Which Portland Trail Blazer Will See the Biggest Role Shift in 2014-15?

C.J. McCollum‘s NBA career didn’t get off to the start the Portland Trail Blazers were hoping for. A broken foot put a halt to his first season before it began, limiting the No. 10 pick to just 38 contests throughout his rookie campaign.

As a result, McCollum never fully got into the flow of the offense. By the time he returned, the team was already an impressive 26-9, making it difficult to throw him into an established rotation. 

In 2014-15, don’t expect the same narrative. In fact, as The Oregonian‘s Joe Freeman put it, “One thing has become clear to me this preseason regarding the second-year guard from Lehigh: He sure would make one heck of a sixth man.”

Giving McCollum sixth-man honors at this point may seem a bit premature, but it’s clear his role is about to increase. With health on his side and the “luxury” of being on an underachieving bench, the opportunity to succeed is far greater now than it was a year ago. 

So what can we expect from McCollum in his second season? Simply put: what we were hoping for in his first.

Entering the Association, McCollum drew natural comparisons to Damian Lillard. Like Lillard, the strengths revolved around scoring. The two thrived in college at putting the ball in the basket, and they both excelled from long range.

The concerns were also similar. Not only did both face criticism regarding their small-school backgrounds (more specifically: their inferior competition), but there was the question of whether they could become better distributors at the professional level.

At this juncture, it’s safe to say Lillard has proven doubters wrong despite needing to improve in a few key areas. McCollum, on the other hand, will use 2014-15 to begin doing just that.

Coming off a botched rookie year, half the battle is going to be mental. But that shouldn’t be a concern for the mature sophomore, who says he’s feeling “a lot more comfortable,” according to The Oregonian‘s Mike Richman

It comes from getting reps. It comes from having half a year under your belt and kind of getting more acquainted with the system, but I’m definitely getting more comfortable each night. I’m definitely confident because I’ve put so much time in, put so much work in and I feel like it’s going to all pay off.

The question here becomes: Where does McCollum fit into the rotation? If he’s going to earn sixth-man status, he’ll have to compete with a group of reserves all looking to improve.

On the current depth chart, courtesy of ESPN.com, McCollum is the third-string shooting guard behind Wesley Matthews and Will Barton. However, with Barton splitting time at the 2 and the 3 last year, the former Lehigh guard shouldn’t be concerned about getting run in the rotation.

Additionally, don’t count out the idea that McCollum will see minutes at the 1. Although Steve Blake will be a reliable shooter and playmaker, he’s the only floor general on the roster behind Lillard.

Blake, 34, has only played an average of 51 games the past three seasons. Assuming he requires rest at some point, McCollum will be right there to make up for the loss.

In fact, Blake himself has become a fan of the young guard’s game early in their time together. “He can do a little bit of everything,” Blake said in the Freeman story linked above. “He’s got a really nice shot from the outside, he’s athletic, he can get to the rim and finish and I think he’s starting to develop a nice passing game, which will help open him up some more.”

Without question, McCollum still has to prove his worth at the NBA level. Consistency on offense is going to be a theme to watch, as well as improvement on defense. However, the potential is there to be a big-time scorer on this prolific offense.

While we may not know exactly what the future holds for McCollum, we do know this: He’s about to get his first real opportunity to prove he’s capable of playing at a high level.

What he does with that opportunity is up to him, but it’s safe to say that 2014-15 will be his best shot so far at a true coming-out party.

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Portland Trail Blazers vs Los Angeles Clippers 10/24/14: Video Highlights, Recap

Two of the NBA‘s best, most exciting teams squared off on Friday night when the Portland Trail Blazers met the Los Angeles Clippers in a preseason clash. Led by Damian Lillard, the Blazers had one of the league’s best offenses last season. But the Chris Paul-led Clippers had the firepower to make this a very interesting matchup. 

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Portland Trail Blazers season preview: Player projections

This is the third and final installment of our Portland Trail Blazers season preview. In the first two articles we took a look at the Blazers’ general roster and their potential standing in the Western Conference. Now I will give an overview of each player that will potentially be in the starting five and some key reserve players that will have a big affect off the bench.
The potential starters
Damian Lillard: While many players struggle during their second season, Lillard found a way to thrive. He averaged 20. 7 points and 5.6 assists per game last season. He hit the game winning shot to put the Blazers past the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs last year. Even if  Lillard’s numbers stayed the same this year, he would still be looking at having another great season. However I do expect Lillard’s 2.4 turnovers per game to decrease to 1-1.5 turnovers per game. If he is maintaining more procession and getting the ball to teammates more often, then scorers like LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews

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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Denver Nuggets 10/21/14: Video Highlights and Recap

The Portland Trail Blazers looked to continue their strong preseason against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night. The Blazers’ explosive offense faced a tough test from the deep Nuggets roster, who were capable of matching Portland’s potent attack.

Watch the video for full highlights.

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Predicting the Good, the Bad and the Ugly for the 2014-15 Portland Trail Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers will look to build upon last year’s run to the second round of the postseason and compete deep into the Western Conference playoffs this season. Can Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge help the Blazers take the next step?

Jay Allen of Fox Sports Radio 620 joins Stephen Nelson to predict the good, the bad and the ugly for the upcoming season in Rip City in the video above.

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Maccabi Haifa vs. Portland Trail Blazers 10/17/14: Video Highlights and Recap

The Portland Trail Blazers looked to score a big preseason win on Friday against Israeli side Maccabi Haifa.

Portland’s explosive offense has looked good all preseason, but the Blazers faced a tough test from the Israeli powerhouse.

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Portland defeats visiting Maccabi Haifa 121-74 (Yahoo Sports)

PORTLAND, OR - OCTOBER 17: Robin Lopez #42 of the Portland Trail Blazers handles the ball against Maccabi Haifa on October 17, 2014 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Robin Lopez had 13 points and seven rebounds and the Portland Trail Blazers beat Maccabi Haifa of Israel 121-74 in an exhibition game Friday night.


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Who Will Emerge as the Portland Trail Blazers’ 6th Man?

After a year of sporting one of the league’s worst reserve units, the Portland Trail Blazers can look forward to an improved bench this season. There’s still room to grow in a few areas, but it’s clear players will have distinct roles rather than a slew of mismatched backups like last season.

As such, the team will need to find its sixth man to lead the reserves, acting as the first player off the bench to come in and make an impact. Let’s take a look at the possible candidates. 

 

Chris Kaman, C

Having signed their new backup center for a total of $4.8 million this season, per Basketball Insiders, you can bet the Blazers will want to see him earn every cent. 

Kaman will come into the season as Portland’s fifth-highest paid player, almost matching starting center Robin Lopez’s $6.1 million salary. As such, it’s likely the big man will check into the game behind either LaMarcus Aldridge or Lopez, depending on who is called to the bench first.

His size and mobility makes him an ideal fit at either frontcourt spot. Kaman can post up or drive on smaller forwards at the 4 or stretch the defense and space the floor with his mid-range shooting at the 5.

During his stint with the Los Angeles Lakers last season, Kaman converted on 47.4 percent of his mid-range attempts, courtesy of NBA.com. He averaged 10.4 points and 5.9 rebounds on 50.9 percent shooting for the year, but he played in just 39 games.

His troubles with former Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni were well-documented, going as far as both parties not speaking for almost three weeks. Kaman also touched on his unhappiness with an inconsistent role, per Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, saying: “Obviously, I would have never came here if they had said, ‘We’re not going to play you at all.’ I thought I had a good opportunity coming here.”

He’ll find no such trouble with the Blazers, as the team desperately needs competent reserve players. Over the course of last season, Portland’s starting lineup played a total of 1,373 minutes to trail just the Indiana Pacers‘ starting squad, courtesy of NBA.com

Per Hoops Stats, the bench ranked dead last in both minutes per game at 13.7 and points per game at 23.6. The likes of Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard were being counted on prematurely. Both big men still need time to develop as contributors and will have some breathing room to do so with Kaman on board.

He’ll be head coach Terry Stotts‘ first choice to back up Aldridge or Lopez thanks to his versatility and experience as he enters his 12th NBA season. Without doubt, he’ll be the Blazers’ sixth man in the frontcourt, though he may not fill that role for the team overall.

 

C.J. McCollum, G

McCollum‘s entry to the NBA last season wasn’t ideal, but he’ll have a chance to start the right way this time around.

After being drafted No. 10 overall in the 2013 NBA draft, the 6’4″ guard proceeded to break his left foot during practice at this time last year. McCollum also broke the same foot nine months prior while still at Lehigh.

In doing so, his NBA career did not officially commence until the start of January. McCollum therefore missed training camp as well as the chance to carve a niche in the rotation early on. He averaged just 5.3 points in 12.5 minutes over 38 games for his rookie campaign—underwhelming considering his draft selection but understandable given the circumstances.

McCollum won’t be burdened by the same issues coming into this season and should take over the title of Portland’s sixth man in doing so. 

Former reserve guard Mo Williams signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves during free agency, opening up a spot behind Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews in the backcourt. He received the biggest chunk of reserve minutes last season, playing an average of 24.8 per game.

Williams chipped in 9.7 points and 4.3 assists in that role, which is something McCollum should gravitate to. Though he’s a shooting guard to Williams’ position of point guard, he still carries similar traits in terms of shooting and ball-handling.

McCollum put up 20.2 points for the Blazers in the Las Vegas Summer League, shooting 47.9 percent with 3.2 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game. The competition he played against will pale in comparison to what he’ll face on a nightly basis this season, starting October 29 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, but he’ll succeed even on a small scale.

McCollum is a scorer at heart and will fit in well behind either Lillard or Matthews. The team needs another offensive creator outside of Lillard, Aldridge and Nicolas Batum, which ultimately gives McCollum the tentative nod as Portland’s sixth man.

Kaman will still play a major role as a reserve for the Blazers, acting as a consistent and potent backup. But considering the makeup of the roster and the void Williams has left since departing the team, McCollum has a slight edge.

His scoring, ball-handling and shooting on the perimeter are all staples of Portland’s offense, and he’ll fit in seamlessly. The team can do more with McCollum in terms of strategic lineups and offensive sets, while Kaman will act solely as a strong reserve.

It could truly come down to both players acting as the sixth men for their team, but the title can only really be held by one.

And that’s McCollum.

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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Utah Jazz 10/7/14: Video Highlights and Recap

After a season that saw the franchise capture its first playoff-series victory in 13 years, the Portland Trail Blazers took on the Utah Jazz in their first preseason contest.

Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge looked to continue last season’s strong performance and push the Blazers closer to contention in the West.

Watch the video for full highlights.

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LaMarcus Aldridge’s Looming Extension Puts Pressure on Portland Trail Blazers

LaMarcus Aldridge may be saying all the right things about his future with the Portland Trail Blazers, but that doesn’t guarantee much for a franchise still attempting to find its footing in a perpetually crowded Western Conference.

Put simply, this organization still has something to prove to its centerpiece—even if the public love fest suggests otherwise.

“Me not re-signing [last summer] wasn’t a sign I didn’t want to be here,” Aldridge told reporters at the team’s media day. “It didn’t make [financial] sense on my end. I’m not trying to hide from it. I just don’t want that to be the focus. I want our focus to be to get better, to try to advance further than last year.”

That’s consistent with what the 29-year-old indicated in July.

He then told The Oregonian‘s Joe Freeman, “I’m happy to stay, happy to be here, happy with the direction the team has gone the last year or two. This has no impact on my interest in staying in Portland. I just want to get a five-year deal. I feel like that’s the best decision on my part.” 

“It’s just financially smarter to wait,” he added, “and I’m looking forward to signing the five-year deal when the chance comes.”

By waiting until summer 2015, Aldridge assures himself more years and significantly more money. While he runs some risk of suffering catastrophic injury in the meantime, odds are this is the rational way forward.

The eight-year veteran has a favorable injury history, and there’s little risk his production takes a nosedive.

He’s getting that five-year max deal next summer.

The obvious economics of the situations didn’t stop Portland’s brass from sending Aldridge a clear message of intent earlier this summer.

In June, Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski reported, “Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen and general manager Neil Olshey formally presented the representatives of three-time All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge a maximum contract extension in Los Angeles…league sources told Yahoo Sports.”

Though the gesture had little impact from a business perspective, it certainly confirmed the organization’s intentions and left a mark on Aldridge in the process.

“Paul’s never done that,” Aldridge later told Freeman. “I think it showed that they value me being here and they want me to be a part of this organization for as long as I can. They even said: ‘For my whole career. A lifetime Blazer.’ That meant a lot and it made me feel better about my position in Portland going forward.”

Mission accomplished.

“I just thought it was very important that we have a direct discussion with LA,” Allen later told media on the first day of training camp. “It went great.”

“It was just great to be able to sit down with LA and get a chance to really understand his thinking about the team,” Allen added. “He’s very excited about the team.”

To be sure, the writing has been on the wall for some time—and made all the more explicit in comments Olshey laid out during exit interviews in June.

“The most important thing is everybody, including LaMarcus, knows he’s the No. 1 priority in the organization right now,” Olshey told media at the time. “When that business needs to be handled and the timing is absolutely right, it’s clearly a goal of ours to keep LaMarcus here long term.”

“LaMarcus knows that, his agents know that, we’re aware of it,” Olshey added. “I think the biggest thing is that LaMarcus wants to be here and clearly we want him here. That’s the challenging part. The economics take care of themselves.”

So that’s that, right?

Well, maybe.

Much as optics suggest Aldridge indeed wants to stick around, it wasn’t long ago that a far different narrative reared its head.

In June 2013, the Chicago Tribune‘s K.C. Johnson suggested that, “Multiple reports had Aldridge, whom the Bulls originally drafted and traded in 2006, vying to be traded to a contender unless the Trail Blazers significantly improve this summer. His agency has suggested Aldridge landing with the Bulls, among others, sources said.”

That same month, The Oregonian‘s Jason Quick wrote that he wasn’t “the least bit surprised” about the rumors.

Not that I believe general manager Neil Olshey is looking to move the star power forward,” Quick explained. “But I believe Aldridge wants out.”

But with the 2013-14 season around the corner and no trade in the rearview mirror, Aldridge sounded like he was ready to go to work.

“I’m here, I’m happy, I’m looking forward to the season,” Alridge told reporters at the September 2013 media day. “This team looks really good. We have a better bench. We have [Robin] Lopez, who’s a true center. So I think this year should be good for us.”

It remains unclear how much substance there was to claims of Aldridge’s disaffection. At the very least, it wouldn’t have been surprising.

The Trail Blazers had missed the playoffs for two consecutive years going into last season. Prior to that, they’d lost in the opening round of the playoffs three straight times. The franchise seemed caught between half-hearted attempts to build a winner and a de facto rebuilding process.

You could forgive Aldridge for having doubts.

And perhaps a 54-win season replete with an appearance in the conference semifinals can change all that. Every utterance to come from Aldridge and the organization alike suggests as much.

Unfortunately, it’s entirely possible—and understandable—that we’re dealing with a case of fair-weather loyalty. If Portland takes any kind of significant step back, Aldridge may suddenly be inclined to hear out other suitors.

That step back may seem unlikely, but there are too many good teams in the West for well-founded confidence to be conflated with certainty. Yes, emerging stars like Damian Lillard—and to a lesser degree, Nic Batum—are on pace to make this team even more formidable than the one that was swept in that second round by the San Antonio Spurs.

Adding Chris Kaman to the interior rotation could very well materialize as one of this summer’s savvier moves.

And there’s plenty to like about unsung heroes like Wes Matthews and Robin Lopez.

This is a good team.

But it’s also a team that finds itself at a critical juncture, a team that remains largely unproven when one considers its ability to compete with the league’s most elite contenders.

While Portland may indeed evolve into precisely such a contender, it could also go the way of the Memphis Grizzlies—a fine team that never quite shed its dark-horse label and now finds itself struggling to remain part of the postseason discussion.

Maybe young pieces like Thomas Robinson and C.J. McCollum. Maybe the rotation will miss Mo Williams’ veteran presence off the bench. Things could do wrong.

The good news, however, is an awful lot of things could also go right. 

Keeping LaMarcus Aldridge in town will require that they do.

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