On the strength of a high-powered offensive attack led by one of the NBA's best guard-forward tandems, the Portland Trail Blazers turned heads and stuffed the win column during a wildly successful 2013-14 campaign.
Now, the real work beings.
After ripping off an unexpected 54 victories last season, the Blazers will no longer be catching anyone by surprise.
With LaMarcus Aldridge producing at his prime level (23.2 points, 11.1 rebounds per game) and fellow All-Star Damian Lillard constantly shattering his ceiling (20.7 points, 5.6 assists per game), the Blazers are preparing to take that daunting turn from hunter to hunted.
"The question now will be whether last season was a high point in what Portland can reasonably expect out of this team, or a sign of the great things to come," wrote CBSSports.com's Matt Moore.
There are arguments to be made for both sides.
By and large, the Blazers will break camp with the same pieces as last season's squad. Veterans Chris Kaman and Steve Blake joined the party in free agency while Mo Williams set up shop with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but none of those registered on the basketball landscape as more than minor moves.
Without a hand in one of the deepest drafts in recent years, the Blazers banked their future success on internal improvements.
That's no more of a gamble than hoping an unproven prospect pans out or a free-agent addition makes a seamless transition to his new digs. In some ways, it might be preferable.
Portland can focus its efforts on strengthening what it already has in place. Continuity ideally breeds good chemistry, and the Blazers' best players have already shown a great deal of cohesion.
Terry Stotts' starting five—Lillard, Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez—outscored its opponents by an impressive 8.5 points per 100 possessions. For reference's sake, the San Antonio Spurs led the league with a plus-8.1 net rating last season.
Weighed against only five-man lineups, Portland's still stood as the eighth-best of the 29 quintets that logged at least 300 minutes together.
Talent isn't an issue among Stotts' top guns, and neither is fit. Aldridge and Lillard share the heaviest scoring loads, Matthews takes on the three-and-D role, Batum fills in where needed as a jack-of-all-trades and Lopez handles the as-unglamorous-as-it-sounds dirty work.
The offense mostly runs through Aldridge—his 29.8 usage percentage surpassed Lillard's 25.0 mark—but the point guard grabs the keys late in the game. Only four players scored more points in the clutch (final five minutes of a five-point game) than Lillard, and only eight had a better field-goal percentage (minimum 50 attempts) in that situation than Lillard's 47.3 percent mark.
A stone-cold assassin, Lillard's series-ending dagger against the Houston Rockets put an exclamation point on Portland's season:
With their strongest five on the floor, the Blazers can be really good.
But there are some questions about whether Portland should expect to see those five as often as it did last season. Aldridge was the only starter to miss any games, and Utah Jazz radio personality David Locke noted that type of injury avoidance is a rare gift:
Portland's starters logged the second-most minutes of any five-man lineup (1,373), and only six other groups even saw half as much playing time together.
The importance of health is as obvious as it sounds, but it's sometimes hard to quantify. Luckily, ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton (subscription required) crunched some numbers last April and painted a picture of the relationship between injuries and their impact of team performance:
Using data through last week from my injury database, which includes games missed due to injury or illness but not suspension or personal reasons, there's a minus-.46 correlation between how many games a team has lost and its winning percentage this season. That means there is a relationship between injuries and results on the court, with more injuries translating into fewer wins.
On average, the 10 healthiest teams in terms of games missed have won 56.3 percent of their games. The bottom 10 have been even worse, winning just 41.8 percent of the time. That's equivalent to a 12-win swing over a full season between being among the 10 healthiest teams and the 10 most injured.
Obviously, injuries can happen to any team. Portland's good fortune with health—certainly long overdue considering the franchise's history—doesn't mean its luck will soon run out.
It does, however, highlight how well things went for the Blazers last season. Given the Western Conference's depth, a little luck can go a long way.
Especially for the Blazers, who had limited options behind their top talents. HoopsStats.com indicates Portland finished dead last in bench scoring with only 23.6 points a night, and it's hard to imagine Kaman and Blake completely solving that problem.
That puts the pressure on Portland's young players, particularly C.J. McCollum and Thomas Robinson, to help pick up the slack.
Injuries threw McCollum's rookie year off track before it could even get started, but the 6'4" combo guard can light the lamp when his body is right. He scored 21.3 points per game during four seasons at Lehigh, and he went for 20.2 points a night on 47.9 percent shooting at the Las Vegas Summer League.
"If his Summer League performance was any indication as to whether he was fully recovered and ready to take on the league, let’s just say the Blazers should expect big things out of their 22-year-old reserve shooting guard," wrote Basketball Insiders' Jabari Davis. "His continued progression could be just what the Blazers need."
Robinson, the fifth overall pick in 2012, has struggled to make the NBA transition. Being traded halfway through his rookie season probably didn't help, and he did show signs of progression as a sophomore.
With career per-game averages of 4.8 points and 4.4 rebounds, he clearly has a long way to go. However, he's working toward filling the high-energy role this team needs him to play.
"I'm not trying to do nothing crazy out here," Robinson told TrailBlazers.com's Casey Holdahl. "I'm just trying to either break bad habits or get used to doing stuff that I need to do next year. So I'm not in pickup trying to score 1,000 points or nothing."
If the Blazers can get their young guys going, this team could be able to use last season's success as a springboard to something more. As good as it has been, Portland's core still has room to grow.
Despite having six seasons under his belt, Batum is only 25 years old. He set a personal best in assist percentage last season (20.9) and posted the second-highest true shooting percentage of his career (58.9).
He is absurdly skilled for a third option and should continue gaining a better understanding of how to maximize his role with time.
Lillard has already cemented himself among the league's top quantity-plus-quality marksmen, having launched 1,057 threes already in his career and connected on 38.1 percent of them. If he can make himself more of a distributing threat, he could become an even more devastating offensive player.
Aldridge is the senior member of this group in terms of NBA service (eight seasons) and age (29). He should be playing at his peak level, and the players around him should all be climbing toward theirs.
Portland hasn't reached its ceiling, but getting to that point won't be easy.
It means getting more out of a five-man unit that was already among the league's best and keeping enough talent around it that things won't fall apart if one of the group does. Another round of remarkable health would certainly help, but the Blazers can't let their medical reports make or break their season.
We haven't seen the Blazers at their best. They have to make sure we do at some point.
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