This past year has really been a reality check for Portland fans. For several years, there have been big reasons for optimism i.e. "we'll get a good draft pick, Aldridge and Roy look promising, we got the number 1 pick! Oden will be back next year, we have cap-space, the young players are developing, we're gonna make a big trade, sure the injuries can't be that bad again!" etc.
This year, particularly with Roy's retirement and Oden's setback, there has been a lot less of that optimism. Still, there are many reasons to remain optimistic.
1. LaMarcus Aldridge's Continued Improvement
LA obviously took a big step last year, but he can and will continue to work on his game. Unless things change, he is basically a shoo-in for the All-Star team this year. He has been working on his dribble moves, which I think will make him a lot harder to stop.
With his skills and hard-work, I don't think we've seen his ceiling yet. I do believe that he is capable of being the best player on a contending team, and a top-10 player in the NBA.
2. A Full Season of Wallace
Fact is, Portland played very well after we acquired Wallace. With a full season to integrate and play together, Wallace should help make the Blazers a very scary team.
3. Improvement from Batum and Matthews
Nic Batum made a lot of progress on his game playing in France this year if you believe reports. His ball-handling and initiating offense being places where he made big strides. He actually put up pretty good assist numbers in Euroleague play. It will be interesting to see if The Leap is this year.
Wes Money has a lower ceiling than Batum, but people forget that he is entering just his third year. With his hard work and competitiveness, not to mention the absence of Roy, I can't imagine that he won't improve again this year.
Blazer management seems very happy with the acquisition of Felton. He is in his prime and was actually listed as an All-Star runner-up last year. His numbers where inflated on the Knicks, but he was playing well. Hit a few game-winners as well.
Ray should be a better fit for the team than 'Dre, as much as I loved him. He had great success playing with Amar'e Stoudemire, now he gets to play with an Amar'e-like player, but who plays defense. I am looking forward to their pick-and-roll game. Also, have you ever seen someone as good at long bounce passes?
5. Jamal Crawford, The Big Sexy, and The Rhino
After the bad news on the first day, Portland actually had one of the best free agency periods in the L. They at least partially addressed our biggest needs, shooting, big-man depth, toughness, and bench-scoring.
Yes, Crawford is a bit of a volume shooter, but that is ok considering our lackluster bench scoring in seasons past. He also gives us a guard who is a good clutch-player, which we miss without Roy. It was a steal to be able to nab him with the mid-level.
Kurt Thomas and Craig Smith, aka The Big Sexy Rhino, will help us as much as Crawford in my opinion. Thomas is just a solid veteran with Finals experience. He played very well on the Bulls last year. He'll help a lot in the big man rotation. Smith brings a nice little scoring punch and energy off the bench. He will become a fan favorite.
6. Young Players
Right now, any contributions from six of the fifteen players on our roster will basically be a bonus. Nolan Smith, Luke Babbitt, Armon Johnson, Chris Johnson, Big Greg, and most of all Elliot Williams all have potential and the emergence of any of them will be a plus.
Smith should be a solid backup point, maybe even a starter someday. Williams has incredible athleticism, and one of the highest ceilings of the bench players on the team. I think he could be a diamond in the rough. C. Johnson has definitely shown flashes.
There is less optimism surrounding Babbitt and Armon, but they both have NBA skills if they can translate them, and have only played one year.
I think most of us have moved on from expecting big things from Oden, but you never know.
It is not because we are counting on these players, but because we are not, that they can help us surprise.
7. Chad Buchanan
The Blazers have supposedly ruled Chad out for the GM position, but he has really done a solid job. He may be the best of Portland's GMs for awhile actually. He has managed to pick up Matthews, Felton, Smith, Crawford, Thomas, and C. Smith in his short stints managing the team. He also seems good at communicating and being a PR guy without offending higher-ups.
I really think he is an upgrade over the Danny Ferry/Jeff Bower types we have considered.
8. Western Conference Question Marks
There are a lot of good teams in the West, but not a lot of great ones. Dallas lost half of their key championship contributors. The L*kers did little to get better, and may have gotten worse by losing Odom after their sweep last year. Kobe is another year older, and I expect them to start slow with a difficult schedule and missing Andrew Bynum for the start. They will be a playoff team but have chinks in their mighty armor.
San Antonio keeps getting older and didn't make major improvements. The Clippers look good on paper, but they are the Clippers, have injury problems, and are unproven. Memphis also looks very good on paper, and on the court, but they will miss Shane Battier and have some problems waiting to happen.
Oklahoma City, especially with the compact season, look like the clear favorites in the West. It is not difficult for me to imagine the Blazers beating them though. I think Wallace is going to be a major Thunder-killer. In fact, while I see us as being an underdog in most playoff matchups, there is not a single team I see us as not having a chance against.
Are you optimistic about our chances? Why or why not? How far could we go?