(Sports Network) - If you take a look at the Pacific Northwest from space,
parts of the territory are unrecognizable except mountains and trees.
Gaze at the roster of the Portland Trail Blazers and the comparisons are quite
In what was an offseason of change for the Blazers, expectations will not be
at alpine heights for this year's version of the team. A new general manager,
head coach and a roster overhaul leaves many to wonder how successful Portland
can be in the 2012-13 campaign with some unfamiliar names, but things could
get better down the road.
Neil Olshey came over from the Los Angeles Clippers to run the Blazers' front
office and hopes to have the same type of success in his new digs much like he
experienced with the "other" team from Tinsel Town. The Clippers added some
key players and reached the postseason last season. It's unlikely Portland
will have such a quick turnaround being that LaMarcus Aldridge is the
cornerstone to a franchise lacking star power.
Aldridge is in the prime of his career at 27, while Wesley Matthews, 25, and
Nicolas Batum, 23, are the other seasoned veterans. Aldridge, who has emerged
as one of the top power forwards in the NBA and can test free agency after the
2014-15 season, underwent offseason hip surgery and made his first All-Star
team, averaging team highs of 21.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 36.3 minutes. His
2.4 assists per game were a career best.
But after Aldridge, the Blazers are left with questions.
Batum gave the front office a few headaches in the offseason after he was
signed to an offer sheet by the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Blazers gave in
and matched the offer sheet, keeping Batum in the fold for a reported $45
million over four years. Batum averaged 13.9 points and 4.6 rebounds -- both
career highs -- in 59 games last season, his fourth in the league.
Terry Stotts can rely on Aldridge, Batum and Matthews in his first season as
head coach. Stotts, who takes over for Nate McMillan, spent the past four
seasons as an assistant with the Dallas Mavericks, where he won a
championship, and brings a new offense to the Pacific Northwest. Aldridge
commented on the changes with the team.
"New pieces, new players, new locker room, new coach," Aldridge said.
Stotts should understand this season will be more of a learning curve and
expectations for a breakout performance are tremendously low. Things could
change for the better right away, however, and plucking a pair of first-round
draft picks may alter the course. Rookies Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard
should see action right away, with Lillard pegged as the starting point guard.
Lillard enjoyed a successful tenure at Weber State and has a plethora of
talent. If he can develop quickly, the Blazers will be that much better.
The Blazers no longer have Brandon Roy or Raymond Felton running the point,
which is why Lillard has big shoes to fill.
Speaking of big shoes, after failing to land center Roy Hibbert, the Blazers
selected Leonard out of Illinois. Big Ten basketball is no joke these days and
the 7-foot Leonard brings an edge to his new employer. After the Greg Oden
debacle, Portland hopes it hit a home run with Leonard at the five spot. J.J.
Hickson will most likely start at center until Leonard gets acclimated.
The Blazers should hover around the basement of the Northwest Division, a
group that includes Western Conference-champion Oklahoma City Thunder, the
Minnesota Timberwolves, Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets.
2011-12 Results: 28-38, fourth in Northwest
KEY ADDITIONS: Head coach Terry Stotts, PG Damian Lillard, F Jared Jeffries, G
Sasha Pavlovic, C Meyers Leonard, F Joel Freeland
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- Damian Lillard
SG- Wesley Matthews
SF- Nicolas Batum
PF- LaMarcus Aldridge
C- J.J. Hickson
KEY RESERVES: G Ronnie Price, F Jared Jeffries, G Sasha Pavlovic, G/F Will
Barton, G Nolan Smith, C Meyers Leonard, F Luke Babbitt
FRONTCOURT: Portland's production on both ends will come from Aldridge. The L-
Train is fully recovered from a hip aliment that sidelined him the last eight
games of the 2011-12 season. Aldridge, who was one of three players in the NBA
to average at least 21.7 points per game and shoot at least 50 percent from
the field, has great length down low and is a legitimate low post threat. He
can score from the outside, too.
Batum has to prove the money was worth it for the Blazers. Arguably the team's
top defensive player, Batum has versatility and is still developing his craft.
Can he perform well enough to make the All-Star team or be considered as
Defensive Player of the Year? That remains to be seen. He averaged career
highs in points (13.9), rebounds (4.6) and steals (0.97), and led the team in
blocks (1.02). Both Batum and Aldridge are pieces to build on for the future.
Leonard falls into that category as well. He had a strong Summer League and
needs to weed out fouls and inconsistent play. Length and quickness are just
two of Leonard's tools and he should prosper into a dominant player. Hickson
will be there to guide Leonard underneath and recorded averages of 15.1
points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 0.95 blocks in 19 games (10 starts) for
the Trail Blazers after being acquired as a free agent in March. Hickson was
re-signed in the offseason, so the Blazers like what they see in him.
BACKCOURT: Gone are Roy, Felton and Gerald Wallace. But in the fold is Rookie
of the Year candidate Lillard. The explosive point guard has turned heads this
offseason and has the Blazers feeling optimistic for the future. He still
needs time to grow, but Batum is one of the impressed veterans, saying Lillard
reminds him of Thunder All-Star guard and Olympic gold medalist Russell
Westbrook and Bulls stud Derrick Rose. Being compared to Westbrook and Rose is
a major compliment, and Lillard can't let that get to his head. Lillard had 14
points, seven assists and five rebounds in his preseason debut.
Lillard was a standout at Weber State and became the first player in Big Sky
Conference history to be named to an All-American team. He has a quick first
step and can be gone in a hiccup if defenders are caught sleeping. The Blazers
pushed all of their chips to middle of the table when they selected Lillard
with the No. 6 pick, who said he hopes he can be what is expected of him. Mind
you, Portland did that with Oden and look what happened.
Matthews is the third-most important piece to the puzzle behind Aldridge and
Batum, and is a rising shooting guard. He posted averages of 13.7 points, 3.4
rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.45 steals and 33.8 minutes in 66 games (53 starts) a
season ago and did not miss a game in the strike-shortened campaign. In fact,
the durable Matthews hasn't missed a game in two years. A reliable 3-point
shooter, Matthews made 129 from beyond the arc (38.3 percent).
BENCH: Reserves in the NBA are as important as the starters. If your bench is
brutal, then most likely so is your record. Yes, there are teams such as the
defending champion Miami Heat that can get away with having scrubs on the
pine, but not every team has three $100 million players in its starting
lineup. Portland is one of those teams. Guard Elliot Williams won't be around
this season and is out with a torn left Achilles. Swingman Sasha Pavlovic was
acquired in a three-team deal, while Leonard will learn the ropes as a
Veteran Jared Jeffries came over from the New York Knicks via the Felton deal
and didn't get much playing time with the talented Knicks. Jeffries' toughness
and 6-foot-11 frame will help inside and the Blazers need someone who can push
people around in the paint. Portland allowed 97.8 points per game in 2011-12
and averaged just 40.6 rebounds. Although he is good enough to start, Aldridge
and Batum are just better at their position. Jeffries will spell them all
season. Swingman Will Barton, guards Ronnie Price and Nolan Smith also
highlight the reserves.
COACHING: Stotts is an offensive-minded coach and must take the time to
develop better defensive habits. Teams were making almost 50 percent from the
floor a year ago and that needs to stop. He can rest his hat on Aldridge and
Batum and keep his fingers crossed that Lillard and Leonard turn out to be
wise draft choices. Stotts, who replaced McMillan and interim coach Kaleb
Canales, previously held head coaching posts in Milwaukee (2005-07) and
Atlanta (2002-04), compiling a combined 115-168 record.
"Terry is one of the elite offensive minds in the NBA, has extensive
experience with multiple organizations and was instrumental in the Dallas
Mavericks winning the 2011 NBA Championship," Olshey said after the hiring.
"He understands the vision for the future of the franchise, appreciates the
process involved and will create an environment on the court that will produce
OUTLOOK: The Blazers failed to make the playoffs for the first time since
2007-08 last season and had the second-worst road record in the Western
Conference, going 8-25 away from home. That needs to improve right away. It
may take some time with new faces in new places, but at least there's some
familiarity with Aldridge, Batum and Matthews. The Blazers are not expected to
win a lot of games, which is why they will most likely finish last in the
Northwest Division. However, there's plenty of potential for the future,
especially with another lottery pick headed Portland's way.
The Sports Network