Dave and I kicked off the Blazers season preview last night with the first half of our conversation. If you missed that, check it out here. The first question on this part is a slight overlap from the end of the first piece.
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.
I think you nailed it about Stotts, and he's been great thus far. Admittedly, when his name was first brought up in the coaching search, I thought, "Who's this re-tread from Milwaukee?" But then he brought that motion-based, floor spreading offense that the players really seem to have bought into, and it's because he's not forcing square pegs in round holes; if Aldridge feels more comfortable jump shooting, he's got that freedom, for example.
And not to gush about Stotts too much, but he just seems like such a good dude, ya know? Hearing his interviews and interactions with the media and fans is always fun because he's straightforward but lighthearted, something Sarge may have been a bit too robotic for at times.
I think the Blazers might be in a transitional phase, but they also could be at the ground-level of the Aldridge-Lillard-[insert third star here] era. I mean, Aldridge is only 28 years old. The rest of the core as currently assembled is somewhere between Lillard's and Aldridge's ages. Are you of the belief that Aldridge's game will stay solid well into his 30s? I think he has at least one more contract left of All-Star-level play after his current one expires.
Am I delusional to think it's not impossible to build around both Lillard and Aldridge, regardless of the -- overstated, in my opinion -- gap in their ages? Tell me I'm not crazy for thinking this, Dave!
Aldridge will play solidly until the day he retires. His game isn't going to be predicated on youthful bounciness. He reminds me a little of Rasheed Wallace that way...though Rasheed did more things well than LaMarcus does. Then again, LaMarcus is a more consistent scorer. Still, it's the same idea. You might see production flag a little with age but the core competence and value will remain.
You're not crazy for thinking that a Lillard-Aldridge-? core could work, at least not in the abstract. That would be the preferred way to go and the way that Neil Olshey now seems to be promising as the Next Big Plan. In practice--as has been the case throughout Olshey's tenure--the devil is in the details. Every team would love to add that "?" extra star. Who is he and how do you get him? This is where the plan falls apart. The Blazers have tried twice now. One summer they chased Roy Hibbert without success, leaving them nursing the worst bench in basketball. The next summer they went after the more modest target of Tiago Splitter (again missing) and then made do with short-term contracts...and this in a summer where convincing Aldridge about the viability of the him-Lillard-? plan seemed to be a priority. Two swings have either whiffed or produced foul balls. The last pitch is coming. Promises won't do it. If we see strike three can you really blame Aldridge for heading to another dugout?
But hey, if we're talking stars...what do you think the chances are that either Aldridge, Lillard, or both make the All-Star team this year? That would be happy time for Portland.
The Blazers will be represented at All-Star weekend one way or another in 2014. Aldridge has been voted in by the coaches for two straight seasons, but the list of All-Star worthy forwards out West is loaded: David Lee, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Zach Randolph, Dirk Nowitzki...and those are just the power forwards! If he plays at his normal level, though, he'll definitely be in the mix again.
Damian Lillard, on the other hand, would have to climb over so many perennial All-Star guards out West that I think he'd get squeezed out just on a seniority basis. No worries, he should have plenty of years ahead of him to reach that level of popularity and ability. He also has an NBA Skills championship to defend, and he'll probably start in the Rookie-Sophomore game.
Now here are a few wildcards: What if Nic Batum is shooting over 40 percent on threes leading up to the All-Star break...the NBA loves promoting its international stars, and Batum is one of the most popular French players in the league. He's young enough for Commissioner David Stern to consider him worthy of promotion and would have a legitimate shot at winning if he caught fire.
Thomas Robinson is the Blazers' best candidate for the Dunk Contest, unless you want to make the argument for Batum or Barton. Robinson is young, has a well-documented and inspiring story leading up to his time in Portland and might already be in New Orleans for All-Star weekend playing alongside Lillard in the Rookie-Sophomore game. He's definitely a long shot, but if he got the opportunity, he definitely has the athleticism necessary to compete.
I'm kind of a sucker for the All-Star festivities, and I think the NBA serves its fans better than any other professional sport, bar none, when it comes to the these kinds of shows. Ultimately, it's pretty over-produced now and heavier on whatever fashions the shoe companies and their corresponding superstar endorsers are promoting -- when did socks become such a fashion statement, anyway?! -- but as a fan, your heart still swells with pride when you see your guy representing Portland on the national stage, doesn't it?
And you know, now that I think about it, Russell Westbrook and Kobe Bryant are coming off pretty serious injuries, and they're two guys Lillard would have to leapfrog to be one of the top-five guards out West. It's not likely, but what would Lillard have to do this year to take the next step from Rookie of the Year to top-tier guard? He's got a lot of competition and some limitations of his own, but he seems to have the drive and determination. How steep do you think his ascension curve will be this season?
I don't think Lillard has to climb as much as adjust. More efficiency, more court savvy, getting used to taking a few more risks (and putting out a little more effort) on defense now that the Blazers have more ability on that end are the keys for him. He's already got the All-Star makeup in terms of personality and publicity. He just needs to refine his game. Kyrie Irving and Derrick Rose are better young point guards, but which conference do they play in? When you're talking young point guards in the West, Damian is going to be near the top of the conversation.
It gets more murky when you talk about actual stats, though. Lillard played six barge-loads of minutes last year. Those need to be cut. Hopefully his per-minute production will rise but how much his raw numbers increase will be a function of court time and role as much as talent. If he averages near the same per-game numbers the casual fan around the country will start losing interest in him even if he's a better player overall. Personally I couldn't care less what All-Star voters think of him or whether coaches think he's ready to supplant his veteran counterparts as long as he performs well for the team.
Lillard and Aldridge are relatively known quantities compared to the rest of the team. Everybody else is either new or up and down. Who do you forecast as the biggest pleasant surprise and the biggest bust of the season?
I try not to put very high expectations on very many guys anymore. You can only be burned by players like Sebastian Telfair, Martell Webster and Jerryd Bayless so many times before you have to be a bit cautious with your optimism. Those are just the draft picks. Growing up, I saw Shawn Kemp, Derek Anderson and Darius Miles come to the Blazers as promising free agents or trade pieces, only to end their time in Portland as contractual albatrosses.
That said, we've heard all summer about how determined Meyers Leonard is to improve his defense, rebounding and overall game. He's young and had bouts with immaturity at times in college and a bit into his rookie season, so we all know he has tons of room to grow, but I think I'd be disappointed if he went out there and still looked lost on defense and on the boards. I don't expect him to become Tyson Chandler ca. 2011 right away, but he needs to at least be more composed than last year.
On the pleasant side of things, I think I'd have to go with C.J. McCollum. He was drafted to a position of relative depth, has veterans firmly in place ahead of him (for now) and other young guys waiting in the wings (pun definitely intended) for playing time. Add the "meh" performance in Summer League and an injury that'll keep him out for a while, and I think he shows the most potential to surprise. If he cracks Stotts' main rotation by the end of the year, we'll know one of a few things: someone ahead of him is hurt or slumping, Olshey's gone into tank-mode or McCollum has simply pushed his way onto the court by exceeding the coaching staff's expectations in practice. He has some hurdles to leap in order to breakout, but it'd sure be impressive if he did, considering the circumstances.
I'm stoked to hear your take on this one...I think you've usually had pretty realistic expectations, but there's gotta be some guys on the roster who have the ability to surprise you one way or the other.
Serious rec for "contractual albatrosses". That is something you'd only hear on Blazer's Edge.
Can I answer biggest potential surprise and biggest potential bust with the same player? The guy with the most distance between ceiling and busting out is Thomas Robinson. I'll be satisfied if he shows gradual development in limited minutes...rebounding while showing he can do anything else at all consistently. But some folks are expecting the moon of him and others think he's a dud already. Either could be right.
I suspect McCollum's going to need another year to bake before his gooey middle evens out. I could see Allen Crabbe being a pleasant surprise because his expectations were frankly pretty low after Summer League. Will Barton could also go on that potential upward list. And I'd say Meyers Leonard will either be what people expect (a little lost, some nice offense) or surprise them with more, so he has nowhere to go but up. Right now I'm going to guess Crabbe among those three, but that's just a guess.
Guys with potential to disappoint...hmmm. Everybody's going to expect me to say Robin Lopez. Frankly if this were the beginning of the summer I'd do just that, but it seems like expectations for him have normalized since July. What you see is what you get with Robin. Another popular candidate would be Nicolas Batum but here again I think we've become used to his semi-inconsistent style so that wouldn't really disappoint. This is certainly a "prove it" year for him but he'll either do so in grand style or stay about the same...no huge disappointment there.
No, I think if you're going to look at potential disappointments you might have to scan the veteran players. Mo Williams will do a lot of good for this team but he could also get annoying with his shoot-itis. We'll see how much of a difference he actually ends up making. I think he'll be to the good, but there's potential for him to not be as good as people hope. Defense could be a serious concern in that backcourt, taking away the bonus offense Williams brings. I wonder if Wesley Matthews could be hurt or could be looking over his shoulder at three young shooting guards (plus potentially Williams) behind him. I don't think Matthews will ever give less than 100% on the court but if he doesn't feel appreciated focus may be harder to come by. And oddly enough, I wonder if LaMarcus Aldridge might have a distracted season as well. He's been so very good for so very long that we take him for granted. It's not going to be pretty if his play slips at all.
I think no matter what happens with all the trade talk and scuttlebutt surrounding Aldridge, he'll come ready to play and deliver as consistently as he always has. In seven seasons, he's been a pretty solid professional -- at least from a public standpoint, the only means by which I have to judge him -- and I'd expect him to maintain that quality.
Aldridge won't attract the zoo that recent superstar free-agents-to-be like Dwight Howard and LeBron James had to deal with, so he's also got that going for him. I'd put my money on him going to work everyday and plowing his way through the season, regardless of whether or not he or his agent are maneuvering behind the scenes to get some sort of deal done.
Speaking of done deals (how's that for a segue!), let's wrap this conversation up and put a bow on it. How about we both give our thoughts on the upcoming Trail Blazers season in three definitive sentences. I'll go first:
Damian Lillard will adjust swimmingly to the uptick in attention he receives from opposing defenses, running the pick-and-pop with Aldridge efficiently while simultaneously playing improved defense himself. Aldridge may be on the outside looking in when it comes to All-Star accolades, but he'll still produce to the tune of about 20 points and 10 rebounds a game and will still have a Portland address by the end of the year. Matthews, Batum and the rest of the supporting cast will have productive seasons thanks to the Blazers' recent influx of talent, the double-teams that Aldridge and Lillard will command and we'll still be talking playoffs by April, though it'll be for one of the last few seeds.
Whew, that was a lot to condense into one paragraph! What's your final outlook?
This will be an interesting season because of the tightrope the team will walk on all levels. They'll integrate new players and a semi-new style on the court, deal with new expectations and distractions, and the front office will be doing a balancing act at the same time judging between now and the future. The only thing really guaranteed is that there will be some interesting stories coming out of the season either way...stories we all can look forward to no matter what the win-loss total reads. Let the season begin!
Thanks for checking out our 2013-14 Blazers season preview! Make sure and check back tomorrow for our first game preview of the season when Portland takes on the Phoenix Suns in the desert. And also remember, 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 tomorrow night.
-- Chris Lucia | Twitter