NBA 2014-15 Power Rankings Preview: #11 Portland Trail Blazers
This NBA offseason has been very eventful and the preseason is now in full swing. To help hoops junkies with the transition from the lull of summer back to competitive basketball, we here at numberFire will be rolling out our projections for next season in the form of team previews, starting at 30 and going all the way to number one. We continue today with the 11th-ranked Portland Trail Blazers!
After a blazing hot 22-4 start to the year, Portland faded down the stretch, finishing last season as the fifth seed in the Western Conference with a 54-28 record. Despite falling in the standings and failing to secure home-court advantage in the playoffs, the Blazers brought us one of the most memorable playoff moments in recent memory. Damian Lillard showed that he's a true superstar, breaking the Rockets' hearts with a series-clinching, fade-away 25-footer as time expired in Game 6 of the opening round, effectively punching his team's ticket into the second round of the playoffs. Now with some playoff experience under their belt, the young Blazers look to continue to improve and take the next step towards winning their first NBA Championship since 1977.
Projected Record: 45-37
Western Conference Rank: 6th
NBA Rank: 11th
Playoff Chances: 67.77%
Championship Chances: 2.80%
Considering how loaded the Western Conference is, our algorithms actually have the Blazers slightly regressing from last season. We project Portland to finish the season with a 45-37 record, ranking sixth in the West and 11th in the NBA.
Portland returns their entire starting lineup and nearly all of their core players from a year ago. This is great news for a franchise that hadn't won a playoff series since 2000 until last season, but if the Blazers want to prove us wrong and continue to build towards a championship, they will have to make huge strides on the defensive end. Portland ranked 16th in both numberFire defensive efficiency (107.4) and defensive rating (104.7).
Becoming a better defensive team starts with keeping their big men healthy - specifically defensive anchor Robin Lopez - but it will also be critical for their backcourt to continue to get better defending the perimeter. Will Barton was the only Blazers' guard who finished the season with a defensive rating better than 109, and he only played 9.4 minutes a game. That is simply unacceptable for a team with championship aspirations.
Portland wasn't particularly active this off season. After not making a single pick in this years' NBA draft, the Blazers only made a few low-profile moves in free agency. Backup point guard Williams led for Minnesota in free agency and Watson retired in order to join the Spurs' coaching staff. With those two roster spots vacated, the Blazers brought signed Blake to replace Williams as Lillard's backup and brought Kaman in to bolster their front court depth.
With more than a decade in the league under his belt and the ability to play both guard positions, Blake will bring experience and versatility to a Blazers' front court which has lacked consistent production behind Lillard and Wesley Matthews. Kaman brings similar traits to the Blazers' front court. Kaman provides a defensive anchor to Portland's second unit while also adding a much needed scoring option to the teams' bench.
Three Burning Questions
Will Lillard become a true superstar?
Through the first two years of his career Lillard has been Rookie of the Year, an All-Star and All-NBA Third Team. He improved his numbers across the board from his rookie season to his sophomore season, and has emerged as one of the leaders of this team. While the Blazers' point guard has definitely been a great player, has he been one of the truly elite at the point guard position? The short answer is no.
Lillard did rank fifth among point guards last season with a 7.5 nERD - a stat that measures the value a player adds to his team over the course of the entire season - but there are a few key areas where Lillard lagged behind the pack. Whereas Lillard is one of the best scoring point guards in the league averaging 20.7 points per game, he isn't nearly as good at distributing the ball as the best of the best at the point guard position. The Blazers' point guard averaged just 5.7 assists last season, ranking 23rd in the league. Additionally, his 25.1% assist percentage fell outside of the top 20 in the league.
On top of setting up his teammates more frequently, if Lillard wants to be considered a true superstar in this league he will have to greatly improve on the defensive end. As I alluded to earlier, the former Weber State standout had a defensive rating of 110 this past season. That means for every 100 possessions Lillard allowed the player he was guarding to score 110 points. Ouch! The best players in this league are all two-way players. Before Lillard can be in that conversation he will have to step up his defense.
Lillard took a massive step towards superstardom with the dagger that ended Houston's season last year. With that memory burned into NBA fans' brains, fans and analysts all have high hopes for Portland's young point guard this season. If he can improve his passing and defense, it will not only go a long way to his emergence as one of the elite players in the league but it will inch the Blazers ever closer to that coveted NBA title.
Can the Blazers' big men stay healthy?
The answer to this question may have the biggest effect on Portland's title hopes. The reason why this question arises is because both Kaman and the Blazers' all-star forward LaMarcus Aldridge have had trouble staying healthy for prolonged periods of time in the past. Aldridge, who is Portland's best scorer and rebounder, has missed a total of 48 games over the past three seasons. This has caused major issues for the team because they have lacked depth behind Aldridge over the past few years.
Aldridge's injury history and the lack of depth behind him is one of the main reasons they signed Kaman, but Kaman hasn't been able to stay healthy himself in recent years. The former long-time Clipper hasn't been able to piece together a 70-game season since 2009 and has only been able to play more than 60 games twice over the past seven seasons. Adding an accomplished, productive player like Kaman to your bench is certainly a smart move, but if he is unable to stay on the floor the Blazers are right back to square one.
The good news for Portland is that their starting center, Lopez, has been a model of consistency over the past two seasons. The Blazers' center hasn't missed a game since 2011, but even he has a history of injury concerns. Before playing every single one of his team's games the past two years, Lopez was unable to play 70 games in any of his first four seasons in the league. When Aldridge missed time last season Lopez was able to help keep the team afloat by anchoring the front court, but if he, Aldridge and Kaman are unable to stay healthy the Blazers could be in for a major regression this season.
Will the Blazers' bench be improved enough to take pressure off of the starters?
While Portland did have one of the best starting lineups in the entire NBA, their bench flat out stunk last season. All five Blazers' starters averaged more than 31 minutes per game with Mo Williams being the only player who averaged more than 15 minutes off of the bench. Portland's starting five accounted for a ridiculous 79% of the teams' points last season. That is the largest percentage in the league. And if you take away the departed Williams' 9.7 points per game, that percentage shoots up to 87%.
The Blazers' bench was full of young players who lacked experience but showed tremendous upside last season. C.J. McCollum and Allen Crabbe are both entering their sophomore seasons and Thomas Robinson entering his third season in the league this year. All three of those players should have more confidence as well as a better understanding of the Blazers' system and should be able to contribute significantly more this season than last.
Outside of the backup point guard Williams, the Blazers just simply had no veteran presence on the bench. Adding Kaman and Blake to the second unit should provide Portland with the right mix of youthful exuberance and veteran experience that successful teams need off of the bench. Improved bench play will take the pressure off of the starting five and could give Portland a huge boost in the quest for a championship.
Fantasy Hoops Stock Watch
SG/SF Nicolas Batum (Yahoo O-Rank: 26)
Perennially one of the most under-rated players in fantasy, Nicolas Batum is one of the rare players that can provide you with real value in all nine of the standard fantasy categories. Batum played all 82 of the Blazers' games last season and averaged 13 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.7 blocks a game last year, and I would not be the least big shocked if he improved in every single one of those categories this season. What also makes Batum such an appealing fantasy option is the fact that you can play him at both the shooting guard and small forward positions. This opens up the door for you to play him at four different positions on any given night - shooting guard, guard, small forward and forward. The Blazers' wing man's consistency and versatility makes him a great player to draft as one of the corner stones of your fantasy team. Although Batum does come into the season with a relatively high preseason ranking of 26 overall, I would not be the least bit surprised if he finished as a top 20 overall fantasy player.
C Robin Lopez (Yahoo O-Rank: 76)
The center position is loaded with talent, but overlooking Lopez would be a mistake. Lopez quietly finished as the 46th best player in fantasy last season, finishing inside the top 20 among all players who qualify as centers. He started all 82 of Portland's games while averaging 11.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. Although Portland's center does not provide you much in terms of assists (0.9) or steals (0.3), what he brings to the table that most big men do not is a high free throw percentage at 81.8%. Lopez ranks outside of the top-75 players to start the season, but if he's able to stay healthy it's hard to imagine him finishing any lower than he did last year. The Blazers' big man makes a perfect target if you're looking to punt on assists and should be a steal for anyone who drafts him at his current ADP.