As LaMarcus Aldridge departs Portland and joins the San Antonio Spurs juggernaut of efficient robots led by Tim Duncan, there is no mistaking the pain his decision has caused Blazers fans. Losing a player of his caliber hurts. So does the evaporation of a winning team. Portland was a potential championship contender before Wesley Matthews went down with just about the most severe injury a player can suffer. And now only 24-year-old Damian Lillard remains from that starting five.
While there is so much to digest about this quick transformation from contender into rebuilding effort, there are also many questions left unanswered. Did Aldridge ever really consider returning to the Blazers? Was the “I want to be the best Blazer ever” quote he uttered last offseason truly the idea of General Manager Neil Olshey as reported, a PR stunt to hide the probability that the last year of his contract would indeed be his last in Rip City? Was there a irreparable strain on his relationship with Lillard? And if so, did Lillard’s phone call courtship actually work against Portland?
We may never know the answers. And at this point perhaps it doesn’t matter. What matters most is that Aldridge is gone and Lillard has been left the keys to the car. Where does Portland go from here? That’s a question that can be answered. And the answer is up.
Potentially transforming into a 30-win team next year might not qualify as up, but here’s a theory as to why Portland’s current situation is encouraging: Lillard is the guy now, and as he showed in his courtship of Aldridge his heart is in Portland. He might not be able to accomplish what he set out to do, with Aldridge leaving his side, but he will undoubtedly do everything he can to swiftly build this franchise into a winner. And considering the Blazers have acquired a flurry of young talent this offseason, the team will be nothing if not exciting.
Olshey didn’t woo Greg Monroe to Portland, as their plan B to Aldridge decided to sign a max contract with Milwaukee, but while they may not be big names he brought in some players who can help shoulder Lillard’s load.
It all starts with the bigs. Center Meyers Leonard came into his own last year, proving to be a threat both inside and out, and should flourish with an increased role this coming season. Mason Plumlee, picked up from the Brooklyn Nets, and free-agent signings Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis mirror Leonard in that they are also high-energy frontcourt players looking to break out with more minutes. Also in their favor is their youth, at 26 or younger.
This quartet, all 6’10″ or taller, will provide Lillard with options all over the court: Plumlee and Davis on the inside and in the mid-range game; Aminu and Leonard everywhere from 25 feet on in. This versatility should lead to a great deal of activity from side to side and top to bottom, with perhaps heavy reliance on scoring off screens and on slashing cuts. These four, on top of their size, are high-flyers. Fast-breaks were disastrous last season even when Portland was at their most dangerous; come this fall, all Lillard will have to do is lob a pass in the rim’s vicinity.
Aminu is the only small forward on the roster, so they will need to stay busy this offseason with the continued mindset of brining in under-the-radar players to fill out that position. Gerald Green would qualify. He not only fits the high-flying trend, but he’s also an excellent three-point shooter with improved offense off the dribble. He’s as athletic as they come, and though reports suggest the Blazers aren’t interested in signing him they would be wise to revert course and give him a look. A team can’t have too much athleticism.
While small forward may be thin, Portland is more or less set at shooting guard. C.J. McCollum, like Leonard, is coming off a very productive season and looks to take advantage of an increased role. When Wesley Matthews was lost for the year, McCollum stepped up, improving his shooting from deep while becoming more and more fearless on drives to the basket. Whether head coach Terry Stotts starts him or not, he will ultimately have the task of filling Matthews shoes after the starting guard’s departure to Dallas. Portland won’t be able to duplicate all Matthews brought to the table, but McCollum’s confident shooting and playmaking ability will go a long way towards filling most of the hole he left. Helping the cause is the addition of veteran Gerald Henderson, who is different enough from McCollum to keep defenses on their toes. While McCollum is more of a gunslinger, Henderson is more grounded and composed offensively, focusing on his mid-range game rather than hoisting from deep. And he can fly, as this dunk from 2012 as a member of the Charlotte Bobcats (now Charlotte Hornets) illustrates.
If those two aren’t enough, Portland added Pat Connaughton, who was Brooklyn’s 41st overall pick in June’s NBA Draft. At 6’5″ he has good size for a shooting guard and enough bulk to slide over and play the 3. Known for his three-point shooting, the University of Notre Dame product is also from the Gerald Henderson School Of Leaping, with some eye-popping hop to his step. As is the case with Henderson, that athleticism, with an accompanying fearlessness, helps him in the rebounding category.
Portland might be down a star–or four–with Aldridge, Matthews and center Robin Lopez finding new homes through free-agency and small forward Nicolas Batum through trade, but that doesn’t mean Lillard is alone. Surrounding him might not be a Robin to his Batman, but his passes won’t go into a black hole of despair. They will go to an arsenal of players also in their young 20s ready to take the next step and liftoff. There is nowhere near a 50-win team here. There might not be a team that can stay out of the Northwest Division’s basement. And yet there is a team that won’t go down without a fight, with a motivated Lillard, angry, determined and ready to be the guy, at the helm. And for right now, that’s enough.