With the 2013-14 season now in the rear-view mirror for the Portland Trail Blazers it's time to take stock before moving along to the business of summer. We'll look at the year in several different ways in the coming days, starting with this two-part look at the questions hovering over the team's head last October and how they were answered.
7 Questions, 7 Responses: An Assessment of the Trail Blazers 2013-14 Season
1. Would the Blazers Make the Playoffs?
Pre-season bets had the Trail Blazers improving enough to fight for a lower playoff seed in the packed Western Conference. Achieving the 7th or 8th seed and crashing the post-season party over the likes of Dallas, Minnesota, and the Lakers was the primary goal of the 2013-14 campaign. With a bracket position that low, a first-round win remained outside expectations. The bar was set firmly between the 8th and 9th positions in the conference. Portland's task: clear it.
A 31-9 start blew those expectations out of the water before the month of January had passed. Caveats abounded. The record got inflated by weaker Eastern Conference opponents. Western Conference rivals in the same general bracket vicinity experienced injuries, boosting Portland's position relative to the pack. The gap between haves and have-nots became wide enough to justify an Occupy NBA Headquarters movement. Those factors would explain why 9 teams in the West would finish with 48 wins or better, a full 7 reaching the 50-win plateau. They wouldn't explain Portland holding the best record in the conference mid-January nor the Blazers finishing with the 5th seed instead of the bottom two. Those achievements were all Blazers. Health, drive, chemistry, game plan, and the ability to rebound from adversity became synonymous with the pinwheel logo as the season developed. Observers kept waiting for the team to fall off a cliff, looking for evidence that the cake was a lie. The Blazers bent against better competition, falling prey to their own lack of experience and depth, but they never broke. The cake took a beating, but it was still whole and presentable after the curtain came down on the 82nd game.
At that point the question was answered. Not only had the Blazers cleared the bar, they left room to spare. Nobody would have faulted them for bowing out of their first-round series against the mismatch-inducing Houston Rockets. Unfortunate playoff draw or not, this had been a good year.
But the Blazers weren't satisfied with good. They did not like the Rockets. They did not like the implication that they were the lesser team. And they did not intend to enter the playoffs without putting on a good show. Though every game was close, Portland prevailed in 6. The enduring memory of the entire season will be Damian Lillard's series-clinching three-pointer over Chandler Parsons' shadow with less than a second left on the clock and Portland down two. That shot sent the city into delirium and cemented a new generation of Blazer fans, putting the stamp on Lillard's stardom and Portland's renewed affection for their club.
54 wins, the 5th seed, and the playoff berth were nice but all lay within the realm of expectations, albeit at the upper end of the bell curve. Playing the 89th game of the year in the second round put the Blazers off the right edge of the graph. Portland bowing abjectly to the San Antonnio Spurs changed little. The Blazers appeared to know that they were playing with house money in that matchup and their fans felt it too. Shrugs and enthusiasm trumped frustration at the 4-1 drubbing. The Blazers hadn't just shown they were good, they re-defined how good they could be.
Though no season ending with a loss can bring ultimate satisfaction, the Blazers navigated this year in grand enough fashion to warrant a mini-parade. Their success knew no practical bounds. 2013-14 ended up one of the great and most surprising seasons in franchise history.
2. Can LaMarcus Aldridge be a #1 option on a successful team?
Few doubted that LaMarcus Aldridge ranked among the best power forwards in the league at the outset of the season. But "among" usually left Aldridge mentioned third, if at all, in the triumvirate with Kevin Love and Blake Griffin. Even with Aldridge providing the foundation for the most prolific offense in the league and an astonishing record, analysts pointed to his shot selection and efficiency. The analysis was correct as far as it went. At the same time all four of Aldridge's teammates were well on their way to career years. Aldridge's ability to draw attention became the shaft around which Portland's wheeling offense rolled. The gaudy numbers of the Blazers supplanted Aldridge's own, testimony to his ability to anchor a winning team.
The first two games of the post-season paid off whatever doubts observers still had about Aldridge's offense individually. Twin 40-point games, one based inside and the other out, convinced even the most hardened skeptic. For a week, Aldridge was the #1 name in the NBA universe.
The tide flowed back out as the playoffs progressed. Damian Lillard's star rose in Game 6. Aldridge got stifled by the Spurs, reverting back far enough to draw comparisons to his early years rather than his latest triumphs. The high-water mark remains nevertheless. Unless Aldridge falls on his face in the next couple years, his ability to spearhead an offensive attack will not be questioned without tape of those masterful performances in Houston resurfacing. Few teams would be ashamed to end up with Aldridge as their first-round pick in any theoretical league redraft. Few commentators will forget to mention him along with Love and Griffin from this point forward.
3. Will LaMarcus Aldridge stay happy?
This question is too complex to answer. It depends on Aldridge's goals, his perceptions, the franchise's perception of him, and the passage of time. Today's rampant success becomes tomorrow's distant memory. Would a first-round exit next year bring the same, "Well done, we're going places!" reaction as it would have this season? When and how will contract decisions get made and on what basis?
It's safe to say, though, that Aldridge and the Blazers are in a happier space at the conclusion of 2013-14 than they were after a 33-win 2012-13 campaign. The team has chemistry. The team has tasted success. Aldridge's part in that success is undeniable. His national profile is higher now than it's ever been. Portland's incentive to extend him to a maximum deal could be at an all-time high as well.
Note that this could work against an immediate extension, though. If Aldridge wants every possible dollar he and the Blazers will have to wait until next summer to consummate a deal.
We'll talk more about finances in a later post. For now let impending details serve as a reminder of the intricacy involved in this situation even as the season's success assures that there's never been a better time for Aldridge in a Blazer uniform than he's having right now.
4. How much difference will Robin Lopez make?
Had Robin Lopez been a blind date in the Summer of 2013 he could have been described aptly as, you know, "A nice guy." He wasn't bad. He didn't live with his parents or come with a nasty crack habit. He drove a white sedan, occasionally cracked a funny joke, had nice eyes.
When Lopez and the Blazers got together, though? If it wasn't love at first sight at least there was a fair bit of, "Yowza!' followed by a semi-intrigued, "Hmmm..." Lopez produced a career year in offensive and total rebounds, both critical parts of Portland's scheme. His field goal percentage exceeded 55. His free-throw percentage hovered around 82. Lopez quickly became a dangerous man.
Lopez also set the tone on defense, patrolling the lane in an attempt to cover for teammates, ripping down boards from the grasp of opponents when the Blazers were only used to getting uncontested balls, and playing with a contrapuntal intensity alongside his more staid teammates. As the season unfolded it became apparent that every time Lopez left the floor, Portland's interior defense went kablooey. Once questioning how he'd fit, the Blazers couldn't live without him.
Nowhere was this more apparent than the series against the Rockets. Despite getting manhandled by the physically-dominant Dwight Howard, Lopez fought back with vigor, absorbing every blow and refusing to yield. The more-vocal Wesley Matthews often gets credit for motivating the team to feats beyond their usual capacity, but Matthews stands on the shoulders of Lopez. If Robin wasn't watching the middle, Matthews' words would get drown in a sea of opposing layups. Staring down Howard, providing the safety valve against the penetration of James Harden, and living to tell the tale was more than the Blazers could have expected of their new recruit at center.
Lopez didn't leave all his weaknesses behind, though. Throughout the season he was plagued by centers who could move around him, centers who could bull over him, and especially new-breed centers who could shoot a jump shot. If Lopez seemed super-heroic at times, he lost his powers when stepping beyond the lane. Just as the Houston series showed his inner strength, the Spurs series revealed his weakness outside. Lopez appeared to be playing in quicksand against San Antonio, unable to defend jump shooters, unable to help against screens, unable to retreat quickly enough to use his size and secure the rebound.
If the Blazers end up marrying this guy--and they well might--the relationship is not likely to remain monogamous. The defense will need more options than Lopez can provide on his own. But synergy, personality, size, and skill set will continue to recommend Lopez as a strong option for this team as constructed.
Next Up: The final three questions!
Want more season review right now? An interview with Chad Doing on Flight 750 can be found HERE.
--Dave firstname.lastname@example.org / @DaveDeckard