So. Where do the Portland Trail Blazers go from here?
After the Trail Blazers limped (figuratively and literally) in and out of the playoffs this year, they have some questions to address as a team. There was outrage at the fact that the Blazers made the four seed in the playoffs due to a technicality, but that shouldn’t take away from the success the team faced throughout a turbulent season. Before Wesley Matthews got injured, the Blazers had just reeled off five straight wins and were fighting for the second seed in the Western Conference. Yes, the Blazers made the most out of the Thunder’s situation– their biggest competitor in the conference–but that cannot discredit the formidable force the Blazers were before key players got injured.
At full health, the Blazers looked like they would be serious contenders.
The pieces were all there: he big man that could give you an easy 20 points a night with a sweet, automatic stroke; the elite point guard with cat-like quickness, a deadly three point shot and a knack for heroics; the beloved shooting guard with a knack for hard nosed defense; the do-it-all French forward that could end up being the best player on the court on certain nights; the center with a penchant for taking out opposing mascots when he wasn’t busy patrolling the paint and crashing the glass.
Since the addition of Damian Lillard, the Portland Trail Blazers have trotted out one of the best starting units in the entire NBA. The long standing issue with the team from the Pacific Northwest has been with the depth of the team. Too many times have the starting five competed and built a lead, only to have the lead vanish and force the starters to play from behind or come back early from their scheduled shifts.
The beginning of the season looked promising, as depth was addressed in the addition of the reliable Steve Blake and a two-way player in Chris Kaman that could shoulder the load from both Aldridge and Lopez. There was hope that the young talent could finally be developed to be reliable options in the future, but they were still on a tight leash for much of the regular season. For all of the great things that Terry Stotts does in coaching the Blazers, he is still a very conservative coach and doesn’t take many risks. Without the injuries that forced playing time for C.J. McCollum and Meyers Leonard, who knows how long they would have bided their time before some real, meaningful game action.
One of the biggest takeaways from the Memphis series for Blazer fans is the future of both reserves mentioned above. Both McCollum and Leonard blossomed at the highest stage, which should erase any second comings for Stotts moving on. While depth has been a major issue, going forward the big looming question will be from the starting unit. Steve Blake has already exercised his player option to opt into the 2015-16 season with the Portland Trail Blazers, and McCollum will fill in nicely as the scoring guard coming off the bench. While Arron Afflalo will opt out of his contract, Kaman, Leonard and Allen Crabbe will hold down the second unit for the Blazers.
The biggest question mark and the most threatening, looming, dark cloud for Blazer fans is what will be the future of LaMarcus Aldridge?
There are so many false reports, rumors and hypothetical that the only thing really to do is to take a step back and either a) pray if you are a Blazer fan or b) grab the popcorn and enjoy the show. The Portland Trail Blazers can offer Aldridge the most money, but he may be interested in leaving to a place known more for success (San Antonio looks to be at the forefront of ideal destinations).
How much money is enough money? LaMarcus has made around $70 million in career earnings, and may be more interested in winning a championship than in the extra millions in his bank account. The Blazers have a great foundation and a young team looking for their chance to compete for an NBA championship, but they seem perennially in the category of “2-3 years/one piece from serious contention”–enough to be a threat and a dark horse to win the championship, but never a favorite.
Passing on the issue of Aldridge, whose situation is just a question mark at the moment, the next biggest issue will be the perimeter players in the starting five. While Batum is signed through the upcoming season, even the most optimistic fans wonder how much more he has left in the tank. Throughout the season he looked downright awful, playing timidly and moving just a step slower than the fans have come to expect from him. When he is playing at his best, he is a true playmaker and a Swiss Army knife for Stotts to employ. Batum is capable of defending wing threats like LeBron, Carmelo Anthony, Jimmy Butler and is capable of creating for others and capable of scoring 20-plus points a game.
As a testament of how versatile and capable Batum is, he is one of eight players ever to achieve the 5×5: when a player records 5 points, 5 assists, 5 rebounds, 5 blocks and 5 steals in one game. The question isn’t Batum’s ability, but how many nights he will be able to bring it and how much left he has in his tank. Batum is only 26 (turning 27 in December) but his lackluster performance throughout much of last season raises some concerns on how effective he will be for the upcoming season.
The second biggest question mark for the Trail Blazers lies with Wesley Matthews. Known as “The Iron Man” around the Pacific Northwest, his moniker goes through its toughest test yet as Matthews rehabs from a torn Achilles. How he bounces back is still a mystery, as the Achilles is one of the toughest injuries to fully recover from the standpoint of a basketball player. Matthews will become an unrestricted free agent, allowing him to pick and choose any destination that he would like to play at.
The question is, should the Blazers re-sign him? He is a crowd favorite and the heartbeat of the team, but at the end of the day the NBA is a business. Is he worth the money? He is the best defender on the team, and one of the best defenders in the league. He has the size and strength at 6’5″ and 220 pounds to battle with the biggest two-guards in the league (Harden, Thompson, DeRozan, Beal) and is a legitimate threat at the other end of the court in posting up on smaller defenders and is a knockdown three point shooter.
Matthews was leading the league in three pointers made, benefiting both from having defense bending offensive weapons in Lillard and Aldridge as well as a system that really liked to push the tempo and look for opportune threes. Matthews is invaluable to the scheme of the Blazers, both in and out of the locker room. On the court, he is a vital cog of the machine, capable of shutting down the other teams biggest threat while knocking down open three point shots (paramount coming from a team that attempts over 27 threes a game). Off the court, Matthews was the heart and soul of the Blazers, and was a uniting presence in the locker room. Add in the fact that he is absolutely loved in the city of Portland, it seems natural that he would re-sign with the Trail Blazers.
However, there are two big factors at play for Matthews’ future. First– and most important– how Matthews recovers from the Achilles injury. As tough as the injury was, it was even more painful that it occurred as Matthews was set to hit free agency. He undoubtedly will lose millions because teams will not be willing to commit to a long-term deal without knowing exactly how he will perform coming back from such a serious injury.
Secondly, Matthews biggest concern now is to have a bigger role in the offense, enough where he would be seriously considered in a situation where the game is on the line. Free agency is typically the perfect opportunity for a seasoned player to find exactly what they are looking for, be it a better chance to win a championship, a bigger share of the offensive load, but in the case of Matthews who is still currently in rehab, this free agency might now have to do with convincing teams that he will be the two way force he was prior to the injury.
With all the question marks that surround the starting five of the Blazers, the fear is palpable around the future of the Blazers. Fans were optimistic that they had finally turned the corner and were ready to compete for a championship, but at this point there are too many loose ends to be excited for the future. The biggest ‘if’ comes with LaMarcus Aldridge. If he decides to re-sign, the sky is limitless. Let’s not forget that throughout the majority of the season, the Trail Blazers were serious contenders in the gauntlet that is the Western Conference. With two superstars in LMA and Lillard, the future looks bright for this young team. But just as quickly, the absence of one could send the Blazers into obscurity.