How Far Can They Go?
The 2014 NBA Finals are officially underway, and while Portland Trail Blazers fans can be proud of the work their team did in the postseason, it’s blatantly clear that the squad from Rip City is neither the Miami Heat nor the San Antonio Spurs.
After watching Portland fall in not-so-dramatic fashion to the Spurs in Round 2, it’s obvious that the Blazers have a few things to work on. No team across the Association is perfect, but Portland’s struggles are easy for any outsider to see.
For much of the 2013-14 season, Portland got away with playing subpar defense. Terry Stotts was able to scheme his way into improvement after the All-Star break, but that improvement is far more a testament to how bad it was to start than how much it actually improved.
Looking at Round 1 against the Rockets, it’s easy for Portland fans to remember winning the first two games en route to an eventual Damian Lillard walk-off three pointer with 0.9 seconds. The problem is, most people have forgotten — if they ever noticed — that Houston actually outscored Portland in the series.
That theme held true in the conference semis against the Spurs, except there weren’t any memorable moments that left fans feeling good at the end of the series.
Most people want to talk about post defense when it comes to the Blazers, and rightfully so. As well as Robin Lopez played throughout the year, the team finished just 28th in points per game allowed in the paint.
The bigger issue, however, is perimeter defense. When someone like Damian Lillard lets his man past him, the entire team is responsible for rotating. If the rotations don’t come quickly, Lopez is the last line of defense, and he’s the one who ultimately takes the blame for points scored at the rim.
The question here is obvious: How does Portland improve? You hate to say this team has no potential for defensive growth, but the truth is that nobody on this roster (with drastic room to develop) has the defensive ceiling necessary to make a big leap.
The bad news is that Portland doesn’t have a lot of money to spend. Even if Mo Williams opts out, the team has only two available roster spots, and more specifically, it only has the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions to throw at veterans.
The good news is that defensive-oriented players often cost less than big-time scorers. Portland can use one of its exceptions to bring in a defensive presence either in the paint or the perimeter, of course while continuing to develop guys like Meyers Leonard and CJ McCollum off the bench.
Speaking of the bench, this may be an even bigger problem than the defense.
Entering the 2013-14 campaign, Portland’s second unit was said to be vastly improved from the year before. The 2012-13 group featured players such as Nolan Smith, Luke Babbitt and Sasha Pavlovic, and it went down in history as one of the worst groups to come off the bench in both team and NBA history.
While “historically bad” may not be a fair statement about this past season’s group, “pretty darn bad” still fits the bill. The team was dead last in points, rebounds and three-point percentage; not to mention 28th in blocks, 29th in field-goal percentage, 30th in offensive efficiency and 30th in defensive efficiency.
On offense, nobody outside of Mo Williams could score with any consistency. Will Barton showed up when given the opportunity, and Thomas Robinson showed flashes of brilliance — or at least “really goodness.”
Defensively, Thomas Robinson was good for a highlight block now and again, but like the offensive end of the floor, nobody seemed to show up consistently.
So like the concern with defense, we ask ourselves: How can Portland improve?
Unlike defense, this is going to be a bigger concern that likely can’t be addressed in free agency. Portland has enough cash to sign a veteran to a minimum, and unless it gets a solid two-way player, scoring troubles could be on the horizon once again.
Luckily for Portland, it has a player in CJ McCollum who could surprise us all if healthy. It also has Meyers Leonard, who while he’s underachieved wants to be a relevant part of the future, and Dorell Wright who is supposed to be a three-point threat on any given night.
That said, banking on organic growth is risky for Portland. The bench struggled most of the season — including the playoffs — and finding another player to help out is the only guarantee we’ll see improvement in 2014-15.
How Far Can They Go?
Nicolas Batum has already stated that “top four” is the goal next season as it pertains to playoff positioning. The team wants home-court advantage in Round 1, and while it was able to get a series victory without it in 2014, Portland recognizes that the Western Conference is competitive, and that nothing is guaranteed.
If the Blazers can improve both their defense and their bench, the sky is the limit. Miami and San Antonio are currently doing battle in the Finals, and while Portland is at home, it has the star power and team chemistry to beat anybody in the NBA when all cylinders are clicking.
The bigger question is: Can they improve both their bench and their defense in just one offseason. That question won’t be answered until 2014-15, but if the answer is “yes,” you’re looking at a true title contender come this time next year.