The Portland Trail Blazers tripped, crawled, and skidded their way to a 33-46 record to close out the 2012-13 campaign, losing twice as many games as they won since the all-star break. While wholesale changes may or may not be necessary, the Blazers' efforts and lack of success this season absolutely raised some eyebrows around the league, and assuredly in the Rose City, where fans are still tormented and teased by the memory of the 1977 team, a team anyone under the age of 36 was not around to see.
For a franchise that holds the league record (since the merger) for most consecutive playoff appearances (21), we asked our staff at OregonSportsNews to look at the Blazers and assess what changes, if any, need to be made if the team is going to return to its days of glory and make a big splash next season.
1. The Blazers went just 8-18 after the all-star break. Injuries and all other things considered, how confident are you in their current roster? Do changes need to be made?
Casey Mabbott (CM): Confident, but not to the point of calling them a title contender, even if the key players stay healthy. Damian Lillard aside, this is basically the same core the Blazers had last season when they finished 28-38. Two top-15 picks (Lillard, Meyers Leonard), and they finished with just five more wins. Either this team simply needs more time to gel than they have been given, or the wrong pieces are in place aside from Rookie of the Year winner Lillard.
Anthony Burrola (AB): I'm not, NOT confident in their roster. I'd approach it with cautious optimism. Despite having a textbook roster with awesome, if not solid guys at each position, they still found themselves under .500 last season. Some of that is because they don't play in the top-heavy East and have to contend with the Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, and Grizzlies on tough nights, followed by the Jazz, Nuggets, Warriors, and Lakers on off nights. Another part of it is that their cornerstone player is still too young. With the promise shown by Damian Lillard, steady play of LaMarcus Aldridge, and the breakout year of Nicolas Batum, I'd say they're poised for a playoff appearance, bad health notwithstanding. How well they do in the playoffs, however, is where my optimism turns to doubt.
Kyle Boggs (KB): Changes absolutely need to come for the Blazers to take the next step as a franchise. Portland spent most of the season starting two players – JJ Hickson and Wesley Matthews – who are not legitimate starters on championship-caliber teams. They are rightfully two of the biggest fan favorites in the Rose City, but in order for Portland to become a top team in the Western Conference, players of this skill level need to be the Blazers’ first and second guys off the bench to make for a formidable second unit.
Ryan A. Chase (RC): 50% confident in the roster. That 50% is the starters. Retaining or replacing J.J. Hickson is a priority, but the biggest issue facing the Blazers is the bench, which was by every single statistical measurement the worst in the league by a scary margin. It had to have been frustrating to see LaMarcus Aldridge, Nic Batum, Wesley Matthews, and Damian Lillard perform so well, only to lose so much when they were off the floor. The Blazers need a consistent bench scorer that they can turn to. They need a defensive stopper off the bench, both large and small. They need Meyers Leonard to get better in a hurry. Once they can find a solid second unit, the Blazers will be in much better shape.
2. The summer of 2013 looks to be full of big name free agents. Assuming you can convince just ONE guy to come to Portland, who do you pursue to help the team?
CM: Why not kill two birds with one stone, and snag a couple of Utah Jazz players? I would like to see the team make a big move for either Al Jefferson or Mo Williams. Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and Josh Smith are the sexy picks right now that will carry huge contracts and not fit the team on paper or on the court. Jefferson is a big body and defensive presence that could work with a 60-40 playing time split with Meyers Leonard and help mentor the young big. Williams is an unselfish, albeit injury prone, player who can fill time at the point or as a combo guard, as he has ample experience at either slot. A backcourt of Lillard and Williams and a frontcourt of Aldridge and Jefferson and Batum at small forward could create an overnight contender in Portland. If Jefferson isn't interested, make a move for DeJaun Blair, an unselfish 110% effort guy that the team should have drafted when they had the chance in 2009.
AB: If I had a magic wand that made it rain and was Portland GM Neil Olshey, I'd look to get beefier. Hickson was great but is undersized. Aldridge still needs an enforcer down low, so it's tempting to go for a big-sized big name, but I'm not certain. I'd probably shell out money on a guy like Andre Iguodala, since the league is getting smaller and an athletic wing like Iggy, although not doing much to solve the outside shooting of the Blazers, gives them depth at the wing that can make life difficult for division rivals Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and possibly get thrown at Chris Paul and Steph Curry. With Batum and Iggy guarding the perimeter, and little Wesley Matthews bodying up guys in a pinch, I pay for that depth and go cheap on a shot-blocking big like Emeka Okafor. Did I just try to have my cake and eat it too? Whoops. Hey, the magic wand ...
KB: If I’m going all-in for just one player this summer, that guy is going to be Dwight Howard. Howard is the ideal free-agent pickup for Portland. Regardless whether you approve of his antics, he fits the team’s biggest need. Hickson is likely to leave and unless Meyers Leonard makes massive strides over the summer, Portland will be desperate for production at the center position. Howard is the best center available. If he proves too pricey, Al Jefferson makes for a good backup plan.
RC: If reality was not a factor, I would like to see Portland get Dwight Howard to create a starting lineup that matches up against almost anyone in basketball. That said, there is almost zero chance of Howard winding up in the Rose City, so the player that Portland should pursue is Nikola Pekovic of the Minnesota Timberwolves. He is restricted, and obviously Minnesota and Portland have had ... interesting ... restricted free agent discussions in recent years. But if Portland can pry him away (perhaps because Minnesota is giving a new max deal to Ricky Rubio), he is a force in the middle that can easily replace Hickson's numbers and take some pressure off of Aldridge.
3. Worst-case scenario, the Blazers hold the #13 pick in the draft and it goes to Charlotte. Best-case, it is in the top 12. Assuming best case, should they keep or move the pick for a proven veteran?
CM: Keep the pick; find a veteran in free agency. A relativity deep draft with plenty of options at guard and forward, the two spots the team needs to look at building now. A solid backup for Batum wouldn't hurt, either.
AB: I'd move it. They have plenty of youth on this team, so adding more would only elongate the rebuilding process. Aldridge isn't going to be young forever. Plus, the odds of getting an impact player at that draft range are not high. Package it and bring in someone to help your big names.
KB: In this instance, I’m not sure having a pick is best case. There are very few top-end prospects in this draft class. If the Blazers do end up with a top-12 pick, they won’t be able to trade it for an established veteran because no competent team would get rid of a capable player for a high pick in this year’s draft. The best move would be to trade the pick for a late-round pick and a future pick. There are a handful of intriguing center prospects – like Gorgui Dieng, Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams and Jeff Withey – who should be available late in the first round. Any one of these guys will add depth to the front line, which will be especially important if Hickson does not return.
RC: This is not a strong draft class at this point. The Blazers should move the pick if possible to pick up two or three decent role players that can fill out the bench. That said, the pick will be hard to move for market value. Unless you are picking in the top five, your pick will be a crapshoot and many teams are not willing to give up proven, decent players for a chance at a star that may never happen.
4. LaMarcus Aldridge will turn 28 this year, and just posted season averages of 21 points and 9 rebounds. If the deal is right, is he a player you would trade?
CM: In a word, yes. Yes, and only if a blue-chipper and a draft pick or veteran are part of the deal. LaMarcus is only really valuable when he has defensive help at center, which he enjoyed from Marcus Camby, and got for part of the year from JJ Hickson, but not against the elite guys. Blazers fans desperately want the “L-Train” to become the next Tim Duncan, or would even settle for Kevin Garnett (yes, Portlanders will settle for hall of famers). But in reality, he is a slightly less consistent Dirk Nowitzki, an offensive guy who can create his own shot but is simply and sadly not going to get there on defense. Remember, Dirk would never have won the title without Tyson Chandler. Either get a guy at or above Al Jefferson's level (finished ahead or among the top fifteen centers in scoring, rebounds, and blocks), or deal LaMarcus while there is still a market.
AB: This isn't a fair question. If the deal is right, I'd move anybody. And plus, I'm not a huge LA fan to begin with. Call me old-fashioned, but I like my bigs to block shots and play with their backs to the basket. That said, there aren't a lot of guys I'd want to pair with Lillard for whom I'd be willing to trade LA. It'd have to be a big since he's been the only big on this team for some time now, and what big fits better with the makeup of this team than LA? Trendy Marc Gasol? Dwight Howard? Andrew Bynum? Kevin Love? Nah, stick it out.
KB: No question about it. The last two years have proven the Blazers aren’t a playoff team riding LaMarcus Aldridge as their big gun. Now that he’s in a more comfortable position of playing second fiddle to Damian Lillard, the team could find more success. But there’s no way you can say Aldridge is untouchable after two straight trips to the lottery with him as the team’s centerpiece.
RC: I am under the belief that any player is tradable for the right price. The issue is that right price. The only deal that the Blazers should move Aldridge on would be for a proven starter, a blue-chip prospect, a bench scorer, and at least two picks. In other words, a package similar to or better than Oklahoma City got last year for James Harden. I do not see a team in the league making that offer. He is still too important to Portland. Damian Lillard cannot be the number one scorer every night yet. When Aldridge's deal comes to close, maybe move him then.
5. Last year, Nicolas Batum was considered "untouchable" by many experts and fans. After an outstanding start, his 2013 campaign was slowed down the stretch by a wrist injury, is he still untouchable, or high risk/reward and injury prone second option?
CM: Durability is as or more important than box scores in basketball and Batum needs to prove he can be trusted. He is not untouchable, though other teams may start to question his four year, $44 million dollar contract if foot, ankle, and wrist problems continue to derail his otherwise bright seasons. While he has never appeared in all 84 regular season games, he did see time in 73 this year, his most since 79 in his rookie year. The diagnosis? He is either learning to get tougher physically and avoid injuries, or he is playing through pain, and either is good for the franchise. He may never be consistent enough to be the team's first scoring option, but with Damian Lillard's stock appearing to be sky-high for the next ten to fifteen seasons, Batum would make a very valuable second option, even if the contract he signed calls for him to be the first option.
AB: I think it's safe to say he proved to be worth the money they gave him. I mean, he still played more than Derrick Rose, right? Dead horse? Fair enough. I'm in on Batum. His wrist isn't quite in Steph-Curry-ankle territory, although he does boast a similar height-to-weight ratio, but I still have my reservations about his longevity. But there aren't a lot of players who can do what he does. Portland made some smart draft moves; now it just needs to stick it out and see what comes of it.
KB: Portland must keep Batum unless the Blazers are offered a sure-fire all-star – someone like Steph Curry or Brook Lopez. Batum is on the brink of breaking into that realm. He’s 24. He just finished his fifth season. In his first five seasons, he improved his points per game, blocks per game, steals per game, assists per game and rebounds per game every single season. The wrist injury was a freak accident that hindered his shooting stroke and rattled his confidence. It should not be an indicator of things to come.
RC: When healthy, Batum is one of the most dangerous three-point artists in basketball. He is a good defender, though not an elite one. Even with his injury, he averaged well above his career averages in scoring, rebounding, and assists. Next season, he will only be better and barring some miracle deal, will be the third best player on the Blazers. He is planning on improving his shooting and defense with the French National team this offseason. He is only 24 years old. He is still untouchable and is part of the future for the Blazers.