The 2012-13 Portland Trailblazers present a lot of intrigue going into this season. They have some promising young pieces, an All Star center in LaMarcus Aldridge and despite significant turnover in the front office and on the coaching staff over the last few seasons, the Blazers look to be on the up again. I know, I know Blazer fans, you’ve heard this schtick before when Brandon Roy was the savior of the franchise, but this time it’s different… I’ll give you a moment to groan.
A piece of advice to Portland fans, don’t be as gloomy as the Pacific Northwest weather, you really do have reason for optimism. If you live near Portland and have a pulse, you’ve surely already been exposed to the buzz surrounding electric rookie point guard; Damian Lillard. While his Rookie Of The Year campaign might fall short of the infinitely-hyped Anthony Davis, it is clear after Lillard’s 23-point, 11-assist evisceration of the Los Angeles Lakers coupled with the fact that he has had 20-point outings in each of his first 3 games indicates that Portland has a pretty special player on their hands.
With Lillard running the offense, the Blazers are 2-1 with their only loss coming to last seasons Western Conference champs, the Oklahoma City Thunder. The rookie will, of course, have his rookie moments. But unlike so many of the newbies coming into the NBA, Lillard played all four years in college and has a level of maturity that one might expect from a more experienced player.
The other key piece of the rookie puzzle for Portland is 7’1″ center Meyers Leonard from the University of Illinois. Leonard has had somewhat of a slow start to his NBA career, coming of the bench to spell the starter, offense-less J.J. Hickson (That was mean, I know, J.J. is in fact averaging 12 PPG so far this season). Leonard put up impressive numbers as a sophomore in Illinois orange and was taken with the 11th overall pick, but it seems that coach Terry Stotts doesn’t believe that he is ready for major minutes just yet.
The biggest problem for Leonard at the moment is the foul trouble. He averages 2.3 fouls in just 18 minutes per game so far, and that number has to come down if he wants to stay on the court. That being said, Leonard is a quality rebounder and shot-blocker and could prove invaluable on the defensive end as the season wears on, particularly in protecting Aldridge as well as the rim.
That’s one thing that the Blazers will be able to hang their hat on this season; defense. With Leonard and Hickson willing to rebound and block shots inside they have a couple of lane-cloggers, but on the perimeter Portland have a pair of absolute hounds in Nicolas Batum and Wes Matthews. Batum, in particular, has already started to prove that he is well worth the 4 year, $46 million extension he was handed earlier this year with his excellent defense and improved scoring. Batum is averaging career highs in almost every meaningful statistic, and while we are only 3 games into the season, there is no denying his hot start.
Throw in his brilliant performance in the second half in the win over the Houston Rockets and it starts to look like general manager Neil Olshey was perfectly justified in giving him the big money. Equally important to the Blazers’ perimeter game is Matthews, who took on James Harden in said win over the Rockets, and held him to 24 points on 8-of-24 shooting while comitting 5 turnovers. That’s a staggering level of defense considering that Harden had been the hottest offensive player in the league going into that game.
Neither Batum nor Matthews is particularly efficient on offense, however, and that is where LaMarcus Aldridge enters the frame. Batum and Matthews are both shooting 40% or better from beyond the arc, but their overall shooting percentages aren’t great. Batum is under 40% and Matthews is hovering around 43%. Portland have a good offensive option in Lillard, but make no mistake, the guy in crunch time is still no. 12. His field goal percentages are down, but his scoring is up, his rebounding is up, and so are his assists.
Aldridge is showing right now that he is becoming a more complete player, and we can expect his field goal percentage to rise as he gets more comfortable with the new coaching staff and offense. Questions still remain about his long term future in Portland, but with a good young core and being the main guy on a team that could be contenders in a couple of seasons certainly gives Aldridge food for thought as he considers his career path. He is 27 so he feasibly still has the better part of a decade left in his career. He has time to wait on the likes of Lillard and Leonard to fully mature and turn Portland into the contenders I think they can be. Hopefully he realizes that because that team would be a lot of fun to watch. They already are.
Regardless of their All Star power forward, people thought this would be a year of rebuilding for the Blazers. But with the early successes of Damian Lillard coupled with improved play from their core guys, the Blazers appear much more than that. This team has enough talent to compete for a playoff spot and if their starters can stay consistent to how they’ve played to begin the season, they should be able to sneak in at one of the lower seeds. The biggest hinderance to the Blazers’ hopes this season is their bench play.
If they can get a decent level of production from the likes of Leonard, Sasha Pavlovic and Nolan Smith, then they should be able to provide enough spelling of the starters to prevent, or at least delay the inevitable wear and tear of the 82 game season. If their bench comes up short or injuries start to become an issue, it could be another trip to the lottery for Portland. Me? I’m an optimist. I think this team has a very good starting 4 1/2 (sorry J.J.) and the bench will have enough to keep them from playing outrageous minutes.
Season prediction – 44-38, Western Conference 7th seed and a competitive 1st round exit where Portland push the Lakers to 6, or even 7 games.