The end of July and early August is a dead zone for the NBA and its fans. Any significant news is few and far between. Since Paul George broke his leg in Team USA’s scrimmage, the NBA has been on the back burner while the NFL has taken center stage. Then, like a gift from the gods, the NBA released the 2014-15 season schedules, and the basketball chatter started once again.
That’s a pretty fair assessment of the Blazers, but there are some areas of concern that could cause the Blazers to take a major step back this season.
A case against the Blazers:
1. The West is incredibly deep
In the East, this Blazers team would be competing for the top seed in the conference. In the West, Portland isn’t quite on par with the teams at the top, which puts them in a dangerous position.
On paper, nearly every team in the West got better this offseason, the only exceptions being the Minnesota Timberwolves, Houston Rockets, and Sacramento Kings. There are still a few probable “gimmes” on the schedule, like the Jazz, the Lakers, and the aforementioned Timberwolves and Kings, but every other game in the West is going to be tough. The Lakers game might not even be a guaranteed win, depending on how Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash come back this season.
An injury to any member of the Blazers’ core could mean the difference between Portland playing in the playoffs and watching them on TV.
2. The Denver Nuggets are healthy
As I wrote about in my Northwest Division breakdown two weeks ago, Portland took care of business in their division, finishing with a 13-3 record. The Blazers swept the season series with the Jazz and Nuggets last season.
While Minnesota gets worse with the loss of Kevin Love, Denver improves just by getting healthy in the offseason. Danilo Gallinari missed all of last season. JaVale McGee played only five games. Nate Robinson missed almost 40 games. Ty Lawson and Wilson Chandler missed 20 games each. Even so, the Nuggets won 36 games last season. If all those pieces are back healthy and Arron Afflalo and rookie Gary Harris make a positive impact, the Nuggets could be poised for a Blazers-esque jump this season.
The Nuggets, even at full strength, are not better than the Blazers right now, but the Nuggets could surprise some people, especially with the great home court advantage known as “altitude.”
3. Can the Blazers duplicate 2013’s hot start?
The Blazers’ record in the first half of last season was 31-10. After the midpoint, the Blazers finished 23-18 in their last 41 games. In the end, the Blazers’ record was good enough for the fifth seed in the West, but their flaws were exposed in the second half of the season, LaMarcus Aldridge missed 13 of the last 41 games, and fatigue set in.
Can the Blazers count on winning 30 of their first 40 games next season again? That’s not exactly the gamble I’d want to make in the West.
A case for the Blazers:
The Blazers return everyone but Mo Williams from a team that won 54 games last season. Here’s why they’ll succeed again:
1. Upgraded bench
The loss of Williams will have a negative impact, but Steve Blake will be able to contribute in other ways, like taking care of the ball and racking up assists. Chris Kaman is an obvious upgrade over Meyers Leonard and Joel Freeland. Against San Antonio in the playoffs, Will Barton looked like he was ready to take on a bigger role, and another offseason for C.J. McCollum and Thomas Robinson can only help their game. Overall, the bench, also with veteran Dorell Wright prepared to eat minutes, should be better than last season, and that helps in so many ways.
Obviously, there won’t be as large of a drop-off when the Blazers starters grab a rest. Most importantly, the bench unit needs to hold it together for a few more minutes than last season to keep Damian Lillard, Aldridge, Robin Lopez, Nic Batum, and Wesley Matthews fresh for the entire season.
2. The Ascension of Lillard
While it looks more likely every day that Lillard will be cut from Team USA and won’t play in the FIBA World Cup, as a Blazers fan, I can only hope this summer motivates Lillard to keep getting better in order to ascend into the realm of superstars.
Lillard has the “clutch gene,” as he’s proven over and over again in his career. This season, I’m anticipating Lillard to become more consistent shooting the basketball. For such a pure shooter, Lillard shot below 43.0 percent last season. To put that in perspective, Lillard made 39.4 percent of his three-point attempts, but an underwhelming 44.7 of his two-point attempts. He struggled to finish between three and 10 feet of the hoop.
Lillard’s two-point field goal percentage ranks him 23rd among qualified point guards, just ahead of Philadelphia’s Michael Carter-Williams. In order for him to be truly considered an elite scorer among point guards, Lillard has to elevate that shooting percentage above 48 percent inside the arc. If he can raise his shooting percentage, one of the best offensive teams in the NBA becomes even more efficient, and the Blazers improve in the process. It’s a win-win.
I don’t know what to expect this season from the Trail Blazers. At worst, a trip to the playoffs? At best, a first-round series win? A trip to the Conference Finals? There are so many questions about the other teams in the West that it is hard to see where the Blazers fit. Can the Spurs defend their conference title for the third straight season? Can Russell Westbrook’s knees hold up for the Thunder to contend? What about the ever-improving Clippers and Mavericks? No one knows how it’s all going to break this season. Quite frankly, I’m just excited the Trail Blazers are in the conversation.