The Western Conference of the NBA is almost unfair.
It seems every season, no matter how much a team improves or develops, there's another team there to kick them down. Whether it's an up-and-coming, youthful squad or a veteran group looking to contend, the abundance of competition can sometimes be overwhelming.
As such, the improvements the Portland Trail Blazers made during the offseason pale in comparison to those of the other West contenders. But even so, the Blazers shouldn't sweat too much.
Portland's Roster is One of the League's Best
The Blazers made enormous strides last season, going from a lottery team to a near contender. The sudden 21-game improvement had some questioning whether they were a legitimate powerhouse or if they had overachieved.
But taking a look at Portland's roster confirms that this group is valid.
With a duo of All-Stars in LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, in addition to a talented supporting cast of Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez. Of every lineup that stepped onto an NBA floor last season, the aforesaid quintet played the second-most minutes.
While court time doesn't necessarily correlate to talent, it points to the chemistry this group built over the course of the season and playoffs. Luckily for Portland, though, the talent abounds on this roster.
It almost goes without saying what Aldridge and Lillard are capable of both individually and as a duo, ranking among the league's best scorers and playmakers. Batum is right up there with the do-it-all swingmen of the NBA, providing shooting, passing, rebounding and defense on a nightly basis. Then comes the timely scoring and feisty defense of Matthews and the low-post brilliance of Lopez.
Ironically, with one of the NBA's best starting lineups, the Blazers also had one of the worst benches. Averaging just 23.6 points on 42 percent, per Hoops Stats, a reserve squad that carried little notability besides Mo Williams was the team's weakest point.
But with Williams having signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland added veteran help in Steve Blake and Chris Kaman. In addition, the improvements made by Thomas Robinson, C.J. McCollum and Will Barton were clear in the summer league, despite the shaky competition.
Blake and Kaman had inconsistent seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers but can provide the right amount of help as reserves. Blake's outside shooting, playmaking and defense will be solid behind Lillard, with sophomore guard McCollum ready for a bigger role.
It should be noted that while Blake isn't a smothering defender, his willingness to play on that side of the ball offers more merit.
In Kaman, the Blazers will essentially have a slightly older version of Lopez off the bench. Both players play well in the low post on both ends and are skilled passers. Kaman has a better shot from the outside than Lopez does, which gives head coach Terry Stotts more to work with in his rotation.
If a general manager is building a championship-contending team, the squad Portland has in tow is quite skilled overall. It is lead by the two All-Stars surrounded by perfect complementary players, then backed up by a nice blend of veterans and young players.
What Does This Mean for the Blazers?
What Portland did in the offseason looks pretty good out of context, but it just isn't possible to give this team the nod without looking at the competition.
The San Antonio Spurs stayed together, the Los Angeles Clippers added Spencer Hawes and Jordan Farmar and the Oklahoma City Thunder added Anthony Morrow, while the Dallas Mavericks took a major turnaround with almost an entirely new team.
As such, it makes it difficult to label the Blazers' additions and improvements as impressive compared to those of other squads. But the biggest takeaway to remember is that Portland upgraded areas of need.
The team needed more from the bench and will absolutely see that during the season with Blake, McCollum, Barton, Robinson and Kaman coming in. Dorell Wright and Meyers Leonard are there as well, despite the latter's apparent lack of development.
The Blazers don't exactly go 12 players deep, but it's hard to pinpoint where the team will actually get worse with a reserve coming in. Save for the obviously lesser firepower with Lillard or Aldridge on the bench, Portland would still have a capable group on the floor for the majority of games.
Inexperience was another major flaw, with the team mostly comprised of unproven and untested talent. Yet after a strong performance in the first round against Houston, the Blazers showed how they can come together and compete at a high level.
To put it mildly, the team was thoroughly handled in the second round against San Antonio, but it was a learning experience. Just as teams in the past have fallen short, most have come back and learnt from mistakes and miscues and capitalized on them the next time around.
That isn't to say Portland will handle the Spurs during this season, but you can expect a different, more knowledgeable performance from the players as a whole.
It's important to remember that the Blazers are still inexperienced to a certain extent, but a much lesser one compared to last year. The team made the right moves during the offseason to keep up in the West, but won't be bypassed during the coming season.
In fact, Portland may even be the squad doing the overstepping in the standings. With the loss of Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, it's unlikely the Rockets hold onto the No. 4 seed. The Mavericks won't click on all cylinders right away and the Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns didn't make enough moves to make huge strides.
As such, in this insanely competitive Western Conference, the Blazers will remain competitive and be a real threat to contend. The lack of experience is still there somewhat, but teams have shown to rise through the ranks and dominate before despite it.
In any case, look for Portland to reign mighty once again.
"Rip City—all right!"
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