Last week I hinted at breaking down the team from the Northwest in more depth and detail. As the preseason wraps up, and the regular season approaches, now is a great time to discuss the timetable and trajectory of the Portland Trail Blazers.
Tanking is not in the name nor the ideals of the Portland franchise. It could be a small market thing, but the Blazers (from the organization to the fans) have too much pride to intentionally throw away games to gamble at a chance to win the lottery and gain a potentially franchise changing player. It almost seems like dirty money, and placing value and hope into tanking to shape a franchise is something that the Blazers will not stand for.
Perhaps it is because the Blazers have faced some serious misfortunes in the draft. Remember when the Blazers drafted Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA draft? Remember when the Blazers drafted Greg Oden over Kevin Durant in the 2007 NBA draft?
Or perhaps not tanking is due to the history of finding great players in the draft that fall through the cracks. They landed Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, the two best players from the 2006 NBA draft. They gambled on Damian Lillard with the sixth pick in the 2012 Draft (who turned out to be the second-best player in the draft behind all world Anthony Davis).
Whatever the reasoning, tanking is just not in the blood of the Portland franchise. Pundits will jump at this opportunity to drop a line about how much blood will be shed at the Blazers expense in the Western Conference this year, and that is hard to argue. Looking at the teams in the West, the competition might be the stiffest in the history of the game.
The San Antonio Spurs, the defending champion Golden State Warriors, the healthy Oklahoma City Thunder, the Houston Rockets, the Los Angeles Clippers… the sheer talent is mind boggling, and it doesn’t stop there. Almost from top to bottom the West is stacked, and it will certainly be a bloodbath during the regular season (which, as a side note, I am so excited for).
It will be easy to write off the Blazers as becoming irrelevant. They lost 80 percent of their starting line-up and seemingly have a rag tag team being led by a point guard that can’t defend the premier position in the league.
But when you take a closer look at the lineup, that’s where it gets very interesting. Portland GM Neil Olshey has done an outstanding job this offseason.
As hard as it was to bounce back from losing a franchise player in Aldridge, Olshey did an admirable job. After re-evaluating what the Blazers need, Olshey went and sought out to address those issues. One major concern was getting younger at the small forward position.
Nic Batum has been an integral piece of the Blazer puzzle the past couple of years. Being a secondary ball handler capable of making plays while reliably spacing the floor and defending the best player on the other team, Batum was a Swiss Army knife that could do everything well on the basketball court. As tough as it was to say, Batum just wasn’t getting it done like he used to; his age was catching up with him.
This is where Al-Farouq Aminu comes in, able to immediately produce (defend the opposing team’s best player, high energy and athleticism bounding from his body), Aminu was a ready solution to be effective with the Blazers with or without Aldridge. The 25-year-old played best last season in Dallas surrounded by shooters. Now he’s in an even better situation in Portland, a team similarly situated.
Aminu will not be asked to do too much on the Blazers team, and comes into a situation where there is a lot of room for error, and additionally, a lot of room for growth. Olshey has known and coveted Aminu since his Olshey’s days with the Los Angeles Clippers, giving the Blazers even more confidence that Aminu will come with some tremendous returns.
Another key addition is the 26-year-old Ed Davis. The Lakers did not want to give him up, but Davis wanted to go somewhere he felt he was valued and wanted. What a perfect fit. The small market of Portland is going to love Ed, and Ed is going to love them back. Davis is a high-energy guy that does all the dirty work and does not complain. A real blue-collar kind of player that fans in small markets adore.
Wes Matthews was the guy in Portland for a long time. Blazer fans adored “Iron Man” for his work ethic, demeanor and playing style. Ed Davis is a perfect replacement for fan favorite.
Davis and Aminu commanded the most money from the Blazers in the offseason other than retaining the 25-year-old Damian Lillard. Is the proximity in age a coincidence? Nothing in the NBA is a coincidence.
Olshey was intent not only finding the right players for his system but players that have a the same career arc as his franchise player. The Blazers are not about the one-and-dones and are not about the college style teams. Let me explain.
In college, coaches are continually going through player turnovers, whether it be from declaring to the draft, graduating or transferring. College coaches are intent on finding players that can fit in the system and be productive, but are not really looking for a long term project. The longest a player can play is four years, and even then you might be able to sign a younger, more talented player.
With the Blazers organization, it has always been a big picture kind of deal; cultivate, grow, and develop talent. Olshey headed into the 2015 summer with the intention of signing talent that he planned to keep for a long time. He signed Davis for three years, and Aminu for four, and both have front-heavy contracts while Lillard’s is back-heavy, allowing for some flexibility in the future if the need arises to sign another player.
The Blazers also grabbed the underrated gold medalist Mason Plumlee from the Brooklyn Nets over the summer. Never seen as much of a threat or even as a player, the Blazers jumped on the Nets hankering for Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and traded for Plumlee and Pat Connaughton.
Plumlee is another high energy, hard working type of player who provides the Blazers with an athletic, rim-rolling threat. Plumlee will be perfect working in tandem with Lillard, Ed Davis and Meyers Leonard. On offense, Plumlee sets mean screens and rolls hard to the rim. Lillard has never had a big man who can throw down lobs, commanding respect from the defense; and that wrinkle is important in the pick and roll game
Especially with the defensive attention that Lillard will be facing this season, anything that can lighten his load will be huge. Plumlee will work well with the two other bigs. Meyers Leonard is a who is best with his feet set, and will spot up and space out the floor as a valuable stretch 4, leaving Ed Davis to crash the offensive glass, which is his forte. On defense, Plumlee is a strong defensive rebounder while Davis is mediocre, and both will complement the other on opposite ends of the floor.
On top off all these new acquisitions, the Blazers took a chance on the young Noah Vonleh. The 20-year-old is still very much a raw prospect, but in time could blossom out to be a very productive player. Especially in the Blazers environment, Vonleh could become a key member of the rotation in a few short years.
Even though the Blazers are still missing a low post offensive threat (the only reason they kept Chris Kaman), the offseason moves allow for Blazers fans to be excited. With the focus on pushing the tempo and getting shooters open, the Blazers have the firepower to keep a lot of games very close. For Portland, this season is preparation for the future.
Blazers offseason? 8/10 (Points lost on losing 4/5 starters)