The 2012 NBA Draft is only a few days away, and it looks as though the Portland Trail Blazers have whittled their prospective draft choices down to two players: Weber State guard, Damian Lillard, and Connecticut big man, Andre Drummond.
But with the recent trade rumors revolving around the Houston Rockets attempts to move up into the Top 5 picks in the draft, the odds of Drummond ever making it to No. 6 are slim to none, and Lillard, having gone out to dinner with Blazers’ owner, Paul Allen, is beginning to look like the consensus pick around the consensus pick among most mock drafts.
The Oakland, CA. native, Lillard was second in college hoops in scoring last season at 24.5 points to go alongside his 5.1 rebounds and four assists per game. Making the huge jump to the NBA, he’ll be paired with All-Star PF, LaMarcus Aldridge, to form the NBA’s newest duo, and while he hasn’t run much pick-and-roll in his career at Weber State, expectations are through the roof for the Blazers’ new-found PG of the future.
But are just Lillard and Aldridge aren’t enough to get Portland back into the Western Conference playoff picture?
The rook hasn’t even worked out with other draft prospects yet—he’s done only solo pre-draft workouts so far—let alone play an NBA game, and last season’s unfortunate results proved that L.A.’s potent offensive output can’t carry the Blazers alone. Re-signing Nicolas Batum would be a good place to start, and Elliot Williams, after he finishes rehab from his dislocated shoulder, is poised for a breakout season, but Rip City is far from complete.
Here’s how GM Neil Olshey should cautiously proceed this off-season to build a contender in the next two seasons:
1. Draft G Austin Rivers or G Dion Waiters With the No. 11 Pick.
Wesley Matthews still has a lot of promise, but it’s no secret that he regressed quite a bit after his strong sophomore campaign. His poor play may have been 100% influenced by adding a declining Raymond Felton and shoot-only Jamal Crawford to the lineup, but a back-up plan is always welcome. He came around towards the end of the season, finishing with a .383 three-point percentage (down from .407), but with the talent available at guard in the lottery, you have to draft the best that’s there.
Williams, in his limited playing time, has shown glimpses of promise and potential, and is almost destined for stardom in the near future, but if Austin Rivers or Dion Waiters is available at pick No. 11, the Blazers simply can’t pass it up.
One of the favorites for Portland’s second lottery pick, Rivers has a confidence that’s mistaken for cockiness, and backs it up with a superior shooting stroke and ball handling skills that can lull the stickiest defenders to sleep. Waiters is a m0re athletic, slashing guard who gets to the rim with ease and is touted as the second best guard in the draft behind Florida’s Bradley Beal. He doesn’t have the stroke that Rivers has, but he more than makes up for it with his elite explosiveness.
Rivers is the more viable option, as Waiters is projected to get picked up anywhere between 7 and 10, but if he falls to 11, Portland could go either way.
2. Find Quality Free Agent Talent
If the buzz around the league holds up and Drummond gets picked up in the Top 5, Portland will still have a gaping hole at center that they need to fill. Joel Przybilla is a great defender, but he’s super injury-prone, and Kurt Thomas is approaching 40-years old faster everyday. Chances are they won’t have two lottery picks again for awhile, so picking up a center from the free agency is the next best option.
Omer Asik, Greg Stiemsma and Jermaine O’Neal are pretty decent options, but the best move would be to package Raymond Felton (sign-and-trade) to whatever team drafts Syracuse big, Fab Melo, and try to make a deal.
The Blazers are also reportedly interested in highly sought-after free agents, Goran Dragic and Steve Nash, and could stand to expand the search for a back-up SF for Nic Batum.
3. Re-Sign Nic Batum and J.J. Hickson
The Blazers find themselves in a unique position where they have approximately $15 million in cap space to spend on free agents BEFORE Nic Batum or J.J. Hickson, both restricted free agents, receive offer sheets from other teams. Afterwards, Hickson’s $4.4 million qualifying offer and Batum’s $5.2 million cap hold come off of the team’s cap space, leaving them upwards of nothing to work with.
After the Blazers sign some key free agents this summer, it’s imperative that they bring both RFA’s back to the team. Olshey called Batum and Aldridge “cornerstones” of the franchise, and Hickson averaged 14.8 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game in April, while L.A. was out getting hip surgery done.
Hickson would continue to be a solid back-up af PF, bringing energy and intensity off the bench, and would give Lillard another big man to play off of.
4. Find the Right Head Coach
The Blazers have put their search for a head coach on hold until after the NBA Draft, but all indications thus far have pointed towards the team either keeping interim “in-house favorite,” Kaleb Canales, or choosing between Golden State Warriors’ assistant coach, Michael Malone, or Indiana Pacers’ assistant coach, Brian Shaw.
Keeping Canales saves the Blazers money, and he’s highly regarded by most of the team’s roster, including high praise from captain L.A., but if they want to win now, Malone might be the best way to go.
Blazers’ Roster & Approx. Contacts After Off-Season:
PG: Damian Lillard ($2.554M), Nolan Smith ($1.307M)
SG: Wesley Matthews ($6.135M), Elliot Williams ($1.349M), Austin Rivers ($1.772M)
SF: Nicolas Batum (~ $9-11M), Luke Babbitt ($1.767M)
PF: LaMarcus Aldridge ($12.875M), J.J. Hickson (~ $5.5-7M), Shawne Williams (expected to opt-in to $3.1 million player option), Joel Freeland (2006 NBA Draft from Britain, > $800K)
C: Joel Przybilla (veteran’s minimum, $1.4M), Hamed Haddadi (> $2M), Kurt Thomas ($1.352M)
Head Coach: Kaleb Canales
I’d guess Rockets, Blazers and Warriors will make some type of offer for Dwight. Nets want him, but have nothing to offer until 2013.
— Jarrod N Rudolph (@JRudolphSports) June 25, 2012
——-> The Blazers don’t need to give up their two lottery picks and likely Nicolas Batum to rent Dwight Howard for a year. If he’s not going to commit long-term… even if he does commit long term, Howard’s clearly got some trust and commitment issues that Portland doesn’t need to be a part of. Avoid Superman at all costs.
Portland would look a lot better if Drummond falls to No. 6, but assuming he doesn’t (or Houston packages Lowry with the No. 14 and 16 picks to move into the Top 5), this is a good picture of what the Blazers are working with next season.
Kristian Winfield is a Staff Writer for Rip City Project and Editor of ScarletandGame.com. You can follow him on Twitter @BriscoXCI.