Every year, SB Nation asks its NBA writers to preview their respective teams in the month leading up to opening night. Blazer's Edge staff writer Chris Lucia tells us what to expect from the Portland Trail Blazers this season.
Portland Trail Blazers
Last Year's Record: 54-28
Key Losses: Mo Williams
Key Additions: Steve Blake, Chris Kaman
What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
Guard Mo Williams didn't pick up his 2014-15 player option with the Blazers and signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves instead. Portland general manager Neil Olshey then addressed two of the team's needs -- backup point guard and center -- by signing veterans Steve Blake and Chris Kaman to shore up the bench. Otherwise, it was a pretty quiet summer.
What are the team's biggest strengths?
The Blazers' offense really carried the team last year. Coach Terry Stotts employs a motion offense that values ball-movement and outside shooting. Point guard Damian Lillard, shooting guard Wesley Matthews and small forward Nic Batum are all good three-point shooters, and led the team to a 36.9 percent clip from deep on 25 three-point attempts per game.
Lillard and All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge create quite the pick-and-pop tandem; Lillard needs very little space to pull up from outside, and Aldridge's length and high-release are difficult for many big men to defend in the mid-range. The attention both players receive from opposing defenses allows catch-and-shoot guys like Matthews and Batum to fire off open three-pointers, courtesy of Stotts' philosophy of making the extra pass until the optimal shot is found.
When necessary, both Lillard and Aldridge can also create offense for the Blazers, and you saw that in the first round playoff victory against the Houston Rockets last year.
Defensively, Portland places extra emphasis on defending the three-point line, which the team did fairly successfully last year. The Blazers also rebound really well on the offensive side of the ball -- earning a decent amount of second-chance points in the process -- and value possessions, not turning the ball over often.
What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
Pick-and-roll defense needs to improve for the Blazers this year, particularly with Lillard. The talent, ability and desire are all there for the third-year guard to be serviceable when handling screens from opponents, and fans in Portland are generally optimistic that Lillard will put it together this year.
Center Robin Lopez is a good rim-protector, but loses effectiveness if dragged away from the middle. The help-side defense needs to respond quicker in these cases, and Stotts has put an emphasis on that early in training camp.
The Blazers have also had the least productive bench in the NBA the last two seasons, a massive weakness for a team that's been forced to rely on its starters heavily. Forward Thomas Robinson, guard CJ McCollum and wing Will Barton have a lot of pressure on them to improve Portland's reserve unit as the main holdovers from last year, but Blake and Kaman should also alleviate some of the bench's woes from the last couple seasons.
Lastly, though forcing turnovers was not a focus of the team last year -- the 2013-14 Blazers ranked dead-last in steals and blocks -- it'd be nice to see more transition scoring opportunities created on the defensive end.
What are the goals for this team?
The overall goal is to progress past the second round of the playoffs next spring and join the conversation as one of the NBA's elite teams. Focusing on and improving the team's weaknesses mentioned above -- pick-and-roll defense, help-side defense and bench production -- are smaller goals that should lead to more playoff success.
Individually, Lillard hopes to continue his ascension into the upper echelon of NBA point guards. Defending effectively against screens topped his to-do list this summer, while seeing an improved ability to finish in traffic would make his offensive game even more potent. To Lillard's credit, he did get better at scoring at the rim as last year progressed, and Blazers fans hope to see that carry over into this season.
Aldridge is a bona-fide All-NBA power forward, and his continued success is not only a goal, but pretty much an expectation at this point. Matthews and Batum shot 39.3 and 36.1 percent from deep last year, respectively, and maintaining or improving those numbers seems attainable for both.
Who will replace Mo Williams' production off the bench from last year as Portland's sixth man?
The popular answer among Blazers fans is McCollum, and for good reason; he's a great shooter, can create his own offense and has shown a willingness to set up teammates. Barton also has a chance to be a big-time contributor off the pine, but he'll need to demonstrate more controlled play as he was a bit erratic with the ball last year and looked for his own shot a little too often. Robinson also struggled to play within himself at times, so seeing the game slow down for him a bit this year would be nice -- not too much, though, as his athleticism, energy and effort are some of his most effective weapons.
Of course, Blake is also a good shooter who will find open teammates and Kaman can score in a number of ways. If both players can stay relatively healthy, they'll be paramount to Portland's bench improvement.
Perhaps one of the most overlooked pieces among Stotts' reserves is forward Dorell Wright. A few years ago, he led the entire league in three-pointers made. Last year, he had one of his worst seasons as a pro, struggling to get his offense going in limited minutes. If Wright can adjust to a bench role and rediscover his outside shot, the minutes at small forward behind Batum are his for the taking and the 11-year veteran could have a solid bounce-back season.