GDHQNBA15_2pg-Portland Trail Blazers

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WESTERN CONFERENCE NORTHWEST DIVISION Portland Going into the 2013-14 NBA season, the Portland Trail Blazers weren’t expected to make very much noise in the Western Conference. After winning 34 games the previous season, Portland’s only major personnel change was to replace J.J. Hickson with Robin Lopez at the center position. While Hickson’s lack of defense makes him a poor fit as a starting center, Lopez wasn’t thought of as a particularly impactful player either. What we saw was a Portland team that found its identity. Damian Lillard took a step forward as Portland’s answer to Stephen Curry, a tremendous shooter who became known as a go-to man in the clutch. LaMarcus Aldridge became a dual threat, establishing a quality midrange jump shot to go along with good post play. The result was a team that improved to a 54-28 record and made it to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. Defense While Portland became one of the most efficient offensive teams in basketball last season, that efficiency didn’t quite carry over to their defense. Portland simply does not have the ingredients necessary to be an elite defensive squad. They don’t have a rim protector who can block shots regularly. They don’t have a defensive specialist on the wing. None of their bench players provided high-level defense either. The biggest liability on defense was ironically the player who likely helped the team the most on offense: Damian Lillard. While Lillard’s clutch shooting propelled the Trail Blazers to a number of victories throughout the season, he was also regularly abused by opposing point guards in the stacked Western Conference. If Lillard wants to take a step forward towards being a genuine superstar, he needs to improve his defense, especially against the pick-and-roll. Outside of Lillard, none of Portland’s starters was particularly bad on defense, but none of them were particularly good either. LaMarcus Aldridge probably counts as Portland’s best defensive player, but while Aldridge will never get embarrassed by an opposing power forward, he’s not really a gamechanging defensive force either. The same could be said of Robin Lopez, whose defense was fine for the most part but struggled against tough opponents like Dwight Howard. Meanwhile, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum both rated as below-average wing defenders. According to ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, Matthews graded out as a -1.08 while Batum was a -0.95. Reserve wings Will Barton and Dorell Wright were equally poor. With Portland returning the same group of wings as last year, defensive improvement will have to come from within. Another problem is that the bench simply didn’t provide any defensive specialists. Nobody had to change their offensive game plan to account for players like Meyers Leonard, Mo Williams, Will Barton, or Thomas Robinson. If anything, opponents would attack these players, making substitutions a dicey proposition for a relatively thin Portland team. It’s also unlikely that help on defense will come in the form of offseason additions like point guard Steve Blake or big man Chris Kaman. Those players will improve Portland’s bench, but if the Trail Blazers want to truly contend for a Western Conference championship, they’ll have to improve defensively. That improvement will need to come from the starting five, but it’s difficult to see anybody in that unit emerging as a great rim protector or defensive specialist. Offense The Blazers made up for their relatively poor defense with an offensive renaissance. Portland finished with an offensive rating of 111.5, second best in the NBA behind only the Clippers. This was accomplished thanks to a starting five in which all five players could score and two of them—Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge—could take over games. Aldridge’s development of a midrange jump shot was a point of much debate throughout the season. While midrange shots are generally considered less efficient than three pointers or shots near the basket, coach Terry Stotts believed that Aldridge’s shooting could give Portland some much needed spacing. By shooting from range, Aldridge forced opponents to draw a big man away from the basket, opening up driving lanes for the guards. Damian Lillard Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images


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