The Portland Trail Blazers enter the 2012-13 NBA Season with...hopes.
Notice we didn't say "high hopes". Those departed along with nearly every name-recognition-level player who's suited up in the crimson and black for the last three years. Brandon Roy and Greg Oden left in 2011, of course. By the time the clock struck midnight on July 1, 2012 the Blazers had also bid adieu to Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford, Gerald Wallace, Marcus Camby, and Joel Przybilla plus long-tenured head coach Nate McMillan. A couple of those guys brought assets in return, a couple more walked out with heads held high, and a couple felt management's boot on the way out the door. Either way, it all amounted to the same thing: save a couple promising players, press CTRL-ALT-DEL on the rest of the organization.
The Blazers started their summer by boarding the Clippers and pirating away General Manager Neil Olshey. They drafted Weber State point guard Damian Lillard with the 6th pick in June, then followed up with Illinois center Meyers Leonard with the 11th overall pick and Memphis shooting guard Will Barton in the second round.
The next step in Portland's grand "We're Not Rebuilding...Much" scheme was to bring over the European players they had stashed from previous drafts. Joel Freeland (F/C from Great Britain) and Victor Claver (SF from Spain) joined the crew.
The Blazers cushioned their now-inexperienced lineup with solid, cheap veterans in Jared Jeffries, Ronnie Price, and Sasha Pavlovic.
Loathe to discard their entire hand, the Blazers re-signed J.J. Hickson to bolster the frontcourt and retained small forward Nicolas Batum in restricted free agency. These two join All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, shooting guard Wesley Matthews, and youngsters Nolan Smith, Elliot Williams, and Luke Babbitt as the only incumbents on the roster.
Final Tally: Returning Starters...3. All-Star Caliber Players...1. Hot-ish Rookies...2. 9th-15th Men on Anybody Else's Team...a dozen or so.
Portland hired veteran coach Terry Stotts to organize this motley, threadbare crew. He has installed a green-light offense designed to take advantage of Portland's only two proven commodities: mobility and outside shooting. The Blazers will live and (mostly) die by the three-pointer this year, peppering in occasional screens, alley-oops, and breaks with fast big men trailing...heavy on the "fast", easy on the "big". Such strengths as the Trail Blazers have, they will play to.
The defensive philosophy is much the same, with mobile forwards and centers showing on picks and recovering to the paint, guards trying to divert drivers to the baseline where they can be swarmed and trapped.
The Blazers lack individual punch on either end of the floor. Aldridge is the only great isolation player on the roster. Nobody outside of the point guards has a dribble drive and the point guards lack finishing power at the rim. The Blazers won't be bulling over anybody. They want to fence, not brawl. This holds true on defense as well. When the Blazers move their feet and keep the opponent running around they'll be fine. Anybody who can get into the lane with regularity off the dribble or post moves will be serious trouble for Portland's one-on-one defenders.
Lacking talent, depth, and experience, the Blazers will offer a double dose of enthusiasm and speed, hoping it works. Most nights it won't. But this will be a learning experience for these young players. The goals of the season are clear: develop youth, figure out which guys can play and which can't, bide time until next season brings another draft pick and another shot to use cap space. The Blazers will have to keep Aldridge interested in the meantime, plus impart enough enthusiasm to fans to keep them from abandoning their seats in droves. Saving money and growing towards an indefinite future while training youngsters on the job and maintaining motivation...it's a tough balancing act.
By the end of this season the Blazers hope to know how good their core of Aldridge, Batum, and Matthews can be together. They hope Lillard and Meyers will develop into starters. They'd like to strike gold with at least one unexpected player off the bench. They'll preserve those half-dozen guys, dump the rest, and look to find 2-3 other quality players via draft, trade, or free agency. Besides depth, they desperately need a guy to get his own shot via dribble penetration at shooting guard or small forward. Look for that player to ping their radar next summer.
In the meantime, watch them run! Watch them jump! See them bomb away from the arc! Cheer as they make nice plays during the course of any given game but prepare for them to lose by 12 because they don't know how to play yet. See the young guys go through their growing pains. See the older guys try to hold it together. See LaMarcus Aldridge standing tall amid all of this, looking heavenward and hoping for a better tomorrow. That could be around the corner, but it's a long way from here.
--Dave Deckard, Blazer'sEdge.com
This preview is part of an ongoing series around SBNation and the NBA Blogosphere. Here are other previews you may have missed:
Central Division Previews
Chicago Bulls: BlogABull.com
Detroit Pistons: DetroitBadBoys
Indiana Pacers: Indy Cornrows
Milwaukee Bucks: Brew Hoop
Pacific Division Previews
Golden State Warriors: Golden State of Mind
Sacramento Kings: Sactown Royalty
Atlantic Division Previews
New York Knicks: Posting and Toasting
Philadelphia 76ers: Liberty Ballers
Toronto Raptors: Raptors HQ