The Portland Trail Blazers entered Sunday’s game against the Boston Celtics having lost seven straight, the last of which a tough loss to the Los Angeles Lakers to put them at 25-30 on the season. They snuck past Boston, but are still four games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, and only made a minor move at the trade deadline in acquiring point guard Eric Maynor from the Oklahoma City Thunder. Maynor’s former team is what Portland aspires to mirror. It was thought a few years ago that the Blazers would be the next big thing in the league–an exciting, young team with a bright future. The future was bright, but the light soon went out. Greg Oden couldn’t stay healthy, nor could Brandon Roy, and with that ended an era that had such high hopes. Now, with a new coach, a new face of the franchise, and a young core they look to be the kind of team they were once supposed to be.
That won’t happen this year. This is a year of acclimation and progression. And yet they have exceeded the expectations of many.
Point guard and frontrunner for the Rookie of the Year award Damian Lillard is a big reason why. He has been the brightest of many bright spots, taking the league by storm with his explosive scoring and overall intelligence as the floor general. He is shooting only 41 percent from the field and 34 percent from the three-point line, taking an average of six attempts per game, but having been given the reigns to the team he still racks up the points, scoring 18 per, while routinely coming up clutch late.
Lillard has without a doubt been the NBA’s best rookie this season, but it is far from a one-man show in Portland. LaMarcus Aldridge was named to his second All-Star game and has been the Blazers most consistent player, averaging 21 points on 47 percent shooting along with eight rebounds per game. Flanking him are three much-improved players: Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, and undersized center J.J. Hickson.
Each player in Portland’s starting lineup is playing to his strengths, but if anyone’s game could use some tweaking it is Aldridge. He’s a star, but he could be so much better if first-year head coach Terry Stotts would use him more in the post. Aldridge’s game sometimes takes him in there, but not often enough. The following has been well documented, but it is worth mentioning again: when Roy was out, Aldridge took the initiative and turned into a player the Blazers hadn’t seen before. He was far more aggressive, both in the paint and on the boards. He basically said, ‘oh, you need me to be the guy? I’ll do whatever it takes.’ Whatever it took meant being more unpredictable offensively. And with that, the next step was taken. He can be that player, but he hasn’t really tried to this year as the veteran leader.
Stotts’ offense doesn’t call for him to live in the post, and because of his excellent mid-range jumper the Blazers have received a great deal of production. That Stotts’ system allows him to shoot jumpers isn’t surprising given his background. Stotts never developed a post-player in Milwaukee, and was content relying on wings to do most of the damage. And he was on a staff in Dallas that relied heavily on Dirk Nowitzki to win games with his rainbow jumper. Milwaukee was exciting and Nowitzki praised Stotts’ influence, but to change Aldridge’s approach Stotts has to make some changes to his.
Portland, given its willingness to part with Hickson at the trade deadline, is likely to target a traditional center in the offseason. The Minnesota Timberwolves Nikola Pecovic has been mentioned as a potential target, and having someone with his presence inside offensively would help greatly. The floor would be spaced better, giving Lillard, Matthews, Batum, and Aldridge more high-percentage looks at the basket. A center with post-moves often leads to double-teams or at least the attention of another offensive player’s defender. Perhaps this might mean to some that Aldridge should be able to continue staying 17-feet from the basket, but acquiring or signing a center and creating variety in Aldridge’s game to keep defenses guessing would do a lot of good as Portland strives to be among the elite in the Western Conference.
Many teams have been successful without a quality center; Miami won a title last season with Joel Anthony playing the position–a player who isn’t offensively gifted and isn’t a particularly feared presence defensively. The makeup of teams like Miami can afford to have someone like Anthony in the middle, with stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh toying with the opposition on a gamely basis.
Portland doesn’t have the luxury the Heat have, nor the firepower of the Thunder team they desire to emulate, but they are going in the right direction, with enough talent to build upon and the flexibility to continue their second promising youth movement in seven years. With Lillard, Aldridge, Batum, and Matthews as the core fans have much to look forward to. Portland may not punch a ticket to the postseason this year, but that they are in the hunt with a baby-faced franchise cornerstone in his rookie season as well as a new coach there are plenty of reasons to believe fans filling the Rose Garden will witness postseason basketball very soon.