Why I'm Optimistic About The Future Of The Portland Trail Blazers
So the Blazers aren’t the best team in the NBA. Currently sitting at 6 and 8, coming off an embarrassing loss against an inexperienced Pistons team, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people are starting to worry. Trade rumors are appearing in the newspapers and on the radio, and even the biggest homers are starting to question the team and their future. Well I’m not buying the pessimism. To go even further, I'm crazy optimistic about the future of this team. Not five years down the road, not three years down, I'm optimistic about the 2013-14 season, and I'm criminally insane optimistic about 2014-15.
Neil Olshey, the Blazers newly hired GM, turned a perennially mediocre Clippers team into a contender through smart drafting like nabbing Eric Bledsoe with the 18th pick, savvy trades (ever heard of a guy named Chris Paul?), and the ability to sell Free Agents like Caron Butler, Kenyon Martin, Reggie Evans, and Chauncey Billups on his vision. As I’ll discuss later, these are exactly the type of guys this Blazers squad currently lacks, and similarly the same type of players Olshey is likely to bring in next Summer.
Whereas most of the teams in the basement of the standings have a lot of young raw talent but very little in the way of established star power, I don’t see the Blazers on the same trajectory of gambling on the Lottery, waiting and hoping to score on a game changing franchise player. We already have a starting squad that can compete with anything the opposition throws on the floor, and in many cases come out on top. It's my belief that we actually have a hell of a core in place right now with Lillard, Batum & Aldridge. The problem for the Blazers is not one of quality, but rather that of quantity. We just don’t have the bench guys necessary to compete for 48 minutes on a nightly basis.?
Damian Lillard is playing historic basketball, and his rookie campaign has thus far placed him in conversation with names like Oscar Robertson, Isaiah Thomas, and Allen Iverson when based on his statistical output, while the eye test supports comparisons to Russell Westbrook or Derrick Rose. Averaging more than 6 assists a game, Damian has put to rest the “lacks court vision” knock that was so common around the draft. While he is marginally older than most rookie PGs, and that might lead one to conclude that Lillard has already approached his ceiling, the jump from Weber State to the NBA is likely much higher than from say, UCLA or Memphis. Additionally, the work ethic and endurance that he brings is exemplary, as can be seen in the “License to Lillard” web series. I very much believe that Damian will continue to expand his game, grow more comfortable with the NBA, and increase his output and efficiency over the next three or four years. As I’ve said since the Summer League, I expect Lillard to be an All-Star within his first three seasons.
When Nicolas Batum signed his arguably bloated contract over the Summer, many were quick to call it a mistake, arguing that Portland should have accepted Minnesota’s offered sign and trade built around Derrick Williams. Now of course, with Batum playing the best basketball of his career (discounting the last three games, as Nico was playing sick with the flu, being guarded by Kirelenko, G. Wallace, and Tayshaun Prince, three of the best defensive threes in the league), while Derrick Williams is struggling to get on the floor, having received 3 DNP - coach’s decisions within the last four games. Assuming Batum shakes his illness and gets back to his aggressive ways, a case could easily be made that this contract is actually a great bargain. Of course he needs to prove it over the course of multiple seasons, not multiple games, but I think he’ll make good. We’ve known all along that he had the talent and ability, but his will to dominate was questionable. In the majority of games this so far this season Nico shown the desire to be great, something that was noticeably lacking in previous years.
Aldridge is Aldridge, what more can be said than hasn’t already been said? He’s having a bit of a down year, due to a new offense which places him on the elbow, forcing him (allowing him?) to take a lot more long twos, and less of an emphasis on his post game. Fans and media are right to be concerned about his declining field goal percentage, but I’m not sure there isn’t more to this story. As it is a down year, in which we have very slim hopes of making the playoffs, perhaps Stotts and Olshey have decided not to utilize LMA in the post as much, saving his body for more meaningful battles. Aldridge is still recovering from offseason hip surgery, something that usually takes some time to shake the rust off of. He’s also dealing with back issues, likely due to the effects of heavy minutes. Additionally, with the rise of Nicolas and Damian, it’s advantageous to move LMA out of the paint, opening things up for our backcourt to cut to the rim. There’s definitely cause for concern, as LMA is arguably not playing at an All-Star level early in the season, but it’s not time to hit the panic button.
As you may have read, Dwight Jaynes thinks we should trade him now while we can still get the maximum value out of him. While I don’t necessarily disagree with the reasons behind these trades, I’m not convinced that equal value is out there right now. If we could get a trade like the one in which the Nuggets fleeced the Knicks out of a crowd of promising young players and picks in exchange for Carmelo Anthony, then you have to at least consider it, taking in to account the age and trajectory of the rest of the team. But if that trade isn’t out there, and my hunch is that it currently is not, you don’t make a trade just to make a trade. Unless you’re bringing back a surefire All-Star at a position of weakness, you stay the course. Trading away an All-Star big man, even in a down year, isn’t something you do just to cure an early season malaise. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and Aldridge is a pretty big bird.
Matthews is a glue guy who plays hard both ways every second he's on the floor, and his contract, which gets cheaper each year, is a great value for his production and leadership. He's generally assumed to be trade bait, but I think he's worth more to this team here than in trade, whether as a starter or providing scoring and lockdown defense as a 6th man. Trading away Matthews, the heart and fire of this Blazers team, would likely be a net loss when you consider his small contract, and the fact that he is worth far more to the Blazers than another team would be willing to give up for him. Unless it’s a part of a huge Chris-Paul-to-the-Clips type deal, you stay the course.
It’s easy to see that the biggest weakness for this team is at Center, and while Hickson is giving 110%, averaging a double double in points and rebound, his defense leaves much to be desired. Leonard is the center of the future, and while he is extremely raw and just as likely to lay an egg as he is to hold down the fort, he seems to be improving with every game. His weaknesses are primarily mental, learning where to be on defense, learning not to foul, keeping his attitude and focus locked in. Just 20 years old, Meyers will continue to improve for years to come, and he's already making a case for the starting center position. Until that time, Hickson is playing hard, and should either be reupped for a reasonable offer, or more likely traded at the deadline for whatever Olshey can get for him. His contract does give him the ability to veto any trade however, so some delicacy would be needed. There’s also a chance he sticks through the season and is then involved in some type of sign and trade.
Let's not forget that assuming we don't make the playoffs, we should have another decent (and possibly very good) lottery pick. It's said to be a weak year but even so there are sure to be gems hidden late in the first round. After last years draft, I have a lot of trust in Neil Olshey’s golden gut. I'm hoping we find a way to add another pick, but even with the one lottery pick we're likely to make, I have faith.
Although early returns from Joel Freeland have been less than stellar, we have to remember that the British big man is transitioning from a style of play (and officiating) that is quite different in many ways from the NBA. It’s arguably a bigger leap for big men than it is for guards, as a majority of the fouling happens down in the post. Watch Freeland you can see his frustration as he continually gets called for moves that would be run of the mill in Europe. It’s going to take some time, but Freeland is not just a bench warmer, this guy can play. He’s obviously in the midst of a terrible shooting slump, but as long as he continues to receive even minimum burn, he should break out of it. Making shots and getting more comfortable with the NBA style of play should boost his confidence and by next year he should be a dependable role player off the bench.
Assuming we see even modest growth from Barton (who played his best game yet Monday in Detroit) and Claver, that's already the makings of a decent team. Even now you can see our big three holding their own or better against the best players in the game, but seeing it slip away as our core guys run out of gas before the final buzzer. They just don’t have the ability to play 40 minutes a game, nor should we be asking them to. It’s no wonder they look tired and frustrated at the end of close games. The reason an NBA team is 15 players deep is precisely because you need more than just 5 great players to play 4 quarters of basketball. With a few key bench signings and a smart draft pick, you could put this team into contention. I think our best chance at a championship and the Olshey's true aim is 2014-15, but we could make a legitimate run next season. So yeah, that’s why I’m optimistic.
I now present to you my list of interesting RFAs and UFAs in 2013.
Restricted Free Agents
Unrestricted Free Agents
For more Blazers analysis and insight, tune in to Blazer's U, Wednesdays at Noon on KPSU.