Team Name: Portland Trail Blazers
Last Year's Record: 51-31
Key Losses: LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo, Steve Blake, Dorell Wright, Joel Freeland
Key Additions: Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, Al-Farouq Aminu, Gerald Henderson, Noah Vonleh, Maurice Harkless, Pat Connaughton
1. What significant moves were made during the offseason?
Jeez. What moves weren't? The Blazers saw their roster ripped apart by free agency this summer - 65 percent of last year's minutes were played by guys who are now gone. LaMarcus Aldridge is in San Antonio, Wesley Matthews is in Dallas and Robin Lopez is in New York, taking Arron Afflalo with him. Blazers GM Neil Olshey embraced the rebuild and dealt Nicolas Batum as well, getting a nice prospect back from Charlotte in Noah Vonleh.
To replace all of the departed veteran leaders, Olshey's plan was simple - he wanted to build around Damian Lillard with guys who are young, improving, affordable and happy to be in Portland. Hence Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis and Al-Farouq Aminu. The team may take a step back this season, but Olshey's got a nice group of players to build upon in the coming years.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
Aside from the obvious Lillard, who's arguably one of the five best offensive players in the league at the guard position right now, Portland's other strong suit is its versatile group of bigs. Meyers Leonard, a lottery pick in 2012 who's starting to come into his own, is probably the star of that group - he's a 50-40-90 shooter (51-42-94 last season, actually) who can stretch the floor on offense while also quietly providing some rim protection on the other end. He's the real deal. In adding Plumlee, the Blazers acquired a good athlete who's a skilled pick-and-roll finisher and respectable post defender. They've also got Davis, a conventional power forward who can score in bunches around the rim and haul in rebounds, and don't forget Chris Kaman, who's the age (and appearance) of a caveman but can still play a little bit as the team's fourth big. It's an interesting mix of bigs whose skills complement each other in curious ways.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
Inexperience is the one that jumps out at you first - coach Terry Stotts is sure to fork over big minutes this season to both Leonard and combo guard C.J. McCollum, who have both shown flashes in their careers but have yet to handle a serious workload. On down the depth chart, the song remains the same. Other than Kaman, no one on this roster has more than six years' NBA service time. Olshey knew he was getting a raw group of players when he put this roster together, so he's aware of what he's getting into, but still. It's going to be a bumpy ride forward.
The other big question about the Blazers concerns their wing play. Everyone has weaknesses - McCollum has yet to prove he can guard NBA wings, though he may not have to if he spends as much time at the point guard spot as off the ball. Aminu is the likely starting small forward, but he's a dreadful 3-point shooter. Harkless barely played last year in Orlando, so it's hard to say what he provides. It'll be interesting to see how Stotts finds 96 minutes' worth of quality wing play on this roster. Maybe Henderson steps up in a contract year.
4. What are the goals for this team?
Unlike the Blazers at this time last season, the 2015-16 team has no delusions of competing for a championship. But that doesn't mean this will be a lost year - no, rather, it will simply be a year of experimentation and talent development. Can Leonard shine as a legitimate stretch five in Stotts' system? Can Vonleh show more than he did as a rookie in Charlotte backing up Al Jefferson? Can McCollum go from "bench guy" to "second-leading scorer on an NBA team?" The Blazers have a lot of interesting questions to grapple with, and fortunately, they've got all season to grapple.
As for wins and losses, this team might mot be as bad as many of the pundits are predicting. Lillard, McCollum, Leonard and a deep supporting cast may well be enough to win over 30 games. This probably isn't a playoff team, but they are capable of playing competitive basketball well into the 2016 calendar year.
5. Who replaces the four departed stars in the starting lineup?
This one is interesting. Obviously Lillard retains his spot in the starting five, since he's the incumbent starting point guard and franchise player, but the other four spots are up for grabs. Who gets them?
It's a tough question because the talent levels are so balanced on this roster from two through 10, but here's an educated guess. First and foremost, Aminu is a likely starter at the small forward spot, by default if nothing else. He's not perfect, but he's the best option Portland has at the three-spot. That leaves a two-guard and a pair of bigs. At the two, the race is between McCollum and Henderson; while Henderson might be the more accomplished player at the NBA level, it probably makes more sense to lean on the younger McCollum, who's brimming with upside. The edge goes to the 24-year-old third-year guard out of Lehigh.
That leaves two bigs. You could make the argument that Davis and Plumlee are the two most skilled big men on the roster, as both have solid resumes as productive paint scorers and rebounders, but the two don't fit together ideally - they're both limited offensive players, lingering around the rim rather than flashing mid-range prowess, and using both at once would clog up the paint for the driving Lillard and McCollum. The better solution is probably to separate the two low-post guys and use one off the bench - that means pairing Plumlee with the stretchy Leonard in the starting five. This will do. You could do a lot worse than Davis, Kaman, Henderson and Harkless in your second unit.
6. What is this squad going to look like defensively?
Here's where it gets even tougher. The pairing of Lillard and McCollum is a tantalizing one, as Lillard is a multi-talented point guard who can take over the game in a variety of ways offensively and McCollum is dangerous next to him as a spot-up shooting threat. The problem is that that backcourt might be a nightmare defensively. Both have had trouble early in their careers with switching pick-and-rolls, which is obviously an issue for any pair of starting guards in the NBA in 2015.
The Blazers were 10th in the NBA in team defense last year, allowing just 103.7 points per 100 possessions, but that was back when they had the energy of Robin Lopez, the length of Nicolas Batum and the tireless effort of Wesley Matthews chasing opposing wing guys around screens. Without last year's stars, it's going to be tough. To boast even a competent defense this season, the Blazers will need a lot of things to fall right - they'll need Plumlee to emerge as a solid rim protector, Leonard to continue the progress he showed in brief flashes last year and the guards to make significant strides. It's asking a lot, but it's necessary if the Blazers want to compete on the defensive end this season.
7. How many years before the Blazers contend again?
Ultimately, this is the real question, isn't it? No one expects the Blazers to return this year as a legitimate threat in the West the way they were this past season. For the moment, their focus is on developing talent and keeping one eye on their long-term goals. If they can't be a playoff team now, they should instead aspire to be one in... two years? Three?
I'm going to be an optimist about this. While the Blazers don't look like a competitive squad on paper right now, they have a handful of players who are on the verge of being solid NBA starters - they just need the minutes to prove it. McCollum, Leonard and Plumlee all fall into this category. Maybe in their first year together as core players, they aren't ready to make that leap into playoff basketball, but they may surprise some people by 2017. This is a young, raw, unproven collection of talent in Rip City at the moment, but it may not be as far away from relevance as the average fan thinks. Slowly but surely, the Blazers are building something real.