You could make a strong case that Portland Trail Blazers GM Neil Olshey had the best offseason in the NBA. Sure, the Rockets landed Dwight Howard and the Clippers kept Chris Paul while bolstering the supporting cast. But Olshey took a lottery team and plugged as many holes as you could find without losing anything of value. As the dust settles, the Blazers' offseason looks like an ambitious plan in which everything went right.
The core was maintained: All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge up front, Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard at the point and two above-average wings in Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews in between. Center has been an issue in Portland since Aldridge arrived; Robin Lopez might just be the perfect fit in that frontcourt, and he was quite nearly free. The team needed a backup ball-handler and more shooters. Olshey nabbed Mo Williams and Dorell Wright in free agency and drafted C.J. McCollum in the lottery.
I trust that Kevin Love has long been jealous of Aldridge, possibly simply because Love is from Oregon, and also because Aldridge has always had more help. Minnesota had an interesting offseason, too. But if I'm Love, I'm wondering why all of Minnesota's needs weren't addressed like this. And yes, I'd be jealous.
So now the Blazers just have to pull it off, and by it, I mean a playoff berth. Portland wasn't far off last season, in the mix until fairly late in the season. But the West is really tough, and it will continue to be so. The Blazers need to leap two teams just to get into the No. 9 slot and three to qualify for the playoffs. Have Olshey's moves made Portland better than three of the Mavericks, Jazz, Lakers and Nuggets? It's possible, especially considering the damage that Utah and L.A. took in the offseason, and that Dallas continues to rely on an older superstar and not a whole lot else. (Hello, Monta Ellis!) The Nuggets kept most of their talent, except star defender Andre Iguodala, but lost its coach and entire front office, so who knows what's next out there for Denver.
There are also challenges from behind, such as Love's Minnesota squad and the Pelicans, who had a nifty offseason, as well. A playoff berth is hardly a sure thing: The pieces need to mesh as intended, Terry Stotts needs to wring as much as he can out of his best players and lineups and Lillard has to maintain or improve on a fantastic premiere performance.
But most of all, Aldridge needs to cash in on the bolstered supporting cast. Despite being an All-Star, LMA had a down season in some ways. His shooting wasn't as good as it can be, and that's mostly because more shots were taken further from the basket. Some 28 percent of Aldridge's shots in 2011-12 came at the rim, where he shoots a very high (almost 70 percent) rate, according to Basketball-Reference.com. By contrast, only 21 percent of Aldridge's shots came at the rim in 2012-13. LMA is a deadly shooter on long twos at better than 40 percent, but even the best long-two shooters see their efficiency suffer when taking more shots out there and fewer at the rim. To give Portland the most bang, Aldridge needs to reverse that trend and use his length to score gobs in the paint.
If Portland doesn't improve heavily, Aldridge's contract status -- he'll be a free agent in 2015 -- will throw a big ol' question mark over Olshey's work, and the Blazers may feel compelled to trade him for a younger star who can grow with Lillard and McCollum. That could lead to a sale of Matthews and possibly Batum, as well. It's weird to consider such high stakes for a team that expects to be a lot better, but losing All-Stars in their primes via free agency is among the worst things a team can do these days.
So it is in Portland, where making this season count really matters in the grand scheme of building around Aldridge.
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