by Ryan Clarke
One issue continuously plagued the Portland Trail Blazers last season: depth. After acquiring Thomas Robinson, Robin Lopez, CJ McCollum, Allen Crabbe and Dorell Wright, it’s safe to say that the problem is likely solved. Last year ended on a sour note for Portland as they dropped thirteen straight games en route to a disappointing 33-49 record. With added depth and a much-needed shot-blocker in Robin Lopez, Blazer fans can likely say goodbye to the lottery for a while.
Projected Record: 46-36, 6th in the Western Conference
Portland’s strength of schedule gets tougher down the stretch, so if they’re aiming for a playoff spot they have to start strong. Their first lengthy road trip pits them against three beatable squads (Boston, Toronto, Milwaukee) and one title contender (Brooklyn). Coming out of this trip 3-1 or 4-0 will be essential for this young team to build confidence.
That confidence is going to be very necessary during a three game stretch in late November as Portland takes on three powerhouses in four nights (Chicago, Golden State, New York). Other games of note include Greg Oden’s return to Portland in a Miami uniform (Dec. 28th), and a late-March five-game road trip with stops in Chicago and South Beach. You can find the Blazers’ full schedule here.
Projected Depth by Position:
PG: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Earl Watson
SG: Wesley Matthews, Will Barton, Allen Crabbe
SF: Nicolas Batum, Dorell Wright
PF: Lamarcus Aldridge, Thomas Robinson, Joel Freeland
C: Robin Lopez, Meyers Leonard
Robinson, McCollum and Wright off the bench give Terry Stotts immense flexibility with his lineups. McCollum can take pressure off of Lillard by giving him a breather and in some cases, running the point alongside him. Wright’s three-point shooting stretches the floor without him being a liability on defense (*cough* Luke Babbitt *cough*).
Additionally, Thomas Robinson can come in to give Aldridge a breather or scoot Lamarcus over to the 5-spot. Robinson’s voracious ability to rebound and high motor is just what Portland needs to replace the likes of J.J. Hickson.
This is a team on the rise. Despite the fact that we’ve been saying that for like five years, I’m confident that Portland can only improve from here on out. Lillard will have no issues taking a leadership role; the guy just gets it.
As far as Aldridge goes, if he doesn’t want to be here then there has to be a way for Portland to get compensation for him. And by compensation, I mean difference makers. Not some ho-hum Tristan Thompson and a first-round pick type compensation, I’m talking about guys with as much or more potential than Aldridge. Names like Kevin Love and Chris Bosh come to mind, and anything less isn’t going to help the Blazers in the long or short-term.
Maybe a Thompson + draft pick type deal would help clear cap space to land a huge free-agent, but who the hell wants to play in Portland? Honestly? Sure they’ve got a great young nucleus in Lillard, Batum and company, but what superstar wants to chase a title in a city where it’s rainy or cloudy 9 months out of the year?
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love living in Oregon. I wouldn’t want to have grown up anywhere else. The people are friendly, the water is clean and the summers aren’t nauseatingly hot or humid. But the landscape of the NBA has changed. It’s more of a business than ever before. That’s why the Lakers, Heat, Knicks and Nets are far more likely to land top free agents or trade acquisitions. Great players want to play in big markets like New York, Los Angeles and Miami.
However, there’s definitely hope for the Blazers with who they’ve already got. Lillard is an assassin on the court and a consummate professional off of it. A healthy Nicolas Batum is a walking triple-double with oodles of unrealized potential. Aldridge (if he sticks around) is the best all-around 4-man in the game. Portland is a lot like your first car. It gets the job done, but it doesn’t really look good and there are a few missing parts.