With the 2013-14 Trail Blazers season just days away (you can almost taste it), can Portland make their first playoff appearance in three seasons? Which of the rookies will make the biggest mark? Will Damian Lillard hit a sophomore slump? I don’t have a crystal ball on hand, but here’s what I believe the players who will make the biggest impacts this season.
Most Valuable Player: Damian Lillard
The biggest fear fans have for Lillard’s second season is when (if ever) he might hit the sophomore slump and see his numbers drop. Lillard never made contact with the “rookie wall” last year that resulted in a sweep of Rookie of the Month awards. For his second year, opposing teams now have an idea of what to expect from the dynamic point guard from Weber State, they know which side of the court he likes to drive, know when to close out on him more and successfully double-team him at the right time.
One of the reasons why the shiny R.O.Y. trophy is behind glass at Lillard’s home is because of his almost veteran-like composure. There were plenty of times where he simply didn’t look like the newbie, and don’t expect Lillard to give into the pressure for his second act. He’s got a full 82-game season under his belt, he knows the ups and downs during the season and knows his goal is to get Portland back into the postseason alongside LaMarcus Aldridge at his side.
After a very successful summer for Portland with a brand new productive bench and the additions of Mo Williams and Earl Watson to further groom (and give Damian some extra time to rest on the bench), Lillard is poised to be the most valuable player wearing the Blazers uniform.
Best Rookie: CJ McCollum
Who else can’t wait to see both Lillard and McCollum sharing the backcourt and starting fast breaks? McCollum, selected with the 10th pick in the Draft this past June, is like Lillard in plenty of ways. He can shoot the ball well, defend the perimeter and has a good sense of court vision when Portland is running the fast break.
Could this mean back-to-back Rookie of the Year awards in Portland?
If McCollum was placed in the sixth man role off the bench, it would be a good argument, but with the addition of veteran point Mo Williams likely to take that sixth spot, McCollum might actually not get as much playing time as many had hoped now with the broken foot. As he starts the season in a walking boot for awhile, it’ll be interesting if McCollum can make any contribution or if the depth chart will be likely set in stone. Coach Stotts may very slide him over to SG but it’ll be a tight jam considering Matthews, Claver and Crabbe.
McCollum likely won’t be producing the same numbers as he did while playing all four years at Leigh (21.3 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 3.3 APG) but after watching him get comfortable during Summer League, McCollum has the tools to become a very skilled and respected NBA player.
Best Offseason Addition: Mo Williams
Mo Williams comes into Portland ready to handle the workload of solidifying a second unit that was lost on offensive last season, and is someone who isn’t afraid to pull the trigger himself that’s a very welcoming sign.
Williams (13.8 PPG, 5 APG, 2.9 RPG) is one of those score-first point guards and has a nice touch from both beyond the arc and free throw line. His offensive output will be the biggest factor for when the starters go to the bench. The Blazers were dead last in the league in scoring with the second unit, and Williams will likely change that for the better.
Another key feature is William’s playoff experience. In 2009 he alongside LeBron James took the Cleveland Cavaliers to 66 wins and a spot in the Conference Finals, only to be defeated by the Magic 4-2. The following season the Cavs were the best team again with a 61-21 record and 1st seed in the playoffs, but fell short to the Celtics in the semifinals 4-2.
Much of the current Blazers roster hasn’t seen life past the first round, Williams knows how to deal with that kind of pressure and will be key if Portland can make it back into contention this season.
Most Improved: Thomas Robinson
You can’t deny something was off when someone like Robinson, a 6’-10”, 237 lbs power forward from Kansas was selected 5th overall by the Kings in the 2012 Draft (a spot above Lillard) and already has gone through two teams.
The Kings were hoping to get a monster on the boards, and he is. He has the drive, skill and good finishing touches around the rim to be a figure no one wants to mess with down low. The problem in Sacramento is his college skills weren’t exactly fitting with NBA standards and he was quickly dumped for cash to Houston. In turn, the Rockets gave him to Portland in their successful quest for Dwight Howard.
The best thing for Robinson is a fresh start in a new city where he can practically start over. Coach Terry Stotts and the organization believe he can be the rebounding beast, and although there are a lot of areas he needs to improve on, I believe Robinson will be the feel good story of the season and will prove many doubters wrong.