State of Rip City: Portland Trail Blazers 2012/13 season preview

Rebound or Rebuild for PDX?

The 2011-12 Portland Trail Blazers saw their fair share of ups and downs, and in a lockout-shortened 66-game season, they could only muster 28 wins.

Needless to say, they experienced more downs than the aforementioned ups.

However, Portland went in to full-on rebuilding mode at the trade deadline by shipping off Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace, axing coach Nate McMillan and setting themselves up for a couple of lottery picks in the 2012 draft. So while regression wasn’t expected at the beginning of the season, it was welcomed by April.

The 28 wins were the lowest a Blazer team had won since the 2005 season (21 wins), and as a result, Portland missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season.

Much was left to be desired, and while change was on the horizon, many question marks surrounded the team and which direction Paul Allen and company would lead the Blazers.

Portland’s Busy Offseason

Damian Lillard Terry Stotts

Terry Stotts and Damian Lillard are two of the newest additions to the Trail Blazers family. Photo: Associated Press

After Allen put the team in the hands of Los Angeles Clippers GM Neil Olshey, and hired Dallas Mavericks assistant coach Terry Stotts to head coach, the Blazers‘ 2012-13 season started to take shape.

Portland added Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard through the draft, re-signed swing man Nic Batum, brought over Victor Claver and Joel Freeland from overseas and signed veteran point guard Ronnie Price in what was a very busy offseason for Olshey and his crew.

So now that the dust has settled on the offseason, will the changes be enough to make Portland relevant in the 2012-13 season? Let’s take a look.

Roster Breakdown and Projections

Portland returns just a handful of players from a season ago (LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, Nolan Smith, and Luke Babbitt), and the offseason changes should provide a new dynamic for this year’s squad.

Many teams in the NBA have begun shifting to a “small ball” approach when fielding a starting five, and Portland’s opening day lineup will be very similar to this philosophy. The starting lineup for the Halloween showdown against the Lakers should be very familiar to Blazer fans (aside from the addition of Damian Lillard).

*Here’s a look at each of the likely starters, along with my 2012-13 stat projections*

PG: Damian Lillard (14 points/gm., 7 assists/gm., 4 rebounds/gm.)

Lillard was essentially handed the keys to the offense upon being drafted last June, and figures to see the majority of the minutes at the point guard position. Portland’s success may very well be tied to the progression and maturation of Lillard as a competent point guard, a position the Blazers have so desperately needed to fill for some time now.

Comparisons to Derrick Rose and Chauncey Billups have been made, and Lillard’s arrival in Portland has been met with open arms and giddy anticipation. If Lillard can live up to the hype of his rookie season, he figures to be in the conversation for Rookie of the Year.

SG: Wesley Matthews (14 points/gm., 2 assists/gm., 3 rebounds/gm.)

Matthews burst on to the Blazer scene two years ago and justified the contract Portland extended to him. However, 2012 saw a bit of a step backward for the guard out of Marquette, as both his three-point percentage and field-goal percentage took a little bit of a dive.

Matthews won’t be expected to lead the Blazers in scoring this year, but the consistency from the 2011 season would be a welcomed sight.

SF: Nicolas Batum (16 points/gm., 3 assists/gm., 5 rebounds/gm.)

One of Olshey’s biggest moves this offseason was to retain Portland’s French swingman Batum. Batum’s interest in joining the Minnesota Timberwolves was no secret, but after Olshey stood his ground and brought Nic back, he embraced the return to Rip City.

Now that Portland is shelling out a 4-year, $46.12 million contract for the forward, he will be expected to shoulder more of a load moving forward. Nicolas Batum was a frustrating part of the Portland roster last year, and by season’s end, many fans were wanting Portland to end the Nic Batum experiment.

LaMarcus Aldridge Lakers

Aldridge is the one true playmaker night in and night out for the Blazers. Photo: Associated Press

Now that it’s back in full-force, the pressure to perform will be high, and Batum needs to prove he’s worth every bit of his big contract.

PF: LaMarcus Aldridge (22 points/gm., 2 assists/gm., 9 rebounds/gm.)

Aldridge, Portland’s one true playmaker night in and night out, is coming off an All-Star season and figures to repeat his 2012 success. For the last two years he’s been one of the best power forwards in the NBA, and is now seen as the bona fide leader of the Blazers.

Terry Stotts’ experience with Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki will no doubt benefit Aldridge’s game this year, and word is, Aldridge will open up his offense and include more outside jumpers (easily his forte).

Aldridge is in his prime, and he shows no signs of slowing down. Expect another huge year from L.A.

C: JJ Hickson (12 points/gm., 1 assist/gm., 8 rebounds/gm.)

J.J. Hickson won the starting center position in preseason, and coach Stotts has been more than confident that Portland’s waiver pick-up from a year ago will be a valuable asset to the Blazers.

At 6’9″, Hickson figures to be out-sized by most centers he’ll match up against across the league, but he’s displayed a knack for being active on both the defensive end and in rebounding.

Portland ranked just 25th last year in rebounds per game, so Hickson’s efforts on the glass will no doubt benefit the Blazers.

The Bench Players

After Portland trimmed the roster down to the required 15 players, the bench rotation started to become a little more clear. With Hickson getting the starting nod over rookie Meyers Leonard, the Blazers find themselves with a decent amount of size coming off the bench.

Leonard (7’1″), Joel Freeland (6’10”), and Jared Jeffries (6’11”) should all see a fair share of time this season, with Leonard and Freeland getting the bulk of the backup center/forward minutes.

Ronnie Price, one of Portland’s free-agent signings, should also see some run at both the point guard and shooting guard position off the bench, splitting time with Nolan Smith at either position.

Smith, Portland’s first round draft pick in 2011, has showed glimpses of solid play, but figures to be just a backup as he’s no real threat to take over the starting job given to Lillard.

Victor Claver, Sasha Pavlovic, Will Barton and Luke Babbitt all will see a handful of minutes here and there off the bench, but don’t provide enough of a punch to deserve a bigger role. Babbitt, who should be the eighth or ninth player off the bench, has shown his deadly three-point range in the past, but his prolonged bouts of cold shooting could drastically reduce his minutes as the season progresses.

Depth is always a question for any basketball team, and while Portland does have a few recognizable names in their second unit, it won’t be their strong suit in 2012-13.

Olshey has repeatedly said he is building for the future, and not looking to just win right now, so don’t expect Portland to be very active at the trade deadline if they aren’t contending in the standings.

Get used to the current roster as it sits today; these guys will be donning the black and red all season.

Season Prediction

The Western Conference is stacked this season, and teams like the Thunder will look to keep Portland out of the playoffs. Photo: Reuters

The West is packed. It always has been.

If Portland has any shot at earning one of the eight playoff spots, they have a lot of work ahead of them. Sadly, with the competition as stiff as it is, I just don’t see where they can get into the postseason.

In their division alone they face an uphill battle with Minnesota getting better in the offseason (even with Love and Rubio hurt), Denver added Andre Iguodala and should continue to play at the high level they were operating at last year and Oklahoma City is, well, led by Kevin Durant,so you know what you’re getting there.

And let’s not forget that San Antonio returns their solid core from last year, the Lakers added Steve Nash and Dwight Howard and the Clippers might very well be the deepest team in the league with the additions of Jamal Crawford, a healthy Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler—and another season of the Lob City duo, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul.

Again, the West is packed.

I predict the Blazers to finish the season 35-47, putting them at about 10th or 11th in the conference, missing the playoffs by two or three spots. Even though they’d be missing the playoffs, 35 wins is a step in the right direction for Portland, and such a young nucleus should set them up for success in the future.

Be Patient with Portland

It is widely known that this year will be a struggle for the Blazers as they will not only be grooming rookies into starters, but also as they search for their new identity under head coach Terry Stotts. Wins will be at a premium, but this team is headed in the right direction after a successful offseason.

No city—or fanbase—wants to see their team in rebuilding mode, but this process is necessary to ensure success down the road.

Portland will be spending the next few seasons seasoning their young talent and gearing up for the eventual playoff run, but patience will be required with this team.

The Blazers open up their 2012-13 campaign with a home game on Halloween night as the new-look Lakers come to the Rose Garden. Tip off is scheduled for 7:30 pm.


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About Rick Stella

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