Arguing about Portland, Dallas, or Minnesota in the final playoff spot for the 2013-2014 NBA season has been a staple of the NBA community’s diet over the past four weeks, and it isn’t likely to leave any time soon. The Blazers find themselves in a difficult predicament, with an improved bench but no significant changes or addition to star power. Instead, they’ll be relying on their current core to grow together, and improve organically.
Will it be enough to get them through to the other side? The West in incredibly difficult this year, and even if the Blazers make it through they’ll have a hard time avoiding their signature first round exit.
Here are some of the keys to the season for this year’s Portland Trail Blazers.
Impact of the new bench
Portland’s Neil Olshey made huge strides this off-season, adding what would appear to be a competant, usable NBA bench. Last year’s squad averaged a comically low 16.5 ppg from the bench, last in the NBA. Three players (Nolan Smith, Sasha Pavlovic, and Luke Babbitt) aren’t even in the NBA anymore, and Ronnie Price is in Orlando, which only sort of counts.
Mo Williams as a leader
Perhaps the biggest offseason catch, on value, has been Mo Williams. A former scoring star in Milwaukee, Williams has shone in the Portland preaseason in terms of maturity and leadership. His shot selection has seemed forced at times, but that appears to be for lack of familiarity with his new teammates. A reasonable expectation would be for that to settle as the season continues.
Robin Lopez as a true center next to LaMarcus Aldridge
If Lopez can have at least some effect on the second and third pass penetration, it will force teams to shoot from the outside more often than last year. Portland’s rotation was so bad last year that only Milwaukee allowed a higher percentage (and just barely) last year at the rim.
A successful season for Lopez will see him keeping Aldridge off the low block defensively and filling the lane on screens. Anything less than that would be a disappointment, and anything more is above the role he needs to fill.
Nic Batum needs a breakout year
Perhaps the biggest undertone for a successful Blazers push into the playoffs will be the performance of Nic Batum. Last season, he had about six weeks of healthy play and he was everything Portland paid him $46 million over 4 years for.
The good news for Batum is that Portland has a lot more competent ball-handlers on the team this year, and his ability on defense will be helped a bit through better defensive rotations (although at the time of writing, just barely).
If Batum can be a knock-down shooter, and an above-average wing defender he will fulfill his usefullness to the Blazers and help push them to the playoffs.
CJ McCollum out until December, if not longer
Injury concerns will follow McCollum, given his collegiate history and the franchise for which he plays. If he can come back before Christmas in light work and ease himself into January, the Blazers will have a great weapon to make a mid-season push for second in the Northwest Division.
McCollum will have a slow time adjusting to playing time, however, given how long it has taken the current active roster to gel and the fact that this is his first year in the NBA. I don’t think a ROY campaign is likely, but if he can keep his shot selection efficient, turnovers managable, and stay healthy, McCollum will be a great help for Portland.
Thomas Robinson is 22. Thomas Robinson is a top 5 pick. Thomas Robinson has been traded twice. Thomas Robinson is 22.
This is what Blazer fans will have to remind themselves of when they see him play this year. Through the preseason, Robinson has been everywhere from disappointing to inconsistent, without a real semblance of the stability Portland will desperately need from him, especially considering the lack of development from Meyers Leonard.
Robinson’s game is about rebounding, chasing the ball, and second-chance scoring. Perhaps the quickest way to round out his game would be to get him to be as active on defense as he is on the glass, but fundamentals are habits forged over time and 82 games is short-term.
Joel Freeland is the backup center
It’s hard to believe but Joel Freeland has beat out Meyers Leonard for the backup role and it’s mostly due to his ability to jump straight up and down on penetration shot attempts. Meyers Leonard has been disappointing in the preseason thus far, and Freeland is the best option if Terry Stotts wants to win now. And he does.
With an increased bench depth, and the ability to carry the load at least offensively, Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge should be able to choose more efficient offensive posessions. Combined with less minutes, this should allow them the opportunity to concentrate a bit more on defense and be efficient on offense. That’s crucial, because if the Blazers are in a fight the last two weeks of the season for the final playoff spot they’ll need those two to have fresh legs.
42-40, 9th in the west.
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