With the Portland Trail Blazers' 2013-14 season in the books, we're taking stock of everything that went right and wrong during the past year with an eye towards summer movement and improvement. We're starting with 7 crucial questions the Blazers faced last fall, seeing how--or whether--they were answered. The first installment covered making the playoffs, LaMarcus Aldridge's leadership and outlook, and Robin Lopez joining Portland's starting lineup. Today we cover three more questions addressed this season.
5. How will Damian Lillard develop? Can he build on his Rookie-of-the-Year season or did he plateau?
It's difficult to discuss Damian Lillard without breaking the analysis into two parts: his production and his image.
Lillard's production increase in 2013-14 wasn't dramatic as much as targeted. His points per game rose 1.7, assists dropped by 0.9, field goal percentage remained essentially unchanged.
Two areas jump off the screen. His three-point percentage rose from 37% to 39% and then some. Since 42.5% of his attempts came from distance, that increase paid big dividends. Free throws per game and per field goal attempt also rose. Those extra points boosted his per-game scoring from 19 to 20.7 even though he played fewer minutes and lofted roughly the same number of attempts per game.
Damian is nowhere near the league's elite players in efficiency. (Lillard's .568 true shooting percentage pales compared to Steph Curry's .610, for instance.) But he's trending upwards, making more of his minutes on the court than he did last season.
Lillard's turnovers fell this year and his defense, still an eyesore at times, at least registered as passable...sometimes.
These incremental improvements didn't suggest another gear as much as a guy figuring out his place on the floor. Portland's solid and near-continuous starting lineup may have contributed to Lillard's learning curve. We saw fewer "Crazy Dame" possessions with Lillard forced to create offense whole cloth.
With his award-winning rookie season now behind him, you'd have expected Lillard's star to dim on the national stage in 2013-14. Incredibly, he entered the national consciousness even more this year than he did last. Participating in every event during All-Star Weekend (including his first All-Star game) helped. An eight-figure Adidas contract and accompanying prime-time commercial didn't hurt. The shot that vanquished the Houston Rockets took all that kindling and set it aflame...hot enough to melt the pinwheel for a few days.
Lillard will still be trumped by Chris Paul in "best point guard" discussions nationwide. If you add "young" to the descriptor, though, Lillard, Curry, and Russell Westbrook will lead the list. Since nobody likes Westbrook at this point, you can pretty much place Dame and Steph at the top of the NBA hype heap. For a guy from Portland, that's an incredible achievement.
Even acknowledging that his reputation may outstrip his play at times, that plenty of teams can lay claim to fine young point guards, and that defense remains an issue, this season was a riotous success for Lillard. He's likely bought himself 2-3 years more development time before his place in the league is even questioned.
In the meantime he'll continue to generate more buzz than a bumblebee hive. On those nights when he throws a firecracker into the mix, watch out. The Blazers haven't seen a player capable of capturing the national consciousness like this since Clyde Drexler dunked in the NBA Finals.
6. What will we see out of Nicolas Batum?
The quick answer to this question: more of the same, with a couple asterisks.
Those still waiting for the break-out star season for Batum will need to wait another year. Batum's stats stayed mostly even, some declining modestly. Points and three-point percentage went down, but his three-point attempts also sunk.
Batum took, and made, more shots within 16 feet this year than he did last. His overall field goal percentage skyrocketed as a result (42.3% to 46.5%) and his true shooting percentage rose from .566 to .589...not easy when you're taking fewer threes and attempting fewer free throws.
The upward asterisks on Batum's numbers: his rebounds rose from 5.6 per game to 7.5, the biggest leap of his career. His defensive rebounding percentage hit a career-high as well.
Batum also got the call--repeatedly and religiously--to cover Lillard's assignment when Dame got in over his head. Thanks to the entire defense getting tighter, his contributions stood in starker relief, particularly in the fourth period when Portland's scheme consisted of:
1. Nic...go get 'em!
2. Everybody else, don't blow it!
Even if 2013-14 wasn't a revolutionary season for Batum, he performed more efficiently and the team made better use of him. That qualifies as a success, especially when that "better use" translated into 54 wins overall. As we said repeatedly during the year, Portland's goal isn't to make more of a star out of Batum, rather to build around him so his average nights still serve and his great nights make the team unstoppable.
7. Will the Bench Be Better?
This question merits the least resounding "Yes!" in the history of forever.
Mo Williams gave the Blazers one semi-reliable reserve this year. Last year they had zero. That's better.
The Blazers watched Thomas Robinson, Will Barton, and Joel Freeland make occasional contributions, progressing forward in their young NBA careers. Last year brought regression across the board as player after player proved he didn't belong in the league.
Dorrell Wright didn't win games for Portland, but at least he didn't lose them.
In short, the Blazers improved from one of the worst benches in history to one of the worst benches--if not the worst--in the league right now.
Technically that's forward motion. Practically speaking the reserves were still untrustworthy, unproductive, and a major worry in the middle sections of every half. Doubt and negative effect doubled in the post-season.
If the Blazers have crossed the threshold from playoff hopeful to playoff team, if the Blazers further want to advance from playoff team to playoff threat (let alone any kind of contender), the pressure will fall right here. Portland cannot proceed with a bench this bad. Health will not remain near-perfect forever. Teams will not take most of a season to figure out the cracks in Portland's armor that have no redress or hope of a patch. Playoff stars will not align to keep Portland's starters above the need for help.
That the technical answer to this question is, "Yes" means next to nothing. The Blazers have plenty of shoring up to do and only modest resources to employ to that end. How much the young bright spots can improve and what veterans the front office will bring in to supplement them remain the #1 and #2 questions of this off-season...the seed question for next year's crop of 7. A year from now we're either going to be feting a transformation similar to the one the starting lineup made last summer or we're going to be wondering how the team will ever get airborne with so much drag in the aft section.
Next: Where Portland's arc left them. How good is good?