Fans in the Pacific Northwest haven’t felt this good since Starbucks introduced the caramel macchiato.
The Portland Trail Blazers are coming off a 54-win season and fresh off a trip to the Western Conference semifinals where they lost to eventual NBA champion San Antonio. Things are looking up in Portland, and expectations for the 2014-15 season are extremely high.
“We’re a good team and we’re a playoff team. We gotta do the things to make us stay at that level,” Blazers point guard Damian Lillard told NBA TV.
“In our team meeting I told the team we need to hold each other accountable. There’s only so much a coaching staff can do,” Lillard said. “You see Miami. You see Dwyane Wade and LeBron James arguing last year in the playoffs. On the outside they’re arguing. But really they’re holding each other accountable. That’s what made them a championship-level team. I think that’s our next step.”
General manager Neil Olshey thought the Blazers could move into elite status in year four of a four-year process, but they’ve actually done it in three years.
“A lot of it comes from the work Terry [Stotts] has done and a couple of impact moves, adding guys like Robin Lopez and Damian Lillard,” Olshey said.
Owner Paul Allen has deep pockets, so the Blazers have unlimited resources to build a championship team. And Olshey thinks they’re close after drafting a franchise point guard in Lillard two years ago to pair with LaMarcus Aldridge, whom Olshey calls the best power forward in the game.
Aldridge and Lillard have quickly become one of the best guard-forward combos in the NBA. It’s the similar model used by Olshey’s former team, the Los Angeles Clippers, led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
The 6-11 Aldridge owns one of the best mid-range jump shots in basketball. He averaged career highs in points (23.2) and rebounds (11.1) last season, and was named to his third All-Star team. Aldridge, 29, is entering the prime years of his career while his teammate, Lillard, is just scratching the surface.
Lillard, 24, followed up his Rookie of the Year campaign with another superb year, averaging 20.7 points and earning third-team All-NBA honors. He’s also earning the reputation of being a clutch performer. The signature moment of the Blazers’ 2013-14 season came during the first round of the playoffs when he sent his team into the second round with his 3-point buzzer beater in Game 6 against the Houston Rockets.
Lillard and Aldridge were one of three teammates to average 20 points per game. The other two were Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and Sacramento’s Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins.
With Aldridge and Lillard leading the charge — and strong support from role players Wesley Matthews, Nic Batum and Lopez — the Blazers have one of the best starting fives in the NBA. Those five guys produced 84 points night after night. The improvement needs to come from the bench, an area the Blazers ranked near the bottom in the league.
Portland added veterans Steve Blake (second stint with the team) and Chris Kaman to the roster during the offseason, hoping to bolster the bench, and second-year guard C.J. McCollum has looked good in training camp and Will Barton continues to improve. McCollum, who can play point or shooting guard, will fill the spot vacated by Mo Williams to provide some scoring punch.
“All our young guys have gotten better,” Aldridge said. “C.J. has gotten better. And bringing Blake and Kaman is going to be great. Steve can help mentor Dame [Lillard] and help bring C.J. along.”
Another area of improvement for Portland is on the defensive end.
Last season the Blazers gave up 102.8 points per game, which was 22nd in the league. Defensive transition has been a point of emphasis in camp with hopes of cleaning up some of the woes that hurt them against better teams.
When you look at the recent history of the Blazers three names come to mind: Sam Bowie, Greg Oden and Brandon Roy. Those are three major investments that didn’t pan out.
Now, it is up to these Blazers to erase the bad memories and blaze a new trail.
Joel Huerto is editor and publisher of OneManFastBreak.net. Follow him on Twitter @onemanfastbreak.