Strengths and Weaknesses in the Coming Season

Dave,

What changes this summer! I'm cautiously optimistic. I've heard a couple people speculate that the Blazers could be better this year without dead weight on the roster. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this new lineup?

Per

First of all...better? Whatever those people are smoking, it probably came across the border in a shoebox.

Let's compare this year's likely season-opening lineup with last year's. First we'll take out the common denominators: LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, Nolan Smith, Luke Babbitt, Eliot Williams. You can claim improvement from any of these guys will make the team better but chances are any boost will be marginal. The more veteran members have shown their stripes and we don't know if the younger guys have any.

That leaves a direct comparison between these players:

2011

2012

Jamal Crawford

Damian Lillard

Raymond Felton

J.J. Hickson

Gerald Wallace

Jared Jeffries

Marcus Camby

Ronnie Price

Kurt Thomas

Joel Freeland

Craig Smith

Meyers Leonard

Armon Johnson

Victor Claver

Chris Johnson

Will Barton

Sasha Pavlovic

Now, say what you want about the motivation of the players on the left but at least five of them are real, proven NBA talents, veterans with important (and major) minutes under their belts. The only person from the right-hand column that comes even close to fulfilling that description is J.J. Hickson, and him maybe. After that you're scraping for Jeffries and Price. Middling bench players are the cream of the crop on that list...outside of one promising rookie playing point. There's zero comparison and no basis for argument that the second group should outperform the first. The motto of the summer is "We got Lillard and we're waiting on everything else." Adjust expectations for the coming season accordingly.

As for the second part of your question, we'll do a complete rundown of the team as the season gets closer and positions formalize. I'll give you one hope and one worry for now.

The hope is that the mid- and long-range shooting will no longer have as many holes. Lillard goes a long way towards curing the glaring range problem at point, sealing the lineup. Most of the bigs and reserves have some kind of intermediate game as well. You don't have a Felton problem at the arc and you don't have a Przybilla problem in the lane. How much mileage you can get from that extra versatility is open to debate. Minnesota played mid-range and beyond exclusively for many years without much success. But at least you're less likely to wince at general categories of shots with this team than you were last year. (With the caveat that the general level of offensive talent is lower, of course.)

The worry is that for all the recycling, you're still leaving but one ball-handler on the floor at a given time. Lillard will be the only guy dribbling successfully. Putting in another ball-handler beside him will mean playing two small guards, both young...a defensive liability for sure. Lillard is going to get a ton of pressure from opposing defenses, making his transition harder.

The most interesting part of this season will not be watching wins but learning who's going to stick and who needs to go. This is an extended audition for the Next Era. Everybody not named Lillard or (for now) Aldridge is under scrutiny. The real question isn't how good these players will be together but how many of them will still be Trail Blazers two years from now.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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