The Blazers COULD be contenders in the Aldridge-Lillard era if things break right for us.
A week ago, I made the argument the other teams in the West had enough weaknesses to leave a tiny window for the Blazers to squeeze in to contention. There is enough upside on this team to get through a couple rounds. Whether the team reaches that upside is debatable. But we can be optimistic!
As Blazer fans, we've grown used to disappointment and have turned to "realistic" (negative) expectations. Future All-Stars such as Martell Webster, Travis Outlaw, and Jerryd Bayless have given us good reason. But we are the home-fans. If we don't expect success, what is the fun in being right?
Robin Lopez - Most agree that he is an upgrade, definitely on defense, over Hickson. Most of us were hoping for a more exciting starting center and could only say "at least he is not Kaman".
But what if he turns out to be more than adequate? A number of centers have made a leap to becoming elite (or at least very good) defensive players years in to their career. Tyson Chandler, Roy Hibbert, Omer Asik... Obviously he is not going to be an All-Star. But maybe an Asik who can make free throws (and have his name pronounced by national announcers).
LaMarcus Aldridge - LMA is already an All-Star in his prime, so expecting a lot of improvement from him would be unfair. But he really works on his game. There are several things he could add to his game that could push him closer to Superstar status.
Just working on his pick-and-roll/pop would make him deadly in combination with Damian. Adding a drive would keep defenses honest on his deadly mid-range jumper. Returning to more of a post game could bump up his numbers. And with a center who contributes to team rebounding by his side, Aldridge could shake the impression that he is a lackadaisical rebounder. And while he is a great one-on-one defender, he can improve on using his length and athleticism to protect the rim.
But outside of those technical skills, years of coming up short could help breed the killer instinct that he lacks. Incorporate even a portion of the above and I can easily see him becoming a 23/10 guy with a few assists and blocks added in while shooting 50 and 80.
Nicolas Batum - Ah Nic. The one Blazer whose upside we've most hoped for. Not too much to say here, only take what he does his good days and imagine that happening consistently. He doesn't need to even reach the lofty status we had hoped. But if he can maintain some consistency, put up 16-17/5/5, and become a top-notch one-on-one defender that he could be, than that would go a long way towards putting us in contention.
His skills (but not mindset) are actually not dissimilar to Paul George.
Wesley Matthews - Wes is not really a high-upside guy. But he can add some improvement on his handles and finishing abilities to go along with his already highly effective 3'n'd game along with the fiery competitiveness and hustle he leads the team with. That would be all we need. He already puts up 15 a game as mostly a three-point shooter.
Damian Lillard - Yes, he was an old rookie last year. But, a rookie he was. Meaning he has a ton to learn about the NBA game. Look at this:
Player X: 16.8 PPG/4 APG/4.4 RPG/57 Games Played
Player Y: 19 PPG/6.5 APG/3 RPG/82 Games Played
Both were Blazers players and both 22 year old rookies who had four-years of college ball and were drafted with the 6th pick of the draft. The first one is Brandon Roy, the second is Damian Lillard.
Dame is closer to his ceiling than most 2nd year players, but there is absolutely room to become an elite player. A less injury-prone Steph Curry is not too high of an expectation in my estimation.
Meyers Leonard - Meyers has one of the widest ranges on the team. He is a young man with the physical gifts, and even some skills, of an elite player. But sometimes he looks like he has the basketball IQ to play at 24. If you see the good 25%, it is easy to picture him playing for the Western Conference All-Star team. If you see the rest, it is easier to picture him playing for the Ghuodong (sic) Tigers.
But learn how to harness that size, athleticism, and soft touch... That would make an interesting player. Big men take longer to come along, and Meyers strikes me as a hard worker. If he can learn to be a rim protector/rebounder, he would be a great complement to Lillard-Aldridge.
Thomas Robinson - T-Rob is another player with a wide range. He is probably never going to be the All-Star expected coming in to the draft. But he is only a year removed from that, and wasn't put in the best positions to succeed.
While he still has the youth and physical tools to be a starting double-double guy in this league, I wouldn't even look for that. If nothing else, he is a really big dude who can rebound. To me, his upside is as a monster rebounder who can come in and play D, intimidate, stand up to the bullies of the league, and not suck at offense. Like a poor man's Buck Williams.
Dorell Wright - He is not a player with upside, but can play a large role. A few years ago, he was the top three-point shooter in the league. He is also a good defender and decent playmaker. He can be one of the better bench players.
CJ McCollum - 3J is still a blank slate as a rookie from a mid-major, so we can dream away. I am not looking for star status like some. But we can hope for a Jason Terry-like supersub (but one whom I don't want to punch in the face), who comes off the bench but has the capability to be the third best offensive player on a good team. Lillard-McCollum could be one of the best young duos on the offensive end.
Mo Williams - Obviously his peak has come and gone. But he still has something left, and can be a good placeholder/teacher for CJ. 6th man of the year contention is not out of the question.
End of the Bench
Joel Freeland and Victor Claver - Freeland was supposed to compete for the starting center spot but looked terrible. But he appeared to belong on a roster towards the end. He has NBA skills, if he can better adjust to the game. I am not looking for starting-level player, but he should be able to fight for rotational minutes and provide some post scoring, toughness, and a mid-range game.
Claver's good-looking jumper just needs to start actually being good and he'd already be a useful player. He's by no means a star, but certainly looks like he could be a legit rotational player.
Will Barton and Allen Crabbe - Barton really showed some flashes but mostly looked like he needed some more college experience. He has a high ceiling for a 2nd round pick if he can learn to utilize his team skills. He needs to add a shot and better utilize the capabilities to slash and play D that he has shown. They should have him lift with T-Rob and eat with Ray Felton.
It is hard to say what Crabbe could become because I know so little about him. Maybe the next Danny Green?
Earl Watson - Watson can avoid singlehandedly losing us games if he has to actually play.
There you have it. If some of these players reach their ceilings and things don't go right for some rivals, then Blazer fans can start believing again. If several of these players play well, that also opens the door for trades, as previous squads have done.
We're probably not going feel the sheer exhilaration that a small percentage of us were able to experience in '77 again anytime soon. But something bordering the excitement and hope that upstart teams of the past like the '90 or '99 campaigns caused? There is reason to look forward to the rest of the Aldridge-Lillard era.