The Portland Trail Blazers are about to find out what happens when you tear down a championship contender for a shot at building a better one.
It wasn't supposed to be like this for them. But Wesley Matthews' Achilles injury changed things—everything, actually—something head coach Terry Stotts readily admitted.
"Everything hinged on Wes’ Achilles," he told SB Nation's Paul Flannery. "That skewed everything. We were playing very good basketball. Depending on matchups and everything I thought we could have a good run. Not just that year, but moving forward."
Entering the game in which Matthews went down, the Blazers were 40-19, owners of the third-highest winning percentage in the brutally built Western Conference. Losing him set the stage for their first-round playoff exit and a busy offseason that saw them bid farewell to four of their five starters.
Another full-on rebuild is subsequently underway in Portland, bringing with it a harsh, if necessary reality: The Blazers' championship-chasing days are, for the time being, over.
- Additions: Cliff Alexander (free agent), Al-Farouq Aminu (free agent), Ed Davis (free agent), Maurice Harkless (trade), Gerald Henderson (trade), Mason Plumlee (trade), Phil Pressey (free agent), Noah Vonleh (trade)
- Subtractions: Arron Afflalo (free agent), LaMarcus Aldridge (free agent), Nicolas Batum (trade), Steve Blake (trade), Robin Lopez (free agent), Wesley Matthews (free agent)
General manager Neil Olshey wasted little time blowing up Portland's core. Nicolas Batum was shipped to the Charlotte Hornets ahead of the draft—the first real sign that the team was reversing course.
LaMarcus Aldridge's ticket out of town was all but punched by that point. He went on to join the San Antonio Spurs, while Wesley Matthews signed with the Dallas Mavericks and Robin Lopez landed with the New York Knicks.
Portland supplemented its veteran losses by stockpiling frontcourt assets, most of them untested and on the younger side. Al-Farouq Aminu is the most well-known among them. The 25-year-old is the Blazers' highest-paid player this season (no joke) and will be expected to replace much of what Batum did on the defensive end. Gerald Henderson, acquired as part of that Batum trade, will be left to fill of the offensive void.
Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee are the long bodies mainly tasked with following up Lopez's rim-protecting act. Davis is coming off a career season during which he led the Los Angeles Lakers in win shares, and Plumlee is an above-the-rim center who should work well with Damian Lillard in the pick-and-roll.
Injuries and a lack of playing time limited Noah Vonleh to just 25 appearances as a rookie in Charlotte, but as a top-10 prospect with a stretch 4's toolbox, he is very much the main squeeze of that Batum trade. And as for Maurice Harkless, he's in town because he cost the Blazers nothing and at times can be a feisty perimeter policeman.
Storylines to Watch
Questions are part and parcel of any thorough rebuilding project, and the new-look Blazers have no shortage of answers to provide.
Can Lillard be the primary building block for a championship-level overhaul? Portland is betting $120 million that he can.
Will the Blazers find serviceable mainstays in their assembled cast of prospects, role players and unknowns? Lillard was the only one of their 10 best players to rank inside the top 50 of minutes played last season, and only two cracked the top 100.
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Do the Blazers have enough floor spacing? They ranked sixth in three-pointers made last season, but six of their top trey-makers are gone. Lillard is the only current member of the team who ranked in the top 150 of made triples for 2014-15.
What's up with the frontcourt? Meyers Leonard, Chris Kaman, Davis and Plumlee all need to see time at the 5. Leonard is the only one of those four who can play power forward, but that's where Vonleh is best suited. Aminu's performance at power forward is also statistically superior to his efforts at small forward, according to 82games.com.
This list of questions goes on and on (and on). Clearly, the Blazers have some basketball soul-searching to do.
X-Factor: C.J. McCollum
The Blazers are, in some ways, ahead of the rebuilding curve. They amassed enough developing prospects to find silver linings in losing and already employ that one definitive superstar in Lillard. But they still need to find a viable second in command, and right now, McCollum is their best option.
McCollum is one of the few Blazers who can create his own shot. He played fewer minutes through his first two seasons than Lillard logged in 2014-15 alone but came on during Portland's most recent playoff run, averaging 17 points, four rebounds and 1.2 steals.
Additional playing time is a given, so McCollum will have ample opportunity to prove that his five-game set against the Memphis Grizzlies—as well as his stellar per-36-minute splits—wasn't a small-sample fluke. Devoid of a proven backup floor general, Portland will also ask McCollum to spell Lillard at point guard, an inevitable request he prepared for over the offseason by working out with Steve Nash, according to the Oregonian's Mike Richman.
Stotts will often have to play Lillard and McCollum together, because he has no choice. Luckily, McCollum has shown he can work off the ball. He drilled nearly 41 percent of his spot-up threes last season and can serve as Lillard's outside safety net on drive-and-kicks.
And if McCollum can parlay that extra exposure into a more potent stat line, the Blazers will have the means to deploy a respectable offense.
Making the Leap: Meyers Leonard
Last season, Leonard became just the ninth player in league history to post a 50/40/90 shooting slash. His company: Larry Bird (twice), Jose Calderon, Kevin Durant, Steve Kerr, Reggie Miller, Steve Nash (four times), Dirk Nowitzki and Mark Price. That's spectacular company to be in—especially for a 7-footer.
Recognized mostly for his offensive potential, Leonard has flashed certifiable promise on the defensive side. He doesn't block a ton of shots but ranked sixth in rim protection last season among all players to contest at least three point-blank looks per game.
Having only crossed the 1,000-minute threshold once in three seasons, it's Leonard's lack of experience, not his skill set, that's in question. And now, after glimpses into the player he could become, it's on the Blazers to provide him with that experience, as Mika Honkasalo wrote for Vantage Sports:
There has been talk about starting Mason Plumlee at center and Leonard at power forward. While it’s possible that right now this is the better option for the Blazers defensively, due to Leonard not being able to stay out of foul trouble and his unproven rim protection, I personally think it would be a horrible decision to make. What makes Leonard and potentially the lineup around him special is his shooting at a position where there are no shooters. Every time you move a big up a position, it dilutes his effectiveness. Your team becomes slower, and there’s less space on the court, and there’s no need to do those things just to play Plumlee. Eventually, Leonard is going to get slower and move to the five defensively anyways, so you might as well start today.
There is a level of risk involved when investing starter's minutes in someone still so raw. But those risks are the point of rebuilding. And if more playing time allows Leonard to make the leap from riveting riddle to legitimate building block, any growing pains involved will be worth it in the end.
Lillard and the rest of Portland's kiddies grow up fast. The Blazers hit on a couple of their flier investments (Harkless, Plumlee, etc.), and their overcrowded frontcourt rotation figures itself out. Lillard's numbers doesn't suffer amid more defensive attention, and he earns his third All-Star selection.
Leonard and McCollum prove to be the real deals while playing 30 minutes or more per game. Aminu keeps pace with the opposition's best wing every night and noticeably improves upon his deficient three-point stroke, reaching coveted three-and-D status once and for all.
Snagging a playoff berth remains out of the question, no matter what happens. But the Blazers collect enough wins to suggest they're headed down the right long-term path without compromising their draft position (shout-out, Ben Simmons).
Moving on from the last era of Blazers basketball becomes too much. Lillard isn't able to register superstar numbers as the lone alpha, and neither Leonard nor McCollum is capable of being his No. 2.
Both the offense and defense sputter, ranking among the worst in the league. None of the complementary acquisitions provide measurable returns. Aminu's performance in Dallas reveals itself as a mirage. There is next to no floor spacing. The locker room starts to crack without enough respected veteran leadership, and the Blazers' 2015-16 crusade goes down as just another tank job.
There is value in what the Blazers have done in the aftermath of Matthews' Achilles injury. Lillard has All-Star credentials, and many of Portland's gambles are tied to players with a few years' worth of experience.
Success and failure will be measured by whether the Blazers have an actual core in place. Stotts will experiment. There will be different starting lineups and shifting second units. The Blazers, in all likelihood, will make some midseason changes once they have a better idea of what works.
In doing that, Portland will forfeit its ability to do much of anything. This team will not be the second coming of the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns, throwing the West for a loop by sniffing the postseason. The Northwest Division crown will go back to the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Portland will be left looking up at the Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and, yes, Minnesota Timberwolves.
These Blazers will be exactly who they were built to be: a marginally competitive basketball team dedicated to finding out which of its current players are worth keeping around.
- Final Record: 22-60
- Division Standing: 5th in Northwest
- Playoff Berth: No