With the 6th and 11th picks of the 2012 NBA Draft, the Blazers selected Damian Lillard, PG, Weber St., and Meyers Leonard, C, Illinois. The Blazers have a two second-round picks, and I may update this post after they make those selections. But here are my quick-hit thoughts on the Blazers two lottery picks:
The Blazers really, really loved Damian Lillard. It's no secret the Blazers need help at every position on the floor except for PF. With the general assumption that the Blazers will resign Nicolas Batum, Portland's two biggest needs are center and point guard. They had both of those available at 6 in Andre Drummond and Damian Lillard. Dummond is the quintessential "he might get you fired for taking him, and he might get you fired for not taking him" guy in this draft. The Blazers chose to pass on the player with unquestionably the biggest upside in the draft not named Anthony Davis in favor of Lillard. I think that is not as much of a reflection on Neil Olshey being scared to draft Drummond as much as it is how much he was in love with Lillard.
The Blazers FINALLY acquired the mythical "point guard of the future". For years the debate has been "who is the Blazers' PG of the future?" In the past 6 or so years alone the Blazers tried Steve Blake, Jerryd Bayless, Andre Miller, Patti Mills, Raymond Felton and Johnny "I have no idea how to play in the NBA" Flynn. On BlazersEdge we have debated the merits of Deron Williams, Steve Nash, Jose Calderon, Ramon Sessions, Devin Harris, Kirk Heinrich, and Rajon Rondo, just to name a few. Well, tonight Neil Olshey settled that argument when he took Damian Lillard with the 6th overall pick. Lillard is a playmaker. He's athletic, physically very similar to Derrick Rose, can shoot the lights out of the ball (Jay Bilas said when David Stern announced the pick that Lillard's range is "basically in the building"), can get to the rim and can dish it. He is going to be a great pick-and-roll PG, and with Aldridge and Leonard down low next season he will have options.
Nicolas Batum, West Matthews and LaMarcus Aldridge will be greatly improved next season. The main reason Batum and Matthews struggled last year was due to the atrocious play of Portland's point guards. Raymond Felton was a disaster, Johnny Flynn is one of the worst NBA players in the history of the league, and Jamal Crawford has never met a shot he didn't like and thinks assists are the high-fives you get after you make a big shot. What Lillard will bring to the team is playmaking. He will be able to break defenses down off the dribble, slash to the rim, and dish it out. Matthews will have more spot-up shots, and Batum will be able to create more plays because Lillard will set the table for him. Aldridge will be helped because Lillard will help draw some of the double teams and benefit from more pick-and-roll opportunities and floor spacing Matthews and Batum's improved outside shooting will provide.
Meyers Leonard was a classic Neil Olshey pick. Olshey understands the importance of big men, and he isn't afraid to take a risk on one (i.e., DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin with the Clippers). While Tyler Zeller put up better numbers in college than Leonard, Leonard is by far the better pick. First, Leonard is three years younger than Zeller, and Zeller's ceiling is much lower than Leonard's. Leonard is more athletic, a better rebounder and shot blocker. He's actually bigger than Zeller as well, a full inch taller and a few pounds heavier. He only spent one year at Illinois and will need time to develop, but he will be a better pro than Zeller when all is said and done. Besides, the Blazers are rebuilding this year (not retooling), and have too many holes and not enough players to fill them to be contenders next year. Portland has the luxury of taking him and allowing him to develop for a year or two before they are true contenders.
Leonard will complement Aldridge perfectly in the front court. Aldridge is who he is as a player at this point: he's going to give you 20 and 8 every night, will space the floor with his ability to shoot outside, and can score in the paint as well. But he's not a very good rebounder or shot blocker. Defensively Leonard will be able to protect the rim, block shots and rebound, and offensively he will be a low-post banger who can clean up misses and run the floor with Aldridge. Drummond's upside is higher, but Leonard's floor is higher and will be a great complement to Aldridge.
The Blazers are going to be much more athletic next year. Lillard, Matthews, Batum, Aldridge and Leonard are all very good athletes, so we should see a much improved transition game next year as well as a faster pace than the McMillan era. This is also incredibly important because if you watched the NBA Finals this year there were only athletes on the floor. Groin injury aside, Kendrick Perkins was almost useless in the finals because he couldn't properly guard Chris Bosh outside and rotate to help keep LeBron and Wade from driving inside. The NBA is moving towards an era where every player is going to need to be a great athlete; the days of the Jared Sullinger's (the slow, un-athletic low post bangers who play below the rim) are waning. Portland is going to need athletes to match up with the Thunder and Heat for the next decade, and Lillard and Leonard are a good start.
Portland is going to be very active in the free agent market. Portland has only 8 players with guaranteed contracts for next season: Aldridge, Matthews, Lillard, Leonard, Elliot Williams, Nolan Smith, Luke Babbitt, and Kurt Thomas, and they're going to have around $30 million in cap space. Look for the Blazers to give Batum around $10-12 million a year (he's a restricted free agent, so they may not have a choice in how big his contract is if another team signs him to an offer sheet), then go after other players. Joel Pryzbilla is a candidate to come back next year, as is JJ Hickson. Players from other teams to keep an eye on are Carl Landry (previously of the Hornets) to backup LA and to provide more low-post scoring, and OJ Mayo (of the Grizzlies) to get another ball handler and shooter on the perimeter. The Blazers could also bring over Joel Freeland (to give them another big body in the front court rotation) and Victor Claver (to give them another swingman on the perimeter behind Batum) from Europe as cheap backups. One player they won't be pursuing is Deron Williams. The Lillard pick made that fairly clear; I just don't see the Blazers shelling out a 4-year, $81 million contract to Williams when Lillard is already in the fold.
The Blazers still don't have an alpha dog, first banana type player. I love Aldridge, but he is who he is. I don't think he will ever be the best player on a championship team. He needs a Brandon Roy or Kevin Durant to be able to create at the end of games and, more importantly, close out games. It is possible Lillard becomes that type of player (hey, you never know), but right now Portland still doesn't have a first banana. It's just something to keep an eye on as Lillard and Leonard develop.