The 2013-14 Portland Trail Blazers regular season launches Wednesday night in Phoenix against the Suns, and instead of taking the conventional season-preview route, Blazer's Edge managing editor Dave Deckard and I picked each other's brains in a back-and-forth discussion covering all things Blazers.
We decided to split the question-and-answer session into two sections, with the second half coming tomorrow.
Here's the first part of our conversation previewing the upcoming Trail Blazers season. Enjoy!
Well Dave, it looks like it's finally Autumn in the Pacific Northwest; The leaves are turning brilliant shades of amber and gold, grocery store shelves are lined with pumpkin spice-everything and the patrons at the local watering hole have switched from light lagers and summer ales to whichever craft brewery boasts the hippest, hoppiest seasonal beer.
And oh yeah, I almost forgot...a little team you may have heard of called the PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS kicks off its season in mere days! Let's get right into it.
I think some Blazer's Edge readers have noticed that you seem a bit bearish on the Blazers this year. Some call it a pragmatic approach, while others might think it's a bit on the pessimistic side.
Have the Blazers shown you anything in preseason that has changed your stance at all? I've been encouraged by Robin Lopez's energy, Mo Williams' pure scoring potential and Damian Lillard's ability to get to the rim and finish in Brandon Roy-like fashion.
What say you, Mr. Deckard? Have you extracted any encouragement or newfound optimism from preseason ball, or do you still hate the Blazers' guts?
Ha ha ha! Et tu, Chris? There's a difference between being pragmatic and hating the Blazers. As I've said a few times before, who loves the team more...the guy who has to believe they're going to live up to his standard (playoffs, playoff run, whatever) in order to be engaged or the guy who is engaged even when he realizes the road ahead is long and steep? Also the "bearish" is only in relation to a certain set of expectations. If you look at the whole picture, I'm predicting the Blazers isn't really out of whack, nor much lower than average.
Short answer: no, I haven't seen anything to change my outlook on the season. This still looks like a 38-42 win team to me. The things you've mentioned are accurate. Double exclamation point on Lillard. He looks great already. But outside of him, every fresh plus carries a weakness. Mo Williams' scoring potential can keep your offense flowing or derail it; he'll shoot you in and out of games. Robin Lopez' spirit is willing but the flesh is sometimes weak and the burden on his shoulders this year will be huge. Over time those strengths and weaknesses are going to even out, leaving Portland somewhere near the middle in record and in the conference.
But hey, there's going to be plenty of new stuff to watch this year. Whose excitement do you think will sustain us through the season? Got any ideas about MVP's, inspirational players, pleasant surprises, or guys you fear might fall short?
Excitement? After last year's horrible bench performance, I'm beyond stoked just to have some talent in the second unit. Aside from that, I think Lillard's going to provide some solid entertainment all season-long. He's on every opposing team's scouting report now and won't be sneaking up on anybody, as there's now plenty of NBA game tape of him after he led the entire league in minutes played last season. Toward the end of the year, Lillard's efficiency dropped off slightly as defenses came at him pretty hard. Watching him split the double team and find the open man should be exciting, and that two-man pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop combination with LaMarcus Aldridge should have opposing coaches in fits trying to figure out a way to stop it.
Speaking of Aldridge, I'm gonna stick with the old standby and predict he'll be the team MVP at the end of the year. Here's the thing about him, and it's why I sometimes have to remind myself just how good he is: There are a lot of games where you can pay attention the whole time and by the end, think to yourself, "Gee, Aldridge sure seemed pretty quiet." Then you check the box score, and he had something like 22/11 with a couple assists, blocks and steals sprinkled in to go with 50-60 percent shooting. The guy is a threat to score from almost anywhere on the floor, and I think he is the biggest key to any success the Blazers hope to have this year. Adridge is definitely not underrated at this point, but he's one of the more understated stars in the NBA.
I'm hoping that one of the tertiary bench guys like Will Barton, Allen Crabbe or Victor Claver will be a pleasant surprise, but I'm not holding my breath for it. Each guy appears to have some blatant limitation holding him back from breaking out. Barton is just a bit too out of control to be counted on and Claver can't seem to get his shot to fall for whatever reason. Crabbe might be the guy to really keep an eye on. If he can convert on that outside shot as well as he did his first two years of college when he hit about 40 percent, he'll earn minutes in the backcourt rotation while C.J. McCollum rehabs.
Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard are probably going to let the most people down, but they're only going to be disappointing in relation to the expectations placed upon them. I think we've been spoiled a bit with guys like Roy, Lillard and to a certain extent, Aldridge. They all came into the league ready to contribute from the get-go, and that can lead to unrealistic expectations for lottery picks like Robinson and Leonard. If they both learn to play within the team defense and not be a detriment on that end of the floor, I'd consider that a solid year for both. Leonard's got that enticing offensive potential and Robinson has crazy rebounding ability, but to expect much else out of either guy -- 21 and 22 years old, respectively -- is setting yourself up to be bummed out. As long as they show some incremental improvement in their areas of weakness, their seasons can be considered successful.
The most inspiration comes not from an individual player, but from the entire bench. Won't it be nice to know that coach Terry Stotts can actually give his starters a breather without having to worry about giving up whatever ground they gained? I think we'll see the starters conserving less energy because they'll be comfortable heading to the bench and handing the keys over to Williams, Dorrell Wright, etc. The frontcourt depth is a bit worrisome due to the aforementioned limitations of Leonard and Robinson, but I think Stotts can be creative enough in his rotations to mask any glaring deficiencies.
Of course, there's almost always a quid pro quo, and the Blazers are no exception. What happens if there's a major injury to a key rotational player? Could the Blazers weather the storm if they lost one or more of their main contributors?
Short answer, no. This is one of the key aspects of depth that's not been talked about too much. It's almost not fair to compare people to Denver because they're one of the deepest teams around. (Not the best, but the deepest.) If you look at that rotation, they could get an injury to almost any of their top 10 players and weather it...maybe not a whole season but for a few weeks. Ty Lawson goes down? Andre Miller can take the helm. Are they that much worse off with Evan Fournier than Randy Foye? Kenneth Faried is a monster but J.J. Hickson started for Portland last season and could give them quality starts at power forward.
The only players the Blazers could afford to lose have last names like Robinson, Claver, Watson, and Freeland. If anybody else goes down, one of two things will happen. If it's a reserve player, the corresponding starter will be forced to play huge minutes for the team to stay competitive. If it's a starter, God help us all.
The more interesting question--one you've brought up before--is the psychological make-up of the team. Let's assume about average injuries...nothing derailing the train majorly. This team could still go on some nice winning streaks and some horrid losing streaks. How well do they ride those out? The past few seasons can be described as, "Play hard, build momentum, watch it fall, then succumb." That's not exactly eye of the tiger material. I assume the team will gel over some nice victories, but what happens if they lose 9 out of 10 at some point. Does anybody turn them around or do we get, "It figures" and every man for himself?
I think it's a lot less likely that this year's team gets into a funk the way they have in recent years. There's just more overall talent, and there seems to be -- for lack of a better term -- good chemistry between the players. So far, it looks like the Blazers are responding well to Stotts' game plan and everyone in the main rotation seems to have a well-defined role.
But if Portland does see things go awry at some point and has a poor stretch where they lose a bunch of games, I think they have the leadership in place to pull themselves up off the mat and do what it takes to right the ship. Players like Wesley Matthews, Aldridge and Lillard will keep teammates accountable. Each one of those guys is a professional on and off the court, and they'll likely set the tone in practice and in games and expect full effort from everyone on the roster at all times.
I don't think the season would tailspin like it did the last couple years when the team faced adversity. Two seasons ago, you had Felton, Crawford and Wallace playing for contracts and auditioning for the next season. In 2012-13, it was clear that the message from upstairs was to let the starters rest more once the playoffs became unrealistic, and thus you saw Matthews, Batum and Aldridge shut it down, more or less, and the team ended on a 13-game losing streak.
Even if the playoffs are out of sight two-thirds of the way through this season and Stotts limits the minutes of his key players, it shouldn't end with so many losses. We're not talking about Luke Babbitt and Nolan Smith, here. This year's roster has better talent from top-to-bottom and the leadership in place to most likely prevent disaster. In the event that it's unpreventable, they should be able to handle adversity more gracefully.
While we're on the topic of late-season play, what if the Blazers were in contention for one of those last few spots in the West when April rolls around? I mean, it could happen.
Which of the West's top teams would be Portland's best matchup? Who gives the Blazers the best shot at winning? More importantly, if the entire Portland roster grew out "playoff beards" as a sign of team unity like hockey players or the current Boston Red Sox, would you participate as a fan? Who on the team would have the best and worst facial hair? Freeland has that perpetual five o'clock shadow, making him a good sleeper pick for best beard, but my money's on either Aldridge or Robinson to be the most grizzly Blazers.
Probably San Antonio, just because of the age factor. The Spurs can be vulnerable if you outhustle and outmuscle them, plus spreading the floor would make them more vulnerable. But it's nearly impossible to tell for sure until we see everybody play.
I don't think anybody on this team is going to threaten James Harden, but I'd bet Meyers Leonard would rock an ugly beard.
But as long as we're on odd questions, how about the Chalupa-McMuffin crisis? How much of a factor will it be and how long do you expect the McDonald's promotion to last before they figure out they've McLaid a McEgg?
Haha, I'm glad you brought that up because I am astonished by the amount of run this story is getting! I don't eat much McDonald's, but heck, I'll take a free coupon for doing nothing other than buying a game ticket. Why not? If I don't want it, I'll recycle the coupon or hand it over to someone who might get more use out of it. Granted, I'd take a chalupa any day of the week over anything at McDonald's, but who really cares? It's just a goofy novelty that fires up whatever portion of the crowd is into it. Don't like it? Don't grab your coupon on the way out! Pretty simple, in my opinion.
And on that note, yes, we'd all love something free at BurgerVille, McMenamin's or whatever other local establishment you want to substitute for McDonald's. Think about this, though, seriously: You're Chris McGowan, and you can choose between free McMuffins from McDonald's or a free burger at Burgerville for the fans...do you really think he was like, "Hahahahahahahah! All these fans want a local treat, but THEY'RE ALL GETTING MCMUFFINS INSTEAD! MUAAHAHAHAHAHAHA!"
It takes two to tango, and maybe McDonald's was the only legitimate offer on the table. It's either that, or...nothing? So I guess to answer your question, I think there's going to be a vocal minority up in arms over it -- there always is -- but fans will learn to either accept it or not. They're not force-feeding anyone McMuffins here.
Now, I won't be the guy screaming "MICKEY-DEE'S" every time the Blazers approach 100, but if someone wants to, that's their prerogative. Live and let live, I say, and that applies even to fans screaming their lungs out for a chance at a free breakfast item valued at under $2.
Anyway, I don't think a silly promotion will affect the play on the court or mess with the identity of the team, which is...well....I'm not quite sure what the overall identity of this team is, to be honest. How will these Blazers earn their stripes and how do you think they'll be remembered in the future? Portland has had several "eras," but right now, are they in a transitional phase? What kind of identity do you suspect Stotts will imprint the Blazers with this year, if any?
That's a brilliant question. I'm curious to hear your take on this too. You've actually brought up two things that should be congruent but may not end up being so.
Terry Stotts' imprint on this team is pretty clear when you look at the style of play. It's no-nonsense, non-flashy team basketball, focusing on offense. Three-point shooting, motion, sharing the ball, finding each player's strengths even if that means doing a few non-traditional things. Stotts' personality mirrors this: straightforward, not seeking the limelight or grandstanding at the expense of others, giving credit to players and fellow coaches. He's pretty much the coach you want your kid growing up to play for. Absent other factors, those would be the defining characteristics of this era. It's a clear break with the Nate McMillan style of game plan, not necessarily better or worse but distinct.
But Terry Stotts can only control certain things. He doesn't get the players. He doesn't make the headlines. He's not LaMarcus Aldridge nor is he Neil Olshey. Though Stotts has put his imprint on this team, those other two will (for better or worse) define the era for the history books. In some ways that's unfortunate, but that doesn't change it. I think you're correct that the Blazers are in a transitional phase. If they can pull off one of the longshot moves that everybody's hoping for it could become known as the beginning of the new rise. More likely it'll be the era of broken promises. We'll have to see how it plays out.
That's it for part one of our conversation, so make sure and check back tomorrow for the second half. Dave will be chatting live on Tuesday night starting at 8:00 p.m. Pacific. Come and discuss the pre-season, the year ahead, and everything Blazers as we get set for the season opener on Wednesday!
-- Chris Lucia | Twitter