The Portland Trail Blazers shot of the gates as one of the league’s most improved teams, before upsetting the Houston Rockets in spectacular fashion in the first round of the playoffs. However, the second round is as far as they got, as their lack of depth and subpar defending was exposed against San Antonio. Defensive improvements are a must in the offseason.
The Trail Blazers were one of the upstart teams at the beginning of the season, racing out to a 31-9 record by late-January.
However, as opponents began to stifle their high-powered offence and expose their lackadaisical defending, Portland went 23-19 the rest of the way, finished with a 54-28 record – still their best finish in half a decade – and entered the playoffs as the fifth seed in the Western Conference.
Although, missing out on home court advantage counted for little as the Blazers upset the Houston Rockets 4-2 in the first round, star point guard Damian Lillard nailing James Harden and Dwight Howard’s coffins shut with a buzzer-beating three in game six.
However, the championship-bound San Antonio Spurs proved to be much tougher opposition in round two, swiftly eliminating Portland in five games.
The Blazers were one of the league’s hottest offensive teams during the regular season, finishing fourth in points per game (106.7) and second in offensive rating (111.5), while playing the 12th fastest pace (94.9) in the league.
Portland’s high-powered offence was fuelled by the standout performance of their All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, but was also driven by head coach Terry Stotts’ high-volume shooting, fast-paced offence – the Blazers finished the season fifth in field goals attempts, third in makes, third in three-pointers attempted and fourth in makes.
However, they also gave up baskets at the other end at an alarming rate, finishing the season 22nd in points against per game (102.8) and 16th in defensive rating (107.4) – just ahead of the likes of the cellar-dwelling Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Overall, Portland gave up second most points per game of any playoff team and while that was not a problem against the equally defensively-challenged Rockets – the only playoff that gave up more points per game – it cost them the series against the well-rounded Spurs – San Antonio finished sixth in both points for (105.4) and a against (97.6) per game during the regular season and was first in point differential (+7.8).
Portland has the tools to be a better defensive team.
Nicola Batum (13.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists) has excellent length and lateral quickness, Wesley Matthews (16.4 points) is as hard-nosed of a wing player as they come in the league and Robin Lopez (11.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game [eighth in the league]) is a proven, if not elite interior defender.
However, the Blazers leaders need to step up on the defensive end.
Lillard is in just his second season and is still learning to play defence at the NBA level, while Aldridge has never been an intimidating rim protector, with a career average of only 1.0 blocks per game.
Most Valuable Player
It only seems right to mention both Lillard and Aldridge in this section.
The All-Star duo has evolved from exciting young prospects into an All-NBA pairing – both young Blazers were voted to the All-NBA Third Team this season.
Lillard burst onto the NBA scene last season, taking home Rookie of the Year honours. He took another step this season, making his first All-Star appearance, building on his reputation as a late-game assassin and finishing the year averaging 20.7 points (16th in the league) and 5.6 assists
The former Weber State product’s biggest strength is his ability to light up the scoreboard from downtown. In his rookie season, Lillard set a NBA record for three-pointers made by a rookie (185) and this season he added another 218 (third in the league), taking his two-season total to 403, shattering Klay Thompson’s old record for most made three-point field goals through a player’s first two seasons of 322.
In total, 42.5% of all of Lillard’s shot attempts came from beyond the arc.
However, he is still a dynamic scorer, heading to the line 5.2 times a night and knocking free throws down at 87.1% (eighth in the league).
Lillard is also cold-blooded with the game on the line, shooting a ridiculous 62.5% in overtimes this season.
While Lillard has shot into superstardom early in his career, his running mate Aldridge took a longer road to All-NBA status.
Since being selected with the second overall pick in 2006, LMA’s game has been slowly bubbling away, improving steadily each season and eventually reaching boiling point over the past three seasons – all All-Star seasons.
Aldridge’s eighth season in the league was by far his best, averaging a double-double for the first time in his career (10th overall for total dub-dubs) and becoming the Blazers unquestioned leader on the floor.
The former Texas Longhorn finished the season averaging 23.2 points (eighth in the league) and 11. Rebounds (seventh), with a Player Efficiency Rating of 21.8 (15th and ahead of the likes of frontcourt powerhouses Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard) for good measure.
Aldrige’s ability to finish inside (66.6% at the cup) and outside (43.5% from 16-feet to the three-point line) make him one of the toughest covers at the power forward position.
Just ask the Rockets, who LMA dropped 46 points and 18 rebounds on in game one of their first-round playoff series, before following it up with a 43-point and eight-rebound performance in game two, how hard it is to guard the lengthy Texan.
Yes, the NBA is a star-powered league and most teams will only go as far as their elite talent will take them.
However, every championship team needs depth. There is a reason why Robert Horry has seven rings and Allen Iverson has none.
The Blazers have an excellent starting five, but their second unit leaves much to be desired.
Of their five starters, four had to take on huge minutes during the regular season – Aldridge (36.2, 15th), Batum (36.0 minutes per game, 16th in the league), Lillard (35.8, 18th) and Matthews (2780 total minutes, 20th), while Lopez (31.7) was also heavily relied upon.
Meanwhile, first-year Blazer Mo Williams (9.7 points and 4.3 assists) was the only other player on the roster to play more than 15 minutes per night.
Dorell Wright (5.0 points and 34.2% 3FG) gave Portland another long-range threat and Thomas Robinson (4.8 points and 4.4 rebounds) provided some interior intensity in spurts, but the drop off from the starting five to the second unit was a worrisome factor all season.
Overall, the Blazers bench finished dead last in points, 25th in rebounds, 17th in assists and 29th in rebounds for second units in the league.
Depth is clearly an issue.
This offseason, Portland owe their first-round pick to Charlotte and second-round pick to Denver, so they wont be able to add any talent through the draft.
However, they do have a small amount of cap space to play with during free agency.
Lopez and little-used wing player Will Barton both have team options for the upcoming season, but even if they are both picked up, the Blazers will have roughly $6 million to spend according to next season’s projected salary cap.
Former Blazer Jermaine O’Neal, who Portland drafted 17th overall in 1996, is coming out of contract and proved he is still a capable defender with the Warriors this season.
O’Neal, or a similarly bargain-priced interior presence, is exactly what the Blazers need to sure up there front court and improve their defence.
Portland could also use an upgrade back-up for Batum and Matthews on the wing.
Shawn Marion and his two-way abilities would be an ideal fit, but he is likely out of the Blazers price range. A cheaper option like Thabo Sefolosha, Danny Granger, Al-Farouq Aminu or PJ Tucker (if they could afford him) would also improve Portland’s rotation.
The Blazers have plenty of talented building blocks and proved they can make some noise in the playoffs against a favourable matchup. Now they just need to add the depth to take their roster to the next level.
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