New Team, New Dream
The Portland Trail Blazers announced their “New Team, New Dream” campaign this week, but with a number of players from last season’s squad back in action, it will be interesting to see which of the returning members will step up in 2013.
Following the disappointment that was the 2011-12 NBA season, there’s plenty of room to grow on such a young roster, and there are a few viable candidates for the team’s most improved player.
Nicolas Batum is the most obvious choice for the most improved player on the roster, as his newly signed contract has set him up to become the team’s No. 2 option behind All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
The question, of course, is, will he live up to such lofty expectations?
The 23-year-old from France has yet to prove he can be aggressive on a regular basis. His shot has been inconsistent, his rebounding has been absent at times and his overall demeanor isn’t always what you’d like it to be.
Then again, we’ve seen flashes of brilliance throughout his time in Portland, such as the record-breaking nine three-pointers he hit against the Denver Nuggets last season.
In a new offense that is based on running and shooting the three, Batum has a chance to excel, but where we really must see improvement for Batum to take the next step is on the defensive side of the ball. He has all the tools to become a great defensive player, but we’ve yet to truly see it at this point in his career.
That topic can still be debated to this day, but what goes without question is that Matthews has quietly been a decent filler in the hole that Brandon Roy left when he began missing time to injuries in 2011.
Matthews’ first season in Portland was better than his most recent, as his points fell more than two per game and his three-point shooting dropped off nearly 2.5 percent. That being said, his deep-range shot is still deadly at 39.3 percent for his career.
Defensively, Matthews is as intense as anybody on the team. His hands are quick, his stance is low and he can guard most perimeter players on a night-in, night-out basis. If Matthews is healthy in 2013, which he appears to be at this point, his numbers should jump back up, especially with a new point guard in place who will take away much of the attention out on the perimeter.
J.J. Hickson was claimed off of waivers by the Blazers last season, and what a pick-up he proved to be.
With the Trail Blazers, Hickson averaged 15.1 points and 8.3 rebounds on 54.3 percent shooting from the field—all drastic improvements from the numbers he posted with the Sacramento Kings earlier that year.
If Hickson can keep the momentum going, he has a chance to be an energy maker in Portland this year. Always willing to play on the run and soar above the rim, the 24-year-old can get the crowd excited, and that excitement could create for a serious home-court advantage late in the season.
The biggest problem here is that while Hickson is in the starting lineup, he’s playing the center position at just 6’9”, 242 pounds. The four-year player will be starting alongside LaMarcus Aldridge this season—the team’s No. 1 option—and he won’t be the go-to scorer like he was late last year.
Hickson will have to compete with Meyers Leonard throughout the year for that starting spot, but as someone vying for a contract in 2013, this could be his year to truly take his game up a notch.
So Who’s it Going to Be?
Coming off a season where Wesley Matthews experienced a bit of a statistical drop-off, the starting shooting guard in Portland has the best chance of turning his year around. He may be a bit of a sleeper for this honor, but the effort he displays game in and game out—and in the offseason—makes him the favorite if he remains healthy.
His motor is as strong as it gets, which is something Batum will never likely claim, and his physique is perfect for his position, which is what may hold Hickson back at this point.
Matthews’ willingness to hit the floor running from day is just what a young team needs, and when his energy converts into production, it will be the boost he needs to make 2013 his best season yet.