippers added a duo that’s a rung or two up on the Blazers’ new pair in terms of talent in Jordan Farmar and Spencer Hawes.
The Spurs kept their winning squad together, while the Mavericks had a mini-makeover to add defensive specialist Tyson Chandler and scorer Chandler Parsons, in addition to veteran shooters Jameer Nelson, Richard Jefferson and Raymond Felton. The Rockets may have taken a few steps back after losing Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, but they added a player that fits well in Trevor Ariza.
Aside from all that, Portland still matches up exceptionally well in the Northwest Division. The Blazers had the best divisional record of all 30 teams in the NBA last season, proving their mettle against the Thunder, the Denver Nuggets, the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Utah Jazz.
With the latter two teams are slated for the draft lottery, the Blazers will make easy work of the division once again. The Nuggets could make a push and be a tougher group with the return of Arron Afflalo and Danilo Gallinari, but Portland only needs to truly worry about the Thunder.
Meanwhile, the Western Conference’s level of competition is through the roof. The Spurs could repeat as champions, this could be Oklahoma City’s year, while the Clippers, Warriors, Grizzlies or Mavericks could also make a run for the title.
Though Portland will remain a powerhouse team, too many teams have made those little steps to reach another level. It’s not definite, but it’s safe to project the Spurs, the Thunder and the Clippers as the top three seeds in the conference.
There’s an abundance of factors to consider as well, when measuring up the next five spots. Will Dallas be a strong defensive team? Can Marc Gasol remain healthy for Memphis? Will Golden State have more injury trouble with Andrew Bogut and David Lee? Or (lest we forget) how lucky Stephen Curry’s ankles were the last two seasons?
Aside from the multitude of variables, the Blazers are more than talented enough to keep up in the playoff race. Among a mighty group of teams and all personnel additions considered, Portland should slot in at the No. 4 spot with a 55-27 record.
It’s possible the Blazers slip lower and/or end up tied with the Warriors, Grizzlies or Mavericks, but they get the edge because of the certainty surrounding how strong the team will be. That aforementioned trio is just as potent, but a number of factors could completely derail their season(s).
Portland isn’t burdened by that.
How many wins will the Blazers have for the 2014-15 NBA season?
Thus far, Stotts’ system has shown to rely on the group rather than individuals, despite Aldridge’s spectacular 2013-14 campaign. Now with a better bench, he can spread out the heavy lifting and keep the Blazers healthy. There’s always the chance of unforeseeable injury, but no central Portland players have shown to be prone to missing time.
With all things considered, the Blazers will once again be a contender in the West. It’ll always be an uphill and harsh battle to compete in its respective conference, but Portland has assembled a team that will do so regardless.
Let’s go, Rip City.
Seed: No. 4
Follow and chat to me on Twitter, Rip City: @jjvannuccini