Enemy Lines: A rival scout sizes up the Trail Blazers
2012-13 Record: 33-49
Coach: Terry Stotts (second season with Trail Blazers)
AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT ANALYZES THE TRAIL BLAZERS
Improving the bench had to be a major offseason priority for the Blazers. It was historically bad last year. There were guys who would not make most NBA teams. That put a tremendous amount of pressure on the starters, both in terms of minutes and just being available. If any of their key guys went down -- and a few of them did for several games -- it was a huge issue because they had no one behind them.
The other key was trying to find a true center to play alongside LaMarcus Aldridge so that he didn't always have to battle the other team's top big man. They were able to acquire Robin Lopez for that spot, and they made some other moves to strengthen the bench.
To say Aldridge is your best player -- I don't know. But if you give me two or three guys like him, I'll take my chances. Aldridge's scoring versatility makes him a matchup problem. He has the ability to be a major headache in the low post, but he can fall in love with perimeter shots to the point that he's letting the defense off the hook because he's so big and talented. He's a very capable shooter, but he has to be more of a physical presence, a guy who is willing to go down and battle in the post.
Aldridge could do more on defense. He doesn't have the mind-set that he's going to impact the game that way. He can't worry about getting into foul trouble; he has to stick his nose in and want to be every bit as good on that end of the floor as the other.
Lopez was a solid pickup. He is by no means an upper-echelon NBA center, but he is at least a legit center. He has size and can hold his ground as a defensive presence in the low post. He will rebound, he will block shots and he complements Aldridge significantly better than J.J. Hickson did last season.
There's a tremendous amount of room for Nicolas Batum to grow. He played very well in the first half of last season, but he had some injuries that really nagged him down the stretch and affected his performance. But I don't think he's even entered his prime, at age 24, because he's still learning as he plays. He's always been able to make three-point shots, and he's so athletic that he can make plays in transition and finish at the rim. What he has developed lately is the ability to come off screens and shoot and also the ability to post up. And on defense, this is a 6-8 guy who's long and makes an effort, so all the skills are there to become an impact defender.
Damian Lillard had a tremendous amount of responsibility thrust on him as a rookie, and he handled it like a veteran. Rarely did he play poorly or seem overmatched or make careless errors. There's no question that the ability to make shots and score is his strength; everything else plays off that. Because opponents have to account for his scoring potential as he comes off pick-and-rolls, that opens up opportunities for his teammates.
Lillard was so good as a rookie that he kind of spoiled you. But there is room to get better as a playmaker and defender. He has to improve at breaking down defenses, getting to the rim and getting to the foul line. There's also room to get better as a leader, to make sure as the quarterback of the team that guys are in right positions. But what a great way to start a career.
Wesley Matthews is a very well-rounded, professional player. He can make shots, score off the dribble and defend shooting guards and small forwards. For a guy with only four years of experience, he has some maturity to his game. With Aldridge, Batum and Lillard, the Blazers don't necessarily need a fourth or fifth guy who can score 20 points a night, but Matthews can do it if called upon.
Earl Watson knows how to run a team from the point and has some savvy. I would not be surprised if Mo Williams ends up playing off the ball alongside Lillard quite a bit and Watson ends up playing a lot of the minutes behind Lillard as point guard. Dorell Wright, like Williams, is another guy who can make shots and certainly is a significant upgrade over their backups at the wing positions last year.
Thomas Robinson was a great low-risk, high-reward pickup. The Blazers didn't really have to give up anything of significance to get a guy who was the fifth pick in last year's draft and still has a few years left on his rookie contract. [Portland acquired Robinson from Houston for the rights to two international players and two future second-round picks.] Robinson has some challenges to overcome: He is a little undersized for his position, he doesn't play above the rim and he gets a lot of shots blocked. He has trouble finishing around the rim. But because of how hard he plays and his potential as a rebounder, I'd take that gamble that Portland made every day of the week.
The Blazers are going to be banking on improvement from center Meyers Leonard, their second lottery pick from last year, after Lillard. They're going to want him to push Lopez for playing time at center or, at the very least, not produce a big drop-off when he does play. He showed glimpses as a rookie, particularly on the offensive end, where he displayed some shooting range and finishing skills, but he has a lot to learn. He was pretty raw coming out of college.
When rookie CJ McCollum returns from his broken foot, he should be a guy who can play either guard spot and make some shots. Because of Williams' presence, McCollum won't face as much pressure to be that guy right away. But he has the potential to help them in the near future.
Coach Terry Stotts handled the team pretty adroitly last year. He is very innovative offensively. A lot of what they ran in Dallas [where Stotts served as an assistant coach for four years before being named Blazers coach in 2012] were things that he designed. Players enjoy playing for him. He has a really positive demeanor, and he's learned from his previous head-coaching stints [with the Hawks and Bucks]. Stotts can grow with this team if the Blazers keep adding pieces.