As promised, here's the long-awaited list for Portland Trail Blazers fans looking for a little optimism, if not about the coming season at least about the next two or three. It's hard to argue against the Blazers ending up the in the Northwest Division cellar this year, but these things give some hope that the visit won't be long.
1. LaMarcus Aldridge is reliable now.
Aldridge has been good since the moment he was drafted. He developed into a star as the careers of Brandon Roy and Greg Oden derailed. No matter what he did, though, people questioned his play and capacity. He's not gotten the national recognition that his peers--Kevin Love and Blake Griffin--have garnered. He still gets sideways glances locally because he doesn't fit in to the typical Trail Blazer power forward mold.
Whether he's the guy to lead a team to a deep playoff run, we don't know yet. We're not going to find out this year either. Whether he'll ever stand out enough to merit first-breath consideration for All-NBA teams...we don't know that either. Here's what we do know. The more the Blazers have used this guy, the better he has gotten. And they've used him plenty the last couple seasons. I barely needed the statistical consultation on this one because the eye test will tell you that the jumper from the left side has become clockwork-regular...as dependable as any flashier signature move you care to name. Defenses have been geared to stop this guy and all he's doing is shooting over .500 from the field--this from a perimeter power forward--and ratcheting up his true shooting and effective field goal percentages every time his usage rate rises. Whether or not Aldridge makes your toes curl, he is not going to fail you. He's a great #1 option on a team that desperately needs same. Not all optimism is bound to what you think you'll get. Sometimes what you've already got is worth noticing.
2. Damian Lillard is the real deal.
Nobody is more conservative about rookies and player development in general than I. You don't win on credit in this league. You have to show it. Plus I hate the strain of sports analysis that bases everything on prediction, as if it's about the person predicting and not the sport itself. So here's the proper "give him time and leeway to adjust" caveat.
Now...Damian Lillard is going to be good. From the moment his name first entered the consciousness through every bit of discovery and research through the draft and beyond, the assertion has been confirmed at each step. You have to go back to 2006 before you can find a rookie whose impact I felt was this certain. That guy's name was Brandon Roy. I don't know if Lillard will reach Roy's level ever, let alone as quickly as Brandon himself did. I do know that my assessment of him sounds the same as it always did: Portland fans, you're going to like...this...kid.
3. I have a weird feeling about Meyers Leonard too.
This one is less bankable, but it's nagging at me. I don't believe Leonard will be a star. I'm not even sure he'll be a dominant starter. His lateral quickness is just screaming "versatility" to me, though. I have a hunch the Blazers just picked up a guy who, once he's learned how to play at an NBA level, will be used in a variety of circumstances and lineups. He won't be like Joel Przybilla and Theo Ratliff...dominant in a couple areas and completely lacking in others. He won't be that dominant but his abilities won't cost you either. Instead he's going to be darting around the court making a nuisance of himself and becoming one of those savvy veterans you love to have on your team.
In other words, the Blazers did pretty well in this draft.
4. More high draft picks are coming.
This should fall under the previously-mentioned "Charlotte Rule", as technically it applies to every not-very-good team. But the Blazers' capacity to draft has been underrated because they blow their low picks and their #1's. Portland has actually done pretty well with their high lottery selections outside of the top spot. Their last four Top 10 picks have been Aldridge, Roy, Oden, and Lillard. Discounting health issues, that's an amazing group. Roy still distinguished himself despite the injuries. If I had a future-blind, no-hindsight allowed look at that quartet, I'd be ecstatic. As long as the Blazers stay out of the 20's and stop drafting centers #1 overall, I'm fairly confident in their ability to rebuild.
5. The lower-level players on this team are going to fail en masse, but the second-tier guys might distinguish themselves enough to gain value.
I can already give you the national storyline exiting this season. A horde of Portland Trail Blazers players, as much as two-thirds of the roster, are going to look really bad. Lack of experience, lack of talent, and lack of infrastructure to take advantage of that talent are going to make this season plenty difficult, Since up to two-thirds of the team will look, at various times, inept, people are going to write off the entire team outside of Aldridge and perhaps Lillard. A curious side effect of all the crickets chirping at the bottom of the bench, however, will be an over-reliance on the guys near the top. Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum should feast on a season like this.
Some will speculate that either or both will finally break through to the star level. I don't anticipate that happening. I'll be thrilled if it does, of course, but I'm not holding my breath. Extra minutes and touches should make them look pretty nice, however. How many times in the past have the Trail Blazers acquired a player with good statistical output, only to find that said player wasn't everything advertised when time and shots diminished? Just about everybody acquired during the Bob Whitsitt era fits that description. While nobody is as flagrant as Trader Bob, those kinds of GM's are still out there. The contracts of Portland's second-tier players aren't exorbitant. In a couple years you might well see the Blazers wheeling and dealing for even more young talent and picks...enough to give them a second wave and complete the reboot. At that point 2 good players, 3 decent ones, and a bunch of leftovers becomes 5 potentially really good players and a solid bench.
Then we can get really excited.