Jerome Miron-US PRESSWIRE
The Blazers held a fire sale at the trade deadline, but kept some key pieces and added two promising rookies. Will the tailspin continue, or is it all up from here?
By all accounts, the Portland Trail Blazers did it right. Faced with a choice of a low playoff seed at best and an avenue toward retooling with draft picks, the Blazers chose the latter. But the question is just how long the inevitable slide in results will last ... and how deep it will take Portland's passionate fans.
FEATS OF STRENGTH
To be sure, Portland still has one of the best power forwards in the game: LaMarcus Aldridge. But we know from recent history -- the Minnesota Timberwolves, anyone? -- that having one superlative player doesn't prevent a team from being wholly mediocre. So to be better than moribund, Portland will need strong contributions from others. (Note that at their healthy best last season, Kevin Love's Minnesota was still just .500.)
The good news is that there are players in Portland who can help. Nicolas Batum is solid; a good defender, a floor-stretching shooter and a good passer. Wesley Matthews has also been good (though last season was rough in the shooting department). But most importantly, Damian Lillard looks like a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate. Lillard is a deft scorer who appears able to take over the offense for long stretches, taking pressure off of Aldridge and (hopefully) setting Batum, Matthews and others up for success. Having a good, solid point guard is crucial for iffy teams; look at the difference between the Blazers with Andre Miller and the Blazers with Raymond Felton. Look at the difference between the Timberwolves before, during and after Ricky Rubio.
AIRING OF GRIEVANCES
New coach Terry Stotts has options up front next to Aldridge. They aren't particularly good options, mind you. Meyers Leonard is a rookie, and it'll take him time to adjust to the NBA style, as it does for all centers. The other options are J.J. Hickson (ugh) and Joel Freeland. As I said, Stotts doesn't have particularly good options up front. That's going to be painful against quite a few West teams.
Also keep in mind that even though they didn't "tank" until March, Portland still ended up No. 11 in the West. The West is good. Denver and Utah made the playoffs last season and got better. The Warriors are, in theory at least, better. If Minnesota can find the source of the curse following the team, it will be better. Portland did not get better as compared to the beginning of last season.
Portland looks like one of those teams that can be competitive against anyone ... if things are clicking, the shots are dropping and the opposing offense has trouble shooting. Portland's defense is going to be mediocre, though, and the offense will top out at average (at best). That's not a recipe for good times.
Add some seasoning for Lillard and Leonard, maybe a breakout season for Luke Babbitt and another draft pick or acquisition, and the Blazers could be back in the playoff bracket in a couple years. But I think this team is maintaining low altitude for at least another season.
It will be miraculous if ...
Nicolas Batum fails to attempt the world's oddest defection ever when the Blazers visit Minnesota.
Elliot Williams' medical bill ends up smaller than his actual pay from the Blazers over his career.
Everyone agrees that LaMarcus Aldridge is totally fairly rated.
We get through the season without a nefarious Paul Allen/Vulcan plot.
"Gee, I wish we'd kept Raymond Felton around."
There are no Meyers Leonard cameos on Portlandia.
THE HUMAN FUND
Let's get sincere.
Team MVP: LaMarcus Aldridge
Team X-Factor: Damian Lillard
Team Finish: 5th in Northwest | 12th in West
Best Championship Hope: Best Team in the Pacific Northwest!
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.