As part of ESPN’s NBA Preview in mid-October, the Portland Trail Blazers were picked to either be among the Draft Lottery’s ping-pong balls or to be an eighth-seed first round exit. CBSSports.com picked the team to finish just above .500, its three experts projecting 45, 43, and 42 wins. Not much was expected of Terry Stotts’ team in his second year at the helm, but what did Portland go out and do? Prove everyone wrong and position itself among the biggest surprises in the NBA. The franchise, led by ever-improving star LaMarcus Aldridge and a blossoming Damian Lillard, won 54 games, put the one-round-and-done curse to bed to reach the conference semi-finals for the first time since 2000 and, despite falling in five games to the superior San Antonio Spurs, has reason to believe the future is bright.
Portland was overwhelmed against Gregg Popovich’s well-oiled machine, but as Aldridge said following the series-ending 104-82 defeat, “[This series] definitely shows us the quality of basketball that we have to get to if we want to be on their level, to be one of these elite teams to have a chance to win a championship. They definitely showed us about moving the ball around. They made five or six passes every possession. It just makes your defense tired. It makes guys make mistakes. They definitely showed us where we are trying to go.” Now, they need to take note on why the Spurs are that good.
The Blazers made definitive strides this season in their effort to take the next step of a long staircase. The offseason signing of Robin Lopez proved crucial, as the presumed less-talented Lopez twin surprised with his ability to hold down the middle defensively, while contributing far more than expected on offense. He was part of a starting five that stuck together for the vast majority. The injury bug rarely hit the group that, along with Aldridge and Lillard, included veterans Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews, and togetherness fueled a chemistry that was undeniable and extremely enjoyable to watch. When the team was clicking on all cylinders, it was a team that looked very near championship ready. However, the Spurs exposed them, proving they indeed aren’t quite there yet. Though there are few negatives to take away from a season fans have been waiting more than a decade for, Portland must do more than watch game-tape of their series against the Spurs; they have to learn from them and take pages out of their storied and best-selling book.
This starts with defense. Stotts has never been known as a defensive-minded coach, and this season and its playoffs didn’t help his reputation. Even though Portland could certainly stop opponents in stretches they couldn’t be counted on to consistently frustrate them over the course of 48 minutes. The Blazers were 22nd in the NBA in points allowed this season, relinquishing an average of 102 per. That number rose to 110 in the postseason, placing them 14th out of 16 Western Conference teams but, fortunately for them, ahead of first-round foe Houston. There is a reason the Spurs have what it takes to win a championship this year. Along with a fundamentally sound offense with endless options, they torment opponents on defense. They have tremendous individual defenders, yes (led by Kawhi Leonard, who had five steals in Game 5), but they also play stifling team defense. Everyone is active, and as a result there is rarely an avenue to the basket or a jump-shot that isn’t difficult when facing any of Popovich’s lineups. Portland’s countering attack isn’t nearly as intimidating, hence the +78 point-differential in the Spurs four blowout wins. In preparation for next season, and in order to take another encouraging step that isn’t followed by running into a brick wall, there needs to be more emphasis on half-court defense, which glaringly includes improvements made in the pick-and-roll and on closing out on three-point shooters. San Antonio simply picked the Blazers apart in the pick-and-roll and shot 39 percent from three-point land, while making an average of seven per game.
On an individual note, as spectacularly gifted as Lillard is offensively he is that bad defensively. He needs to make this a priority. While shut-down defense is by no means easy, he has the quickness to stay in front of guys. And while the Spurs’ Tony Parker is difficult for anyone to contain, given his debilitating crossover and roadrunner-esque speed, the looks at the basket and the passing lanes he had were enjoyed by far too many guards this season. And it’s not just Lillard: Portland as a whole has to be better at defending guards. If they don’t improve in this area, they will be spinning their wheels and never make the leap.
Last year’s first-round draft pick C.J. McCollum, who showed flashes of brilliance in limited time this season and, despite being slowed due to injury, will be healthy entering next season. Perhaps he could be the player they are looking for. In any event, Portland’s bench needs help badly. The Blazers may have been the fourth-highest scoring team in the league this season, but the starters deserve most of the credit. While the bench was better than past years, there wasn’t a single consistent scoring option. Thomas Robinson continuously brought energy as an undersized power forward, but his value primarily came in the form of rebounding and hustle. Mo Williams was streaky–which Portland had to know that’s what they were signing up for in targeting him last offseason–and Will Barton similarly so, albeit with less playing time. Put simply, far too much pressure was put on the starters. Luckily for Portland, they didn’t seem to mind.
What should Portland do to help them out? Keep Robinson and Barton, who was instrumental in the Blazers lone series win with 17 points, and see what McCollum can do either spelling Lillard or Matthews. Also, let Williams go and look to sign or draft a center who can clog the middle, score and strike fear into the opponents hearts. Now, those types of big men aren’t a dime a dozen, but the organization has to search far and wide. The starting five needs no adjustment (though that doesn’t mean they don’t need to make adjustments), but in order for Stotts to rest easy giving his starters a rest, he needs more to work with than a couple of streaky shooters and an undersized power forward who doesn’t exactly scare anyone. The Spurs starting unit is dangerous, but how they wear opponents down is through their bench. Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills, Boris Diaw, Marco Belinelli–each of these players has a strength (or two, or three) and goes to it time after time. Ginobili is versatile, Diaw is crafty, Mills is a speedy gnat who just won’t go away and Belinelli is around to shoot threes just in case Leonard or fellow starter Danny Green need to rest their wrists from making so many. This is the kind of group Portland needs. Benches as trustworthy as San Antonio’s are hard to come by, but that doesn’t mean the Blazers can’t build one.
The elephant in Portland’s room is Aldridge’s contract that is due to expire following next season. The Blazers may have some pieces in place to seriously contend, but this offseason they can kill two birds with one stone: emphasize the right things to fill holes and, in turn, build a team that can challenge the Spurs and one that Aldridge would gladly be a part of for years to come.