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Ball Don’t Lie’s 2013-14 Season Previews: Portland Trail Blazers

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Terry Stotts confers with Earl Watson (Getty Images)

After a long, tortuous summer filled with sunny days and absolutely no NBA news of any importance, the 2013-14 season is set to kick off. This means the leaves will change, the cheeks will redden, and 400-some NBA players will ready those aching knees to play for the right to work all the way to June.

The minds at Ball Don’t Lie – Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine, and Eric Freeman – have your teams covered. All 30 of ‘em, as we countdown to tipoff.

Kelly Dwyer’s Palatable Exercise

After years of shooting for the top of the charts, taking chances on either big name stars with huge paychecks, or top-flight draft picks with massive upside to counter with injury concerns, the Portland Trail Blazers appear to be taking the middle of the road under new’ish general manager Neil Olshey. He likely won’t agree, but this is just the result of the hands Olshey has been dealt – not bad hands, but nothing killer enough to start moving stacks around.

Olshey inherited a solid enough foundation, but forward LaMarcus Aldridge and Nic Batum are fringe All-Stars at best, and hardly franchise-changers. And though Damian Lillard won the Rookie of the Year award last season, does anyone picture him filling out into the role of a John Wall-type? Much less a Derrick Rose or Kyrie Irving-type?

This is what happens when you select late in the lottery, and when you’re gifted players on their second contracts, like Aldridge, Batum, and Wesley Matthews. The Blazers may fight for a playoff spot this year thanks to Olshey’s tinkering, but the team’s ceiling doesn’t seem particularly high.

Olshey has done solid enough work, though. Last season’s bench woes were a league-wide joke, and the Portland GM quickly went to work to pick up two of the more underrated rotation helpers this league has to offer in Dorrell Wright and Mo Williams, while grabbing Robin Lopez for a song to start at center. Lopez won’t make anyone in Portland forget Bill Walton, but he will help them forget the work of J.J. Hickson, one of the league’s worst defenders as a forward that was pressed into duty at center last season.

The Portland front office didn’t exactly roll the dice on former lottery pick Thomas Robinson, but if his work from last year is any indication, the Trail Blazers may end up declining the option on the third year of his contract this time next fall. That’s a strange thing to assume while poring over the work of a 22-year old that was selected in the top five of the draft, and Robinson didn’t receive many opportunities in either Sacramento or Houston last year, but he’s also lined up behind Aldridge, so it isn’t as if Thomas is going to be doubling last season’s 15.1 minutes per game any time soon.

Rookie C.J. McCollum will be out for at least the first month of the season after undergoing surgery on his left foot, and those sorts of injuries should frighten Blazers fans. Soft tissue/small bone injuries tend to linger, so we’re hoping for a full recovery and the engagement of what should be a fabulously exciting backcourt foundation between Lillard, the rookie, Williams, and Matthews.

Aldridge is the closest thing Portland has to a star, and he is in his prime, but this year will test everyone’s patience. LaMarcus claims to want nothing to do with being traded, he says he likes the team’s growing roster and we don’t blame him, but the 28-year old tends to stick out amongst this lot. A free agent after 2014-15, the trade market wouldn’t seem to be clamoring for LMA’s services (not at two years and nearly $31 million, though I submit that he’s worth it), and the Blazers won’t be making any second or third round playoff appearances any time soon. It’s a strange situation that Olshey, Aldridge and team are already sick of.

With McCollum out, this is about the only thing that intrigues about the Blazers right now. Nobody is doubting Aldridge’s ability to contribute and lead, and the structure is in place behind Terry Stotts for an entertaining, professional season, but this isn’t a team that is going to blow anyone’s minds.

After years of heartbreak, though, we understand the Blazers taking the safer approach.

Projected record: 39-43

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Factions are already being created within the Blazers' youthful core. (Getty Images)


Tune In, Turn Up with Dan Devine

While only a handful of NBA teams each season harbor serious hope of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come late June, all 30 come equipped with at least one reason to keep your television set locked on their games. Dan Devine shares his suggested reasons for the season ahead.

Tune into the Blazers for … a reminder of the importance of depth.

These are facts:

*Damian Lillard led all NBA players in minutes last season with 3,167. Nicolas Batum (2,807) finished 20th; LaMarcus Aldridge (2,790) was 22nd; Wesley Matthews (2,403) and J.J. Hickson (2,323) ranked 58th and 67th, respectively, among the 469 players who made NBA appearances.

*All five ranked among the top 11 at their positions in minutes, with Lillard, Batum and Aldridge placing in the top five.

*The Blazers’ starters were the NBA’s third most-used five-man unit last season, behind only the starting fives of the Thunder and Pacers, according to NBA.com’s stat tool.

*Both of those groups outscored opponents by more than 12 points per 100 possessions; Portland’s, though, gave up more points-per-100 (105.8) than it scored (104.1).

There’s a reason Terry Stotts ran that unit out there so much despite a negative net result -- he really didn’t have a choice.

Portland might not have been excellent with its starters playing, but things went off a cliff when they sat. The Blazers’ “net rating” -- whether a team scores more than it gives up per 100 possessions, or vice versa -- dropped by 10.2 points-per-100 with Lillard off the floor, by 9.1 when Aldridge rested, by 5.8 without Batum and by 4.9 without Matthews. Notable in his absence: Hickson, without whom the Blazers were nearly three points-per-100 better. He’s in Denver now, which is not a coincidence.

That nosedive happens when the best available reserve options include not-ready-for-prime-time rookie bigs (Meyers Leonard and Joel Freeland), guards who are now out of the league (Nolan Smith and Sasha Pavlovic), and one player (Luke Babbitt) who mostly hit shots to trigger fast-food promotions and whose top career accomplishment appears to have been a joke. We had a laugh when Brett Brown said his 76ers had “six NBA players” heading into the season, but you could argue that last year’s Blazers didn’t have much more than that. General manager Neil Olshey acted this offseason with the express intent of changing that.

Out went Smith, Pavlovic, Babbitt, Ronnie Price, Jared Jeffries and Eric Maynor. In came Thomas Robinson, a 2012 lottery pick in search of a real opportunity; Dorell Wright, whose outside shooting (37.4 percent from 3 last season, 36.7 percent over a nine-year career) made him one of the few bright spots on last year’s Sixers; Mo Williams, who brings a veteran play-making, floor-spacing, ball-handling complement both behind and alongside Lillard; Earl Watson, an in-case-of-emergency old soul; and rookies C.J. McCollum (copy/paste the Williams descriptor, replace “veteran” with “rookie”) and Allen Crabbe (who’s fought illness this preseason, but profiles as a nice 3-and-D piece at the off-guard spot). Add in steps forward from Freeland, who’s earned the backup center job behind offseason acquisition Robin Lopez (which you hope lights a fire under Leonard), and Will Barton, who showed a scoring spark in the final two weeks of last season, and you’ve got the makings of a more talented, more reliable bench that can keep things from going sideways when the starters sit.

Plus, if the starters can play fewer minutes and play without the pressure of having the fate of the free world on their shoulders on every possession, maybe they can exert more energy -- especially on D, where Portland tied the Cavaliers for the league’s fourth-worst unit -- and be even more productive. Less could be more, the theory goes, because more players means Stotts doesn’t have to try to do more with less. (Y’know, more or less.)

I’m not sure that a deeper second unit will be enough to push Portland into the playoff hunt; the added depth and a Year 2 leap from a committed and candid Lillard should boost the Blazers’ win total, but there’s a big gap between the low-30s to the mid-40s, especially in the crowded West. If they are competing past late winter, though, it’ll be due in large part to replacing replacement-level reserves with guys who can keep Blazers fans from reaching for the remote every time they check in.

Honorable mentions: Lillard trying to prove he belongs in the conversation with the game’s elite point guards; McCollum (once he gets healthy), who seems like a fun guy off the court and who’s got some moves on it; Robinson, who got the short end of the stick last year, who averaged about seven points and seven rebounds in 20 minutes per preseason game, and who looks good attacking the rim; Batum, who does a little bit of everything every night.

Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion

NBA analysis typically thrives on certainty, a sense that a trained expert sees the truth and points fans towards the key issues and most likely outcomes. Yet, as any seasoned observer of the league knows, events often unfold in unforeseen ways, with players performing against predictions or outside of the realm of presumed possibility altogether. In fact, it may sometimes make sense to dispense with the pretense of predictive genius and instead point towards those issues that as yet provide no simple answer. In Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion, we investigate one player per team whose future remains vague.

Damian Lillard’s rookie season went about as well as could be expected: he started all 82 games, averaged 19.0 ppg and 6.5 apg, and won the Rookie of the Year award handily. Yet it was also so positive because it had the thrill of the new. After years of waiting on Brandon Roy to get healthy and a general feeling of stagnation over the franchise, Lillard was a new young star with his whole career ahead of him. He was something to get excited about, a future face of the franchise.

Now, he’s a known quantity, a very important player with a fresh set of expectations. For instance, it’s now difficult to discuss Lillard’s terrific rookie season without noting that he accomplished everything at 22 years old, a relatively advanced age in an era in which lottery picks typically leave college after one or two years. Lillard entered the NBA more physically mature than his peers, which allowed him to thrive early. However, that quality also makes his career progression less clear — it’s possible that he’s relatively close to his peak and won’t become one of the two or three best point guards in the league. Lillard has already shown us that he’s a very good player — what we have to learn now is whether or not he becomes a superstar.

That’s a high bar to clear, though, and it would perhaps make sense to keep that in mind. Lillard has injected the Blazers with a dose of much-needed optimism, but he still has much to learn and build upon. While Lillard is fairly advanced for a second-year player, he’s still only 23 years old. His future is full of possibilities, and part of the thrill of watching him in 2013-14 will be seeing how that range differs from his terrific first campaign in Portland.

Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2013-14 NBA Season Previews:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlanta HawksBoston CelticsBrooklyn NetsCharlotte BobcatsChicago BullsCleveland CavaliersDetroit PistonsIndiana PacersMiami HeatMilwaukee BucksNew York KnicksOrlando MagicPhiladelphia 76ersToronto RaptorsWashington Wizards

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Dallas MavericksDenver NuggetsGolden State WarriorsHouston RocketsLos Angeles ClippersLos Angeles LakersMemphis GrizzliesMinnesota TimberwolvesNew Orleans PelicansOklahoma City ThunderPhoenix SunsPortland Trail BlazersSacramento KingsSan Antonio SpursUtah Jazz

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