For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We continue with the not altogether great Portland Trail Blazers.
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
What is it that's inside us where we automatically pencil the Portland Trail Blazers in for 35 to 45 wins every year? Was it that 20 year postseason run from 1983 to 2003? The middling run during the Brandon Roy years? Does the idea that owner Paul Allen can buy his way into the first round overwhelm you on your way toward accurately analyzing the team's roster? Does the presence of an All-Star big man change things?
LaMarcus Aldridge's production alone will keep the Blazers in games. He's not a black hole that can be taken out of contests with simple double teams, and the float-y play that dotted his first few years appears to have mostly gone away. Just 27, Aldridge is about to hit his prime and fulfill the promise that seemed certain for him during his final season at Texas back in 2005-06.
His help, though, is lacking.
The Blazers paid a potentially devastating amount to secure the rights to Nicolas Batum's possible emergence, paying him over $46 million for a contract that will expire when he's only 26 years of age, a strange gamble that nobody besides this boring guy seems obsessed with. Batum is nice enough, and the athletic package he provides certainly is intriguing, but LMA is definitely going to at the very least introduce him to all those "So, You've Decided To Be a Floater" pamphlets that LaMarcus worked through recently.
From there, it's hard to criticize too much; because besides paying two forwards eight-figure salaries, the Blazers are a rebuilding team. Don't believe me? Ask new GM Neil Olshey, who recently let it slip that he's just about expecting his team to miss the postseason. From CSNNW.com:
"Now, I'm not putting a number on Nic [Batum], but if Nic can make a jump, if Wes [Matthews] can make a jump, if L.A. [LaMarcus Aldridge] can just be L.A., and Damian [Lillard] can be who we think he has the ability to be, we're not that far away. And having a lottery pick potentially, and three second [round picks], and having $13 million in room potentially, is a pretty good position to be in eight months from now."
This came in the middle of a typically benign, "we're going to be aiight" training camp interview; but it's probably not best to discuss next June's lottery pick in October, with 41 home dates lined up. And what's worse about that slip is the fact that if the Blazers do well and still miss out on the postseason — say, winning 39 or so games and finishing 13th or 14th in the lottery — Charlotte gets Portland's 2013 draft pick. So, there's the insight of the guy that just took over.
He's not wrong, you know. And the $13 million figure he references is a direct reference to the sorts of middling youngish types with expiring contracts brought in by the previous administration — Luke Babbitt, Eliot Williams, Nolan Smith — who won't be around when Olshey shapes the Blazers as he sees fit.
What worries is the team's continued status as an "almost-there" crew. With Aldridge around and good enough young talent, the Blazers will win a passable chunk of games and likely stay out of the high reaches of the lottery. The low lottery is where you pick helpers, though, and not franchise-changers. Portland fans don't want to hear anything about franchise players in the wake of losing player after player after player after player to injury after much initial acclaim, but the road towards one usually involves complete and total decimation, and this Blazer rotation will be too good for that.
It won't be good enough to stop opposing offenses from hitting open jumpers or lay-ups, though. The team starts two rookies (or, worse than a rookie, J.J. Hickson) at the most important defensive positions — point guard and center — and that fact alone makes me want to drop my win projection by around 15 games. I won't, because Aldridge has turned into something passable on that end and Wesley Matthews and Batum will drive opponents nuts with their wing defense.
Until then, more losses than wins. And I'll have to try and include context when considering an offseason where GM Neil Olshey's biggest post-draft moves included the hiring of Terry Stotts and the re-signing of Nicolas Batum to a four-year, $46.5 million dollar deal.
Projected record: Portland Trail Blazers 31-51
Fear Itself with Dan Devine
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
What Makes You Scary: LaMarcus Aldridge out to prove himself. After a season that saw him earn his first All-Star nod (as a reserve, but still) and selection to the All-NBA Third Team, the former No. 2 overall draft pick made some waves when, in response to a radio host's leading question, he said he believes he's the best power forward in the NBA. Ten percent of respondents in the NBA's annual general manager survey agreed, which, by my math means -- carry the one, divide by ... 90 percent of the folks who run NBA teams don't. (Hey, it's not their fault Kevin Love, LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki exist.)
If our man's of a mind to do some convincin', this sure looks like his chance to do it. For starters, Love and Nowitzki will be spending the first few weeks of this season getting healthy, and probably the first few weeks after that rounding back into shape, so a strong start that gets the Blazers out of the gate quickly could earn plenty of positive attention. Beyond that, though, while Portland features a couple of neat complimentary pieces (re-signed small forward Nicolas Batum and two-guard Wesley Matthews) and rookie point guard Damian Lillard's looks promising, it seems glaringly obvious the only chance the Blazers have of competing for a playoff berth out West is Aldridge putting together an MVP-caliber season. The career-best field-goal percentage and per-36 scoring average have to go up. The rebounding -- long the major knock on Aldridge's game, because folks have a hard time understanding how a 6-foot-11, 240-pound guy with his athleticism is only clearing 13 percent of available rebounds for his career -- has to go up. (Especially with no Marcus Camby around to clean the glass.) Hell, everything has to go up.
On the offensive end, there's no question that Aldridge has the talent to become the 25-a-night kind of guy who carries a team. He's a potent scorer from midrange, using his high release and soft touch to stretch defenders and hit better than 40 percent of his attempts from beyond 10 feet out last year. But he takes a lot of jumpers -- more than nine per game last year, according to Hoopdata's shot location statistics -- which is a bummer, because Aldridge is also one of the league's most effective low-block scorers, averaging 0.96 points per possession (PPP) on post-ups last season (18th-best in the NBA, according to Synergy Sports Technology).
Plus, he does a ton of damage on the offensive glass, finishing 15th in the league last year with 1.29 PPP off offensive boards, although that's mitigated somewhat by posting the second-lowest offensive rebound rate of his six-year career; first-year coach Terry Stotts would likely be a happy man if Aldridge got back to grabbing more than 10 percent of his teammates' misses, as he did the year prior. Beyond that, Aldridge also shoots free throws well for a big man -- 77.7 percent from the charity stripe for his career, including a career-best 81.4 percent last season -- but doesn't go to the line very often, attempting about five freebies per 36 minutes over the past two seasons.
With his footwork, strength and quickness, getting down low more often seems like a recipe not only for taking advantage of his feel around the basket and improving abilities as a passer out of the post (his assist rate has improved in each of his six seasons), but also for putting opposing fours and fives in foul trouble, getting into the penalty early and helping his teammates get to the line more often, too. Aldridge's stroke is sweet enough for him to get away with stepping out to the perimeter, but on a Portland team that doesn't look to have much interior punch -- J.J. Hickson's not a back-to-the-basket scorer, rookie Meyers Leonard needs more seasoning down low and while British import Joel Freeland's a bull, he too will need some time to adjust to the NBA game -- parking Aldridge closer to the basket more often could be a needed balm for the shot-jacking and inefficiency likely to ail the Portland offense at times this season.
If he does all that -- take on the burden of leadership that comes with being the unquestioned best player on your team, assume the responsibility of drawing enough attention to get your supporting cast the kind of open and in-rhythm looks that can push them toward success, show the will to go hard on the glass (and, if we're wishing, on the defensive end) every night -- he could make a legitimate case for himself as the league's top four by season's end. It won't be enough to get Portland back to the postseason, but it'd sure be enough to erase lingering doubts as to whether he's a viable No. 1 commodity worth building around.
What Should Make You Scared: A lack of bankable commodities beyond Aldridge on either end of the court. We like Wes Matthews -- he hits 3-pointers, he hits free throws, he tries pretty hard, he seems like a decent dude and he once played for three months on a foot in which he had no sensation just 'cuz he wanted to keep playing. We respect all of that.
We like Nic Batum -- he hits 3-pointers, he hits free throws, he tries pretty hard (sometimes), he seems like a decent dude (when he's not punching other dudes in the stuff) and he said before the season that his goal is to model his game after Scottie Pippen, which is the kind of idea we floated as a squint-your-eyes-and-maybe-you-can-see-it eventual aspirational comparison for Batum in last year's Portland season preview. We respect all of that (except for the occasional loafing on D and the groin-punching, natch).
We think we're going to like Damian Lillard -- he's looked great in Summer League and preseason, he seems to have a great feel for when to look for his shot and when to look to facilitate (a tough line for most rookie point guards to walk), and he seems equal parts respectful of the responsibility he's being handed as a freshman starter and eager to come out and try to serve dudes. There's a confidence to his approach that makes you think he might be just what the Trail Blazers need after bottoming out last season.
But to rely on those three as the night-in, night-out support structure for Aldridge, the guys who are going to have to produce the bulk of the team's offense, to maintain or improve an offense that ranked 12th among 30 NBA teams in points scored per 100 possessions last year, according to NBA.com's stat tool? To rely on them to be catalysts for a defense that finishes better than 22nd in efficiency this year? And if they can't, to rely on the likes of Luke Babbit, Nolan Smith, Ronnie Price, Will Barton and Victor Claver to raise you up? It just all seems like a very dicey proposition.
The Blazers roster looks to feature a lot of decent, tough guys who will work really hard to try to make Portland competitive, which ought to be a welcome respite after a year of watching Raymond Felton expand and complain his way out of town. But in terms of reliable talent and in-game production, Stotts' team just looks too thin to outperform even modest expectations. Then again, that might not be a bad thing -- with the balance sheet looking less-than-clear for the next three years after locking up the Aldridge/Batum/Matthews core, locking down another inexpensive high lottery pick could be just what the doctor ordered. In the short term, though, that's cold comfort for what promises to be a year of watching well-intentioned reserves get roasted.
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
With Brandon Roy and Greg Oden now off the roster, the Blazers have effectively left behind their associations with the version of the team that, if not for lots of bad injuries, was expected to become a contender for a solid decade. (LaMarcus Aldridge remains, of course, but his ascendance to All-Star status makes him a much different player from the two teammates who were supposed to join him at the top.) Those ghosts no longer haunt them. They can now forge a new identity and a new future.
The form of that identity remains unknown. Aldridge, one of the best power forwards in the league, has made it clear that he wants the team built around him without another superstar. Aldridge's desire to be a lone wolf flies in the face of current NBA trends, but the good news for him is that he might get his wish if only because of circumstances. It's incredibly hard to add another superstar when an All-Star-caliber player is already on the roster, and the Blazers figure to pick towards the end of the lottery for at least a year or two. The playoffs are not a pipe dream, but greater success could be. For all his abilities, Aldridge just isn't the kind of player who leads teams to championships all by his lonesome.
On the other hand, it's not yet clear that the Blazers are fully committed to a future dominated by one single player. Rookie point guard Damian Lillard has been very impressive in both Summer League and preseason, and a stellar campaign could mark him out as the next face of the franchise.
So, although Aldridge remains their best player by a wide margin, the Blazers are clearly keeping their options open. In the first full season of this new era, they're trying to survey numerous possibilities and figure out what works. Sometimes a learning experience can be more effective than charging blind into the void.