One game remains on the schedule for the Portland Trail Blazers, Thursday’s contest against the Utah Jazz. Unlike their upcoming opponent, they are fighting for nothing. They are currently 28-37 and in 11th-place in the Western Conference. Their current situation doesn’t matter, though. The future is now the focal point. Potentially with two lottery picks in this June’s draft, they could take advantage of a deep draft and snag two talented players who could fuel immediate success for the franchise. Who do they target? And then there is free-agency. Who do they go after? For whom will the Jazz game be their last in a Blazers uniform? As is seemingly the case every summer and fall for Portland, so many questions need to be answered.
There are more, too. Those questions posed just focus on the players. More surround the coaching staff and the front office. Who will be their head coach? Is Kaleb Canales the man for the job? Will they actually get a GM or will they promote Chad Buchanan?
This team, which was expected to take the next step this season and grow as a franchise, took a couple of steps back. How do they take three forward now? The solutions are simple.
Who To Keep
LaMarcus Aldridge: the cornerstone of the franchise, who played most of the season with a hip injury that ultimately forced him onto the operating table. He played well despite being hampered by the discomfort, but the question going forward surrounding him is this: will he shift from power forward to center next season? With the emergence of backup power forward J.J. Hickson this season and the slew of power forwards projected to be selected in the lottery, a move for the star isn’t too far-fetched.
Nicolas Batum: Robin to Aldridge’s Batman. He was one of Portland’s main options this season, averaging 13 points and four rebounds while shooting 45 percent from the field, including 39 percent from three-point range. Portland has yet to sign him to an extension, and as a result he is a restricted free-agent this summer. Given his age, 23, and his potential, some suitors may throw all of their eggs in his basket and offer a king’s ransom. Portland should match any offer, even if that means overpaying for his services.
J.J. Hickson: Hickson has been one of the Blazers few bright spots since being signed in late March. In 18 games he is averaging 15 points and eight rebounds in 31 minutes per game. An aggressive player offensively, the 23-year-old is a free-agent this summer. Portland should do all it can to re-sign him. It may cost a pretty penny, but bringing him back needs to be a top-priority. Considering what he brings to the table, keeping the three-pronged attack of Aldridge, Batum, and Hickson together is very important to the team’s future success. Earlier this month, he said he would “love to re-sign” with Portland.
Elliot Williams: The second-year guard literally jumped onto the scene this season before injuring his shoulder and needing surgery. The high-flyer was an incredibly exciting player, leaping for dunks and possessing a dependable jumper. He looks to be a more controlled, versatile version of Jerryd Bayless, the former Blazers guard who is now excelling in Toronto. Williams could be the point guard of the future in Portland.
Wesley Matthews: He is streaky, and he isn’t the defensive stalwart he was once touted as, but he can continue to provide some much-needed scoring from the shooting guard position. He gives them an option on the wing. They may need to target a guard in the NBA Draft as depth, but keeping an experienced player like Matthews is vital.
Who To Target
The 2012 NBA Drat is expected to be one of the deepest in recent memory. The talent primarily resides at the forward positions. Kentucky’s Terrence Jones, Kansas’s Thomas Robinson, Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, and Baylor’s Perry Jones III are potential targets, but each player has his downside. None of the four have versatile games offensively nor are they particularly impressive defensively. And none of them are definitively a power forward or small forward. The height-range of these four is small, from 6’7″ to 6’9.” As a result, two questions arise. First, do they have the strength to go against the bulk and low-post ability of of NBA power forwards? And second, if they are used as small forwards, can they keep up with the speed of NBA small forwards?
No matter what position they play in the pros, Portland would be wise to take one of them. Unless the New Jersey Nets get a top-three pick in the draft, the Blazers should have two lottery selections if the ping pong balls are kind. They could use one on, for example, Jones–a Portland native who attended Jefferson High School–and use the other on a guard as depth behind either Williams or Matthews. Kendell Marshall, as traditional and unselfish a point guard as they come, is a popular name in relation to the Blazers. If they choose to get a shooting guard–and therefore keep Nolan Smith and Jonny Flynn as point guard depth–Kentucky’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is the top target. He is expected to go in the top-three, so obtaining him could be a stretch. More realistic options are landing Florida’s Bradley Beal, UConn’s Jeremy Lamb, or Duke’s Austin Rivers.
In hindsight, Portland has had some forgettable drafts in recent years. Given how much talent is in this year’s version, it is hard go in the wrong direction (though I am not particularly high on Perry Jones III).
The Blazers haven’t just struggled in drafts. This year, they struggled mightily on the court. They were hurt by distractions. They changed their head coach. They made trades that hurt their chances of contending. And at times they had a disconnected mentality. Portland can get back in track first through the draft, then by solidifying the front office, making a decision as to whether Canales remains the head coach, and filling out their roster by adding low-risk, high-reward pieces through free-agency. Factoring in their woes this season, the franchise can’t go anywhere but up. And given the opportunities they will have to get better, they should bounce back next season some with new faces and a great chance to contend.