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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Portland Trail Blazers Ready to Contend in Crowded Western Conference

The 2013-14 NBA season contained many surprises, but the Portland Trail Blazers were chief among them. 

This was supposed to be a middling squad filled with some high-upside players, but instead, everything came together swimmingly. Though the team’s blazing start led to an inevitable cooling-off period later in the year, the Blazers still finished with a 54-28 record, strong enough to earn them the No. 4 spot in the brutally tough Western Conference. 

And they weren’t content just making the playoffs, instead downing the star-studded Houston Rockets when Damian Lillard drained an ice-cold three-pointer to advance past the first round. The San Antonio Spurs outed them before the conference finals, but it was an impressive season nonetheless. 

Now, Rip City is primed to get even better. 


Surging Stars

As good as Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge already are—and I recently ranked them as the No. 16 and No. 13 players in the league heading into training camp, respectively—they both have plenty of room for growth. 

That’s pretty obvious when you look at the dynamic point guard, who’s only entering his third NBA season out of Weber State. He may already be 24 years old, due to a long and successful collegiate career, but he’s still gaining traction in the Association, particularly on the defensive end of the court. 

Up to this point, Lillard has been left massively confused whenever he’s greeted with a screen. It takes him too long to decide whether he should fight over the top of the pick-setting defender or jump under it before closing out on his assignment, and that sometimes causes him to run directly into the opposing player, who essentially acts like a brick wall. 

You can see him allowing Andrew Bogut to function as an immovable object here: 

And things aren’t much better when he’s working off the ball, either: 

According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), the 1-guard gave up 0.88 points per possession during the 2013-14 season, a mark topped by 189 players throughout the Association. He was particularly weak when working in isolation and—you guessed it—when guarding pick-and-roll ball-handlers. 

During that latter situation, he hemorrhaged 0.87 points per possession, which was the No. 181 mark in the league. Additionally, players knew this was a weakness and constantly attacked him in that manner, allowing pick-and-roll ball-handlers to account for a massive 49.6 percent of his defensive possessions. 

Lillard is already dynamite on offense—functioning as one of the most impressive scorers in the NBA, despite his youth—but he’s not holding his weight on the less glamorous end, which holds back his overall production. If he can become even an adequate defender for Rip City, this team would get significantly more dangerous. 

Thing is, there’s time for him to do exactly that. 

Because he was responsible for so much of the offense at Weber State, he was never asked to carry too much defensive weight. That was true early in his NBA career as well, but now, the mentality needs to change. Portland is more competitive, more quickly than most expected, and shoring up the defense is the obvious next step in his development. 

Though physical tools are required, defense is largely about effort and the overall mental game, whether it’s recognizing and reacting to plays or just committing yourself to preventing points. Lillard has the quickness, both with his feet and his hands, to be at least marginally successful; now he has to play smarter. 

I think Damian has the potential to be a dominant defender and I think he wants that because he’s a smart basketball player and he wants to get better every year,” Gary Payton, who was pretty decent at defense during his playing days, told CSNNW.com’s Chris Haynes back in June, focusing heavily on Lillard’s defensive mindset. “I think he’s going to go in and see the way he’s not stopping guards that he should be stopping.”

This isn’t some slow-footed guard we’re talking about but rather a player with the potential to become a two-way standout. 

And speaking of standouts, how about Aldridge? 

As good as this deserving All-Star was during the 2013-14 campaign, averaging 23.2 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, both of which are career highs, he can get that much better. Not only will he gain comfort serving as a central figure in the defensive system, but he’s also capable of continuing to improve offensively. 

While there’s no doubt Aldridge is an impressive scorer, he’s not exactly efficient. His game is predicated upon the least efficient shot in basketball, and he has trouble drawing contact and getting free points at the charity stripe. On top of that, he relies on assists for a large percentage of his makes, especially when compared to most players who line up at his position. 

If he improves in any one area, he’ll be even deadlier than before. 

And, of course, this is saying nothing of Nicolas Batum, fresh off an incredible effort for France at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup. The forward will turn 26 fairly early on in the 2014-15 season, so it’s not as though he’s done making improvements to his game while maintaining the athleticism he’ll enjoy throughout these prime years. 

The same can be said of the remaining starters. Wesley Matthews will be 28 at the start of the regular-season festivities, and Robin Lopez is a spry 26 years old, still figuring out how to excel as a Rip City starter. 

This five-man unit was already quite impressive in 2013-14. There’s no real risk of decline (injuries notwithstanding), and even if every single player stagnates, it will still be a strong bunch of versatile and complementary players. 

But it can be much better, especially as everyone continues to gain comfort with Terry Stotts’ teachings. 


Burgeoning Bench

The well-publicized issue for the Blazers was the overall ineffectiveness of the bench last season.

It was such a poor group of players, especially with injuries plaguing it, that Stotts couldn’t rely on it whatsoever. Fortunately, the starters all remained healthy for the vast majority of the year, save Aldridge going down for a brief spell toward the end of the regular season. If there had been any more injury woes, there’s no telling how much the bench would have dragged this team down.

But it was about more than limited playing time for the second unit.

In the NBA, there’s typically a strong correlation between volume and efficiency. As players—and groups of players—spend more time on the court, it’s harder to maintain levels of efficiency. As they play less, it’s easier for them to look better in those short spurts.

However, the low-volume Portland bench, which played fewer minutes than any other NBA team’s non-starters, still didn’t fare particularly well in offensive efficiency. In fact, it finished dead last, losing out to the Indiana Pacers and the rest of the league thanks to its putrid efforts. Defensively, things weren’t much better, as HoopsStats.com shows that the Trail Blazers bench finished No. 27 in defensive efficiency. 

“While Blazers head coach Terry Stotts was coming to terms with just how few of his reserves seemed at all playable in this series, [Gregg] Popovich was drawing a 10-point, seven-rebound performance from Aron Baynes—a bottom-of-the-barrel center who logged all of six minutes in the first round,” wrote Sports Illustrated‘s Rob Mahoney about the overmatched nature of this Portland bunch during the postseason. 

If that changes, the ceiling is drastically raised for this squad. 

And so far, it appears as though that should be the case. 

Early in the offseason, Lillard texted a list of free-agency targets he’d like to see Portland chase to Haynes: ”Yeah…Mo Williams” and “Channing Frye, Vince Carter, Spencer Hawes, Trevor Ariza.”

The Blazers didn’t get any of those players, but they did add size by signing Chris Kaman and a steady backup point guard in Steve Blake. That’s assuming this is the Los Angeles Lakers version of Blake, who was a comparable player to Mo Williams, and not the ineffective Golden State Warriors version.

They aren’t glamorous additions, but they didn’t need to fall into that classification. After all, the starters are still going to do the heavy lifting for this squad, and you can’t overlook the expected improvement of the young players, primarily that of C.J. McCollum, Meyers Leonard and Thomas Robinson. 

I have no doubt the options on Lillard and McCollum will be exercised,” wrote The Oregonian‘s Joe Freeman in late September. ”Those are no-brainers. But I suspect the front office is still weighing decisions on Leonard, whose option is valued at roughly $3 million, and Robinson, whose option is a hefty $4.7 million.”

Not only are these guys—Leonard and Robinson—attempting to improve, but they’re now fighting for their salaries, entering into contract years with a lot to prove. The former has been quite disappointing since entering the league as a raw prospect, but his athleticism at the center spot still offers hope for the future.

Likewise, Robinson has underwhelmed since leaving behind his collegiate career at Kansas, but he looked much better toward the end of his sophomore season. Over his last 21 games, starting directly after he was re-activated and inserted back into the rotation, the power forward averaged 5.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 0.7 assists per game while shooting 54.3 percent from the field. 

His per-36-minute numbers over that stretch? Averages of 14.5 points, 12.8 boards and 1.8 assists, which is obviously some solid production from a backup big man. 

If he can carry that over into the 2014-15 season, there will be far less pressure on Aldridge and Lopez in the starting lineup. The same is true with McCollum and the starting backcourt members, as the combo guard should be a much different player than he was during his rookie season. 

It’s already tough enough for a first-year player to make the transition to the sport’s highest level. It’s harder still when fighting through an injury at the beginning of that season, one that puts you directly behind the eight ball from day one. 

McCollum didn’t debut until Jan. 8, and that made it quite tough for him to catch up to speed. 

Instead of thinking of reasons why your coach should be playing you, honestly assess reasons as to why he isn’t,” the Lehigh product penned for Basketball Insiders while giving advice to the next class of rookies. “The next step is to go work on those things and improve the specific areas you come up with, so there is a change in your play. For me, it was simple. I made a list of what I needed to improve on.”

Even if there’s just moderate improvement, McCollum will be working with the team throughout training camp and preseason action. He’ll be ready to go at the beginning of the season, barring any unforeseen injury problems that could pop up between now and then. 

Remember, this is a young bench, but it’s also one that added two solid veteran pieces in Kaman and Blake. Among that, the lofty starting point and the potential improvement in the starting lineup, particularly when it comes to Lillard, the Blazers are in position to assert themselves as strong contenders in the Western Conference. 

Is the West ridiculously tough? Yes, but so too is Rip City. 

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Portland Trail Blazers 2014-15 Win/Loss Projections

The Portland Trail Blazers will look to build on a surprising campaign last season, which saw them upset the Houston Rockets in the first round of the postseason. Can the Blazers take the next step with Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge leading the charge?

Howard Beck and Ric Bucher give their take when they join Adam Lefkoe in the video above.

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