Most franchises in 2015's NBA do not rebuild so much as they tear down the whole project, erect another completely different thing in its place, and slap the same name on the result. Credit the Portland Trail Blazers for a legitimate rebuild, then, because general manager Neil Olshey and head coach Terry Stotts at least decided to keep their long-term vision intact over a very busy offseason. Although five of the best six players from the team that won 51 games and captured the weak Northwest Division will play elsewhere this season, the Blazers will bring back All-Star point guard Damian Lillard to serve as the unquestioned face of the city's pro sports landscape. If nothing else, the Blazers can move through this season with confidence that they have a player worth building around.
They will need that feeling, too, because the Blazers figure to be pretty bad. Silver linings aside, it's a rough set of circumstances for a team that looked capable of challenging for a title before elite 3-and-D wing Wesley Matthews tore the Achilles tendon in his left foot in early March, robbing the notoriously starter-dependent Blazers of their third-best player. It only got tougher as they neared the postseason — Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, deadline pickup Arron Afflfalo, and C.J. McCollum all suffered injuries that affected their availability or effectiveness. A first-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies was essentially over before it began, and Portland entered the offseason knowing full well that they were likely to see a major overhaul.
Nevertheless, the extent of the changes is still quite shocking. Olshey made no attempt to replace players like Aldridge, Matthews, and center Robin Lopez, instead opting for more affordable deals and trades to bring in young role players such as Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee. The offense now belongs to Lillard with no reservations, and he will be expected to shoulder the bulk of scoring and creation responsibilities while various others fill gaps. At the other end, Portland hopes to be a scrappier, more versatile defense team that can match up with various types of opponents and win with higher levels of energy.
Such a plan would probably earn this group a playoff berth in the East, where caring a lot sometimes seems to be enough to avoid the lottery. Out West, though, the Blazers will probably be just good enough to remain respectable but not so bad as to put themselves in position to nab a future star through the draft. That result may not be a bad one considering Portland's commitment to building around Lillard and returning to contention sooner rather than later. It remains to be seen whether that plan ends with a stronger outfit or irrelevance.
2014-15 season in 140 characters or less:
Allen Crabbe will start at SG for the #Blazers in Game 2 vs. the Grizzlies.
— Joe Freeman (@BlazerFreeman) April 22, 2015
Did the summer help at all?
Definitely not. Olshey earned plaudits for his moves to replenish the roster, but the new additions are no substitutes for one of the best players in franchise history, a terrific outside shooter and defender, a mainstay starter, and a defensive-minded center who made up 80 percent of one of the best five-man units in the league over the past two seasons. Not being a shambles doesn't mean there's been improvement.
The Blazers acted quickly this offseason, trading Nicolas Batum before the draft for second-year forward Noah Vonleh and veteran wing Gerald Henderson. Draft night brought more change, with Steve Blake and the draft rights to Arizona wing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson going to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for big man Mason Plumlee (the quiet one) and the draft rights to Pat Connaughton. Not bad, all things considered.
Unfortunately, these moves did not do much to help the team's chances of keeping Aldridge, who never seemed like a solid bet to stay in Portland once he started taking free-agent meetings around the league. The exodus continued with Matthews heading to the Dallas Mavericks without a Blazers offer and starting center Robin Lopez going to the New York Knicks, which will allow him and twin Brook to plan their series of fantasy novels in person. Afflalo will also join Lopez at Madison Square Garden, although he seemed like a short-term rental regardless.
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The Blazers readied themselves for these major departures on the first day of free agency, when they added active, defensive-minded wing Al-Farouq Aminu for $30 million over four years. They brought in big man and per-minute monster Ed Davis the next day for $20 million over three years. Holding plenty of cap space, Portland also picked up a team option on veteran center Chris Kaman.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
Olshey's offseason approach seemed to be not to put too much pressure on any one acquisition, so it's hard to say any one guy fits in this spot. Nevertheless, Davis projects as the new player most likely to establish himself as a dependable weapon. The 26-year-old Davis has played for three teams in just five seasons and has never averaged more than the 24.6 minutes per game he logged with the Toronto Raptors as a rookie. However, he put up terrific numbers for the Lakers last season — 12.8 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes (he averaged 23.3) with a 20.0 PER. Davis figures to get every opportunity to prove himself to Stotts and the rest of the staff. We will have to see if he can match that production over more playing time.
One of the league's best offenses now relies overwhelmingly on one player. The scoring depth on this roster is very weak — outside of Lillard, only Henderson and Kaman have averaged double digits in points per game in any of the past five seasons. Someone else will join them on that list this year, because even the least potent NBA team scores enough to justify that prediction. But the 2015-16 Blazers look like a collection of hard workers and quality role players in search of a second excellent player to make sense of the system. Perhaps he will come next summer, because there does not seem to be an ideal option on this roster.
Contributor with something to prove:
In most ways, Damian Lillard has the least to prove of anyone on the Blazers. Few players take home a Rookie of the Year and two All-Star Game appearances in their first three seasons, and it makes sense that Portland is moving forward with confidence that Lillard can be their franchise player. To his credit, it's a role he relishes.
Yet that new position carries added responsibility and expectations that will ensure Lillard receives increased scrutiny and a deeper association with any failings experienced by the the Blazers as a whole. That's an especially major issue this season, when Portland figures to lose plenty of games but still needs to show some sense of forward momentum to remain a respected franchise. The challenge for Lillard is serious enough that another step towards superstardom may not be enough to convince the basketball world of his value. For better and worse, everything the Blazers do on the court reflects on him now.
Potential breakout stud:
Blazers brass should consider virtually any player on the roster a potential breakout stud as they attempt to find balance in the wake of so many offseason departures. But the two best candidates could be guard C.J. McCollum and center Meyers Leonard, two reserves who will take on greater roles this season.
McCollum followed up a disappointing and injury plagued rookie season with a much stronger sophomore campaign, shooting nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc and showing talent as a scorer. McCollum should come off the bench to start the campaign, but he should be the second unit's offensive leader and could play himself into a starting spot.
The 7-1 Leonard was one of the team's few bright spots in the Grizzlies series while making 10 of his 13 three-point attempts as a "stretch five." Those stats are obviously not sustainable, but Leonard did make 42 percent of his attempts while averaging one attempt every 7.7 minutes in the regular season. He will need to make strides as a defender, but Leonard's excellent shooting has the Blazers hoping for big things from him this season.
Lillard looks every bit a franchise player and makes his third-straight All-Star team, Leonard becomes one of the league's best tall shooters, Davis impresses mightily in increased minutes, McCollum becomes a dark-horse Sixth Man of the Year candidate, Aminu and other role players bring the energy, and the Blazers surprisingly challenge for a playoff spot before entering the offseason with lots of hope for the future.
If everything falls apart:
Lillard fails to progress under added pressure to perform, Leonard shoots just fine but does not expand the other aspects of his game accordingly, Davis can't win more than his customary 23 minutes per game, McCollum scores inefficiently, Aminu and the other role players look overmatched, and the Blazers end up in the middle of the lottery with serious questions about the viability of their current plan.
Kelly Dwyer's notoriously unreliable crystal ball:
27-55, 12th in the West.
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