With every season that ends, for the playoff teams at least, we felt it right to take a look ahead. TNT already has the rights to "Gone Fishin'," and because we're sure someone, somewhere, still likes that Wyclef song, we're going with "Gone Till November." And, yes, we know the season starts in October. Today? The Portland Trail Blazers.
The Portland Trail Blazers had a fantastic year in 2013-14, making the second round for the first time since the three-round season perched around the fin de siècle, developing into a wonderfully entertaining offensive team centered around the white hot shooting touch of LaMarcus Aldridge and the electric play of second year guard Damian Lillard. The team topped the Houston Rockets in the first round, featuring a Game 6 that was just about as classically-tuned as playoff games get, before falling victim to a San Antonio Spurs squad that currently looks to be steamrolling their way to a championship. No shame in that game.
What happens now is trickier. The Blazers are an intriguing mix of both young and in-prime players. That combination led to the team’s growth as a 54-game winner in 2013-14, but it could limit things as PDX tries to take that vaunted Next Big Step. The West, as you’re aware, is an absolute killer, and nobody appear to be fit to drop in the standings anytime soon. Even if the Spurs glom onto another title and subsequently fall apart, all manner of would-be contenders are ready to step up.
Are the Blazers one of those contenders? That’s tough.
Having a top or nearly-top rated offense (Portland was second in the NBA in offensive efficiency) and a middling defense (the Blazers were 16th) would seem to be enough to work as championship contenders – the Phoenix Suns had the same numbers during their Steve Nash runs, and they were just a few bad calls and injuries away from representing the West in the Finals a few times. With that in place, and perhaps I’m projecting, one doesn’t get the feeling that the Blazers just crapped out because they had to play the Spurs. Would they have survived a matchup against the Thunder or Clippers in the second round? Most would probably say no.
If your offense is great enough, you can get by with a relatively lacking defense in the postseason. Portland’s offense isn’t at Nash-era Phoenix’s levels, though, and the Portland defense had terrible issues both guarding the rim (despite the presence of two trees in Aldridge and Robin Lopez), and causing turnovers (the Blazers ranked last in the NBA).
Now, most working in analytics in the modern NBA will tell you that the value of a turnover is often overrated, and the lack of steals and potential fast break points didn’t exactly do much to hurt the league’s second-ranked offense, but a great playoff team can’t rank stone last in that category, and the squad’s 16th-ranked defense (middling for most of the league, poor for playoff teams) speaks for itself. To their credit, the team did force more two-pointers than any other roster in the league, which is a good thing.
Portland’s status as obsessive two-point shooters on the other end is a little overblown, the squad was around the middle of the NBA pack in that regard, and LaMarcus Aldridge’s supposed breakout year was a little overblown as well. The guy has been great, flipping fantastic, for years, playing at about the same level. His team is finally winning again, with LMA as the centerpiece in opposition to the Brandon Roy-led years from lo those many years ago. All y’all just now caught up.
There still is the risk that things could go pear-shaped (both Lillard, Batum, Matthews and Lopez played all 82 games) in 2014-15, and Aldridge could decline to return to Portland as a free agent in 2015. An extension has been on the table for months, but LaMarcus gains no financial advantage by signing now, and no basketball advantage by seeing what’s out there (plenty of teams will have enough cap space to sign him to a max deal that summer) after taking in how his team fares next season. That’s not predicting doom and gloom for either the Trail Blazers or Aldridge’s relationship with the team, as things are looking rather spiffy right now. It’s just that a whole lot of things can happen between now and July of 2015.
Portland will be just million or so over the expected salary cap level this summer, and while it was once thought that reserve guard Mo Williams would opt out of the final year of his contract (set for $2.7 million next season), his injury-altered rough end to the season may harm the 31-year old’s free agent value. Otherwise, the same crew is set to return, with Portland hoping that increased production from youngsters like Lillard, Nicolas Batum, and the barely-used C.J. McCollum (who remains an intriguing prospect in an Anthony Peeler-vein, but played poorly in his injury-strained rookie year) could walk alongside Aldridge and Wesley Matthews in their primes, with coach Terry Stotts building up some sort of gestalt theory on offense, while hoping for the right matchup once spring rolls around. Think Dallas, 2011.
The building, for now, has been done. And in 2015, with Aldridge, Matthews, Lopez, Dorrell Wright and (possibly) Mo Williams’ contracts set to expire, new’ish general manager Neil Olshey can set to building his team as he sees fit.
Provided he doesn’t already see this squad as pretty damn fit. Because he should. Do it again, Portland.
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