This is Blazeredge's contribution to the SBNation-NBA suite of season previews for all 30 NBA teams. You can tune in to all 30 SBN-NBA blogs throughout the month to get the scoop on your favorite teams and opponents. Here's the scoop on the Portland Trail Blazers.
1. What significant moves happened in the off-season?
Proving that he is large, in charge, and running the barge, second-year general manager Neil Olshey spent the summer remaking Portland's roster. He jettisoned every bench player not already under contract--6 of 10 reserves departing--and starting center J.J. Hickson.
Olshey spent his new-found cap space on center Robin Lopez, young padawan forward Thomas Robinson, plus veterans Mo Williams, Dorrell Wright, and Earl Watson. The Blazers picked up a couple of shooting guards in the draft: Lehigh lottery pick C.J. McCollum and California's Allen Crabbe.
No amount of rose-colored (pardon...I guess it's Moda-centric now) thinking can make these moves revolutionary. Evolution is a better term. Nobody's socks are getting blown off here. Hopefully those socks won't be pulled up above the knees and stapled on anymore.
Lopez does provide the 7-foot presence and at least a modicum of defensive know-how, both of which Hickson lacked. The reserve corps is more talented and more experienced, a clear upgrade. This brings hope to those who cite Portland's starting lineup--the unchanged core--as among the best in the league last year.
On the other hand, Portland's starting lineup earned their praise through accumulation more than domination. Their aggregate stats are impressive; they played too many minutes to have it otherwise. Their per-minute production paints a picture less grand. They might be more ordinary than they seem. Plus Portland's new bench players won't just be replacing their wretched counterparts from last season. They'll be eating into the time of the overburdened starters as well. Measuring reserve vs. reserve this bench is an upgrade. Measuring this year's reserves vs. last year's starters as the starters' minutes normalize takes a bite out of the perceived advancement.
When you distill all this, you're left with a couple of nuggets familiar to Portland fans, unchanged since last season despite the turnover. The Blazers' hopes rest on the shoulders of Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum. Everybody else in the lineup is set, for good or ill. Rookie of the Year Lillard has to show a high ceiling, offensive efficiency, the ability to become a floor general, and a dab of defense wouldn't hurt. Batum has played great in spurts but has never put together a full season of high-level play. If both players maximize their potential Portland could rise. Without growth from each the Blazers will have a hard time improving more than incrementally. If either one falters the season could get long.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
Jump shooting in general and three-point shooting in particular comprise Portland's greatest strengths. Almost everybody on the roster, including the bigs, has a reliable face-up shot. Everybody under 6'9" can hit a three. The Blazers should be able to spread the floor with any lineup they choose.
Lillard, Robinson, McCollum, and sophomore center Meyers Leonard provide four lottery picks from the last two drafts. The Blazers have potential head room.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
Defense tops the list. The Blazers were horrible last season and few of their summer acquisitions sport "D" as a calling card. Lopez and Wright should help, but how much? Both are guys you'd love to add to your already-solid defense. Neither can transform a bad defense to good on his own. Portland's backcourt remains leaky. We'll have to see how well they can compensate.
Though the Blazers can spread the floor, "For what, exactly?" remains an open question. Lillard is the only starter capable of attacking off the dribble. With Aldridge operating more from the elbow than the post, Portland lacks an interior scoring presence. They don't just read jump shot heavy, but jump shot only. Such offenses seldom succeed.
4. What are this team's goals?
Make the playoffs. Nothing else comes close. The Blazers aren't a threat to do post-season damage, but their last trip (and last winning season) came in 2010-11, the final gasp of the Brandon Roy era. Returning this year would be an incredible boost. Falling short would weigh heavy. Portland's not positioned to tank. Unless ping pong balls bounce lucky, ultra-high lottery picks are not on the horizon. They'll lose their first-round pick to Charlotte if it's anywhere below 12th, leaving potential for not making the playoffs and missing out on the best draft in years. If the Blazers don't clear the playoff bar, they'll have a hard time justifying their season.
Improvement from any of the four young lottery picks mentioned above is the secondary goal. Even one of them having a breakout season would give Blazer fans reason to smile.
5. The Big Question: Is It Enough?
In the short term this question applies to the playoffs. Will the summer changes be enough to propel the Blazers to a low seed over the likes of Minnesota, the Lakers, and the rest of the murky middle of the Western Conference?
In the long run the Blazers are playing to an audience of one. Aldridge's contract expires in 2015. He's the best, most reliable player on this team. The Blazers have two years to convince him that his future lies in Portland and not with a team better positioned for contention. The only way to make that argument is to become a team better positioned for contention. If the Blazers don't excel this year the Aldridge rumor mill will be red hot and rolling next summer. This season's performance will determine whether they're on top of that situation or getting ground underneath it.
The Bottom Line
The Blazers spent the summer coupon clipping, trying to stretch their budget for as many value acquisitions as they could find. They bolstered their roster with veteran players and acquired a prospect or two. They did not change the lineup, nor their course, radically.
Especially on the internet, among experts and fans alike, smart shopping gets conflated with ultimate success. We like to imagine that we live in a world where process correlates with results. It doesn't always work that way. The lady in the grocery line with reams of coupons from her Sunday paper can get a case of Pine-Sol for half price, a gallon of milk for a buck, a nice roast for the cost of ground beef. She's a smart shopper. But no matter how many coupons she clips she'll never be able to buy a Ferrari with them. She can't even get a decent Mercedes that way. Those things aren't discounted.
No matter how cheap you got the floor cleaner, success in the NBA is still measured by who's driving the Ferraris. Some have, others have not.
Characterize this summer's moves however you wish, but at the end of the day the Blazers did not move themselves over the hump into the "have" category. They're still loading those smartly-shopped groceries into the back of the old Volvo station wagon. Health permitting, they should improve...maybe enough to grab that prized low playoff seed. But the fact that said seed is in question (and that the 7th or 8th seed would be prized) tells you all you need to know about the state of the Blazers right now. They may be better but they've still many miles ahead of them before reaching the border of significant, let alone special.
--Dave Deckard (email@example.com)
Sister Site Sonics Rising takes their preview stab here.