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Enemy: Portland Trail Blazers
3SOB Forecast*: 35-47

Photo: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images

What’s the story in Rip City?

I have no problems with Damian Lillard — at all. In fact, I really like him. But if looking at the above photo of him dapping up Chris Paul is what it takes to garner the motivation to assess him as an “enemy,” then that’s what I will have to do.

The Portland Trail Blazers exhibited little pause in the draft last year when it came their turn to select in the sixth slot, as they chose the senior guard Lillard out of Weber State. Turns out that they were correct in their convictions as Lillard proved more than capable of transitioning to the next level, averaging 19.1 points and 6.5 assists per game en route to snatching rookie of the year honors (but don’t remind him of that).

After a tailspin of injuries and despair that saw the Blazers rapidly descend from the “Thunder before the Thunder were,” to a state of ping pong ball dreamers, Lillard panning out the way he has is the kick of adrenaline that the franchise needed.

So now the 2013 draft comes around and the Blazers inevitably find themselves in the lottery once again — this time around picking in the tenth slot. Lo and behold, there is a 6’3 guard with a go-to scorer’s mentality coming off his senior season at a mid-major college projected to fall within their range.

Does that profile sound familiar? Because it should. Since it worked out so well the first time, the Blazers opted to pounce again. This time the name called was C.J. McCollum. In a recent interview with Yahoo’s Marc Spears, Lillard provided ringing endorsements for his new backcourt mate, calling him “fearless,” and stating that McCollum was who he wanted Portland to draft. The dual threat of Lillard and McCollum, with each steady enough to bring the ball up and lethal enough to be a threat off the ball, should give opposing defenses headaches for the duration of their partnership.

The Blazers did not just sit on their laurels after drafting McCollum and call it an off-season, though. Possessing arguably the shallowest bench in the league last season, general manager Neil Olshey was certain to cover all of the bases this summer to resolve those issues. As a result, his Blazers were one of the more active teams in all markets, bringing in Allen Crabbe through the draft, taking a low-risk chance on last year’s high-lottery pick Thomas Robinson, signing instant-offense guys Dorrell Wright and Mo Williams, and trading for the floppy-haired Robin Lopez, to swing their status on the continuum to that of one of the deepest teams on the block.

Prior to the off-season, franchise seven-footer LaMarcus Aldridge was reportedly unhappy with the organization, and found his name front-and-center on nearly every rumor mill. With the summer that his team had, though, I would have to imagine that there is little left fuel for his desire to want out, aside from a simple change of scenery.

Who are they cooking with?

PG: Damian Lillard
SG: Wesley Matthews
SF: Nicolas Batum
PF: LaMarcus Aldridge
C : Robin Lopez
6 : C.J. McCollum

The Blazers were definitely active in remedying their roster needs over the course of the off-season, but the nucleus of the team remains largely the same… which is a good thing. In spite of all the turnover on the bench, the continuity of the core should allow them to move forward without taking any steps back in 2013-14.

As a whole, the team performed near the middle of the pack as far as most measurables are concerned, but it stands to note that the shallow bench contributed greatly to the Blazers’ plight, as there was no degree of cushioning built into the roster to absorb the shock of injury. Without a true center in the mix, they were at their best fielding smaller lineups and ramping up the pace last season. In fact the lineup of Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nic Batum, Aldridge, and Russia-bound Luke Babbitt ranked sixth in the league in offensive efficiency, scoring 125.0 points per 100 possessions — a mark eclipsed only by lineups of the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder. As impressive as it is, though, the measure may be moot, with the potential outlook for a more conventional lineup looking stronger than it has in a long time.

Aldridge is one of the most professional guys in the game. While attending shoot-around for the All-Star game, I saw a total of three Western Conference players on the court putting serious work into the craft, even prior to the free-wheeling exhibition — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and LaMarcus.

His biggest issues in Portland have been rooted in his necessity to play the center position, as he has been lacking a sufficient counterpart in the paint since Greg Oden’s knees gave out on him. Thus, he must be thanking his lucky stars that he enters the season with the new addition of Lopez to man the five. Lopez will allow Aldridge to play his natural position at the four, as well as migrate out to the perimeter, and according to Lillard on TrueHoop TV, even begin shooting threes. With the green light to step out there and a capable partner for to run the pick and roll with in Lillard, Aldridge may be poised for a career year.

If there is any factor that stands to change from last season it is the sheer amount of scoring punch coming off the bench, now. The rookie McCollum will be the first to be called upon in that regard, but he is far from alone. Williams and Wright have both been 15+ point scorers per game in the past, and will combine in a Blazers attack that will be predicated on spacing the court with perimeter-play and shooting that are second to none.

How do the good guys stack up?

Photo: Bruce Ely / The Oregonian

Chip Crain:

The Trailblazers are a very talented team but lack one major aspect of the game needed to defeat a team like the Grizzlies consistently. They don’t have a gritty personality. Portland reminds me of the Brazilian soccer team in that regard. Damian Lillard is an incredible player who can carry the team individually when his shot is falling. LeMarcus Aldridge is a beautiful offensive player with intelligence to battle under the boards despite his slight build but after that you have Batum, Matthews and others who are fine players but seemingly unwilling to fight hard enough when things get ugly. They prefer a pretty game with smooth perimeter shots and slick passes but won’t fight hard enough to win if their shots aren’t falling. Until they find that heart to go with their talent they will remain a .500 type team who can win if their shots are falling but fold when they have to fight when their shots aren’t going in.

Matt Noe:

The Blazers have been an enigma since “knees” became a dirty word in Portland. Taking a look at the current roster (more on that word “current” in a second), the phrase “perimeter-oriented” rolls right off the ol’ tongue. But they have Lamarcus, you say. But he’s allergic to paint, I say. The big question, of course has to do with what jersey LMA might wear come late February, and the answer, of course, will have plenty to do with the W-L record of the team around that time. Whether he stays or goes, the perimeter is where it starts and ends for this team on both ends.

They have one of the most awesomest (those are the words that fit, right?) young players in the NBA in Damian Lillard, a player I really wanted the Grizzlies to get in the draft in shooter Allan Crabbe, YET ANOTHER almost-Grizzly in Dorrell Wright, ONE MORE YET ANOTHER near-Grizzly in Mo Williams…that’s almost weird, huh? They also put on the floor sometime Grizzly-killer Wes Matthews and Nicholas Batum who is a rangy if unspectacular defender and a viable scoring threat from inside and out. The Grizzlies should be able to handle most of the combinations these guys throw on the floor, although even the Grindfather will have trouble on occasion with Lillard (who it would not  surprise me to see get a turn against Damian). As for the offensive end…good ball movement (and more of it, as has been promised) should be able to get Conley loose to score or dump the ball  down low.

Speaking of down low….this is where the Grizzlies should be able to make a meal of the Blazers. No way will Robin Lopez, Meyers Leonard (who did impress me with his physicality and  toughness last season), Joel Freeland, and the rest be able to put the stops on ZBo, Marc, and the fellas. Flat-out physicality should be able to wear down the Blazers (see for reference: Clippers series, esp. game 5) to where the Grizzlies will be able to score plenty. The only guy in the NBA with more Sideshow Bob hair than Varejao, Robin Lopez, has actually given the Grizzlies problems in the past-but if Gasol can win the foul battle, Lopez will be off the floor and the Grizzlies will  rule the paint. I’d be shocked if the Blazers didn’t improve at least a little bit on last year’s 33 wins (although Stotts is not a coach who’s going to lead the team to the Finals), but the Grizzlies will be deeper and better than the Blazers.

Phillip Dean:

The Portland Trail Blazers have always made a way to make the matchups with the Memphis Grizzlies heart pounding and aggressive at the same time. Since the 2010-2011 season, the Portland Trail Blazers have not made the NBA Playoffs.  Ending the 2012-2013 season with a 33-49 record and finishing 11th in the Western Conference, the Trail Blazers front office are moving many pieces to find a way to get this franchise back into playoff material.

The rookie of the year is without a doubt going to be a superstar. Averaging last year 19.0 PPG and 6.5 APG as well as being named team captain the Portland Trail Blazers have a franchise player. Lillard was a headache to Mike Conley, Jerryd Bayless, and especially Keyon Dooling all last year with his perimeter shooting and key passing skills. If the Trail Blazers want to get back in the playoff hunt the front office needs to build a roster around Lillard. Having an All-Star such as LaMarcus Aldridge on your team helps this team. If you can keep him healthy he will always be a headache for the Memphis Grizzlies. I worry that Aldridge will be the next Trail Blazers star to end career short with injuries such as Greg Oden and Brandon Roy. Letting J.J. Hickson, who led the team in rebounding averaging a career high 10.4 last year, sign with the Denver Nuggets will hurt the Trail Blazers this season. Bringing a center like Robin Lopez makes this team better but not the level of playoff contender. Robin is nowhere near the level of his twin brother Brook and Robin will always have trouble defending the duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.

And for Memphis Tigers fans, Will Barton needs to make a major impact on the bench for this team or else he will send packing just like another former Tiger Elliot Williams. Overall the Grizzlies still have the better starting lineup and deeper bench than the Trail Blazers but it’s quite possible they can steal one game out the three game series in the 2013-2014 season.

When and Where do they square off?

January 28th: 9:00PM at the Rose Garden
March 7th: 7:00PM at the FedEx Forum
March 30th: 8:00PM at the Rose Garden

For more Blazers content, check out our TrueHoop comrades at Portland Roundball Society.

*3SOB forecast projections are derived from an average of the contributing staff’s predicted win totals.

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3 Responses to Assessing the Enemy: Portland Trail Blazers

  1. grizzlyballerNo Gravatar says:

    Jeez you must hate Keyon Dooling. He never even played against Lillard (he got signed late). I think Portland will be tough, but they never seem to put it together. Grit and Grind…

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