The Portland Trail Blazers entered the 2013-14 NBA season with modest hopes. “Expectations are the playoffs, and beyond,” head coach Terry Stotts said, according to The Oregonian’s Mike Tokito. And he was right.
Ignoring the fact that Stotts threw in “and beyond” for politically correct reasons, the lead man was accurate in his analysis of the team’s projection. This was a group that was supposed to fight for a spot in the postseason, earning the status as a “fringe” playoff team before the year even began.
As it turned out, Portland found a way to shock the Association. It went 24-5 to start the year, and it produced the league’s most potent offense throughout most of the season.
Now that we’ve seen how the narrative plays out, it’s time to look into the crystal ball. We know Portland couldn’t get past those pesky San Antonio Spurs in Round 2, but the question is: Will the Blazers improve entering next season, or did they over-achieve in their first year back to relevancy?
The best-case scenario for Portland is obvious. This is no longer a team that is satisfied with simply making the playoffs.
Portland is ready to compete for a title, and the ideal situation involves the Blazers not playing in Round 1 or 2 of the postseason, but making it all the way to June.
The question, of course, is: How do they get there?
In order to make this happen, a few key things must take place. First and foremost, the bench must improve. For the second season in a row, the Blazers were 30th in a league of 3o teams when it came to bench scoring. A lot of this has to do with the minutes the starters logged, but conversely, the reason the first five received so many minutes is because there’s virtually nobody on the pine you can trust to produce on a nightly basis.
Portland will be strapped for cash in the 2014 offseason, so barring a significant trade, or a significant signing using the mid-level exception, the team will have the same secondary unit.
While this doesn’t bode well for the Trail Blazers on the surface, the silver lining is that the team is young. Guys such as Earl Watson and Dorell Wright won’t get any better (Mo Williams is included, but his decision to opt out puts his status on the team in question), but the Thomas Robinsons and C.J. McCollums of the team provide a bright future.
Along with bench improvements, Damian Lillard must improve defensively. We’ve seen him be efficient in fast-break scenarios, but in half-court sets, he has shown a disappointing incapability when it comes to staying in front of his man and getting around screens.
Give Damian Lillard a purpose on defense, and this team will thrive in the coming season.
The worst-case scenario for Portland hinges from it not improving on the points above. If Lillard doesn’t improve defensively and the bench stays as anemic as it is, this team will be virtually where it is today.
That, however, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the Spurs — the team who knocked Portland out of the playoffs — are destined to age themselves out of contention eventually (contrary to recent anecdotal evidence).
What truly scares Portland is the thought of LaMarcus Aldridge leaving. It’s already been reported that he’s unlikely to sign an extension in 2014-15, and while he’s said he wants to return for the long haul, a chance to play for a true contender will be enticing for a guy at 30 years old.
The good news for Portland is that general manager Neil Olshey has brilliantly built the roster around LaMarcus Aldridge‘s eventual decision. The team may not have any cash to spend this summer, but that all changes the year the big man could potentially leave for greener pastures.
If Aldridge leaves, it’s going to be a rough time for Portland, as the identity of the team will undoubtedly shift. The problem, however, comes if Olshey can’t get anybody to replace him, meaning a significant step back assuming Thomas Robinson hasn’t formed into an All-Star.
The Blazers are not a top-tier destination for free agents. We’ve known this forever.
So while Portland can look ahead and see a solid future, it must come from within; not necessarily from big-time acquisitions.
To say that the Blazers have hit their high point would be unfair, as guys such as Lillard have room to improve. You have to ask yourself, though: How much can a starting lineup improve when it’s already being asked to carry so much of the load?
Portland’s playoff future has a lot to do with the bench; not to mention defense. This is a team that will compete for home-court advantage again in 2014-15, but to ask for a championship run that quickly would be unfair for a team that will look largely the same.
Expect the Blazers to be contenders again next season, but don’t target the Larry O’Brien Trophy just yet. Fans in Rip City have a tendency to expect greatness, and while there’s nothing wrong with aiming for the stars, 2015 will provide a much greater look at the future than 2014.