The Portland Trail Blazers won 33 games last season, but this year's Blazers' team is not that Blazers team. General manager Neil Olshey fortified the roster, modestly solidifying the Portland bench and adding a starting center through free agency, trades and the draft. The bottom fraction of the Western Conference playoff picture is out of focus, and the Blazers' core of Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge seem good enough to be, if nothing else, better than 33 wins.
Where coach Terry Stotts takes this roster, or where this roster takes Stotts, is unclear. But the parity among the middle and bottom of the Western Conference has to shake out somehow, and it could be the Blazers who find their way into the bottom of the Western Conference playoff bracket.
Damian Lillard - Lillard had an unforgettable rookie season, leading the league in minutes and averaging 19 points and 6.5 assists per game on the way to unanimously winning the Rookie of the Year award. Lillard has said he doesn't want to lead the league in minutes again next season, and the idea is that a better team around him would allow him a bit more rest and to be more effective in the minutes he plays. Bringing in Mo Williams and drafting C.J. McCollum should help with that. Lillard could also cut back on some of the things that kept him from being even better last season. His 6.1 3-point attempts per game were a few too many, even though he shot a respectable 38.6 percent. With better pieces around him, Lillard's work ethic should continue to push him toward being among the top point guards in the league. And he's a gentleman, too.
Wesley Matthews - Matthews arrived at the tail end of Brandon Roy's playing days in Portland, and he has made the most of the opportunity to start on the wing. He isn't as dynamic as Roy was in his best playing days, but there's quite a bit to be said about going from undrafted rookie and Summer League cast-off to having started 239 career games four years down the road. His 43.6 field-goal percent was best among the Blazers' backcourt last year, and that's despite taking almost two more 3-pointers per game than his career average. He's a steady backcourt scorer.
Nicolas Batum - Batum spent his first full season as a starter last year, and his 13.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per 36 minutes were right at about his career averages. Over the summer, Batum was a key player for France in its championship in the FIBA EuroBasket tournament. He excelled in the championship game over Lithuania, though he was a bit inconsistent in the tournament on the whole. Ben Golliver at Blazer's Edge summarized well Batum's dilemma at EuroBasket—inconsistency in both execution and approach to scoring—that also could be preventing him from making a step up in production for Portland:
LaMarcus Aldridge - Trade rumors have dogged Aldridge all summer, but the Blazers have no interest in moving their star yet. Still, Aldridge wants to play for a championship, and although the Blazers seem to have improved drastically over their 33-win team last year, they could still miss the playoffs. But for now, Aldridge is a Blazer, and he's still the star of this team despite Lillard's emergence. He continued to play well in 2012-13, averaging 21.1 points and a career-high 9.1 rebounds and qualifying for his second-straight All-Star team. Whether he sticks it out in Portland amid a promising rebuild or is shipped elsewhere, his value is clear. He can score in the post and stretch the floor with a jumper out near 20 feet, though he often plays like he prefers something closer to the latter than the former.
Robin Lopez - Lopez's 11.3 points and 5.6 rebounds per game last season with the New Orleans Pelicans were both career highs. It was also his first time over 20 minutes per game. Lopez landed in Portland as a pawn in the three-way deal that sent Tyreke Evans to New Orleans, and reaction to deal was fairly mixed, it being dismissed by some, including Dave at Blazer's Edge, as a discount move for a quick upgrade under the basket. But even if the move to insert Lopez as the team's starting center may not convince Aldridge of a long-term plan to keep the Blazers competitive enough to keep him around, or even if it doesn't provide Lillard a consistent scorer on the block to open the floor, Lopez will be serviceable for the price it took to get him.
Mo Williams - If Lillard wants his workload reduced ever so slightly in his second season, Williams was a perfect player to bring in. The former Utah Jazz starter waited until August to sign and he said he turned down opportunities to start to play for a "team on the rise" like Portland. Thumb injuries hindered his season last year, but he averaged nearly 13 points and over six assists in 46 games.
C.J. McCollum - McCollum is a combo guard who went to a mid-major school and was drafted in the lottery despite an injury late in his career, so the comparisons to Lillard are obvious. McCollum did everything at Lehigh, and it made sense that he did considering how far he flew over the rest of the Patriot League. The 2013 first-round pick will be used in Portland both as a backup to Lillard at the point and off the ball. His instincts as a scorer are evident, based on both his play in college and his 21 points per game in the Las Vegas Summer League. Unfortunately, he broke his foot in training camp, the same one that knocked him out of his senior season of college, and there is currently no timetable for his return.
Meyers Leonard - The Blazers' other 2012 lottery pick is the Robin Lopez backup plan. He played fine in a limited role as a rookie, averaging 5.5 points on 54-percent shooting. Leonard averaged 11.8 points and 7.0 rebounds in the Las Vegas Summer League this year, though he also picked up quite a few fouls. He's still 21, and he has plenty of time to develop without being thrown into the fire.
Thomas Robinson - Robinson was drafted last year by the Sacramento Kings, traded to the Houston Rockets in the middle of the season and then traded to the Blazers in the offseason. So, it was a weird rookie year. But Robinson could well exceed his asking price if a team commits to developing him, and the Blazers seem willing to do that.
Dorell Wright - Wright is going to come off the bench for Portland and shoot a bunch of threes, which is exactly the reason the Blazers signed him as a free agent in July. Last season for the Philadelphia 76ers, he averaged a career-high 7.3 3-point attempts per 36 minutes, making 37.4 percent.
Earl Watson - Watson will be veteran insurance that can handle the point when Lillard, Williams and even McCollum are looking for a spell. The veteran will be playing for his seventh different franchise in 14 seasons.
Allen Crabbe - Crabbe was drafted in the second round after emerging as the Pac-12 Player of the Year last season, but is performance in Las Vegas was mixed. Mike Prada ranked him as the 56th best of the 61 rookies to play in the Summer League, citing focus as an issue at times on the floor.
Victor Claver - Claver's first year in the NBA after coming over from his native Spain was so-so, as he averaged just over 16 minutes and just under four points per game. But he played reasonably well as Spain's starting power forward at EuroBasket this summer.
Will Barton - The second-year player from Memphis didn't play much as a rookie, but he can provide quick offense on drives to the basket off the bench. McCollum's injury may open up some playing time for the promising, if inconsistent, young player.
Joel Freeland - Freeland spent some time between Portland and the D-League in his first season stateside. In 51 appearances for the Blazers, he averaged 2.6 points and 2.3 rebounds per game.
Terry Stotts - The modest additions to the roster seem to fit right in to Stotts' style. Lopez isn't flashy, but he's a good defender and should do fine on the block. A lot of the Blazers' season will hinge on player development; Lillard's continued improvement, McCollum's first shot in the NBA, Robinson's third fresh start in a calendar year's time, etc. With a barren bench last season, Stotts was handcuffed in what he could do. This may be the most young talent he's coached in his career.