Portland has one of the game’s best guard-big man combos in Damian Lillard (#0) and LaMarcus Aldridge (#12). Damian Lillard took a big step forward in his second season, improving his shooting efficiency, his ability to attack the basket and draw fouls, and establishing himself as the go-to option in the clutch. Lillard’s ability to make contested threes became legendary at times last season, and he only added to that legend when he ended Houston’s season with a buzzer-beating three-point shot. Wesley Matthews has a skill set that serves as a nice complement to Lillard’s top-notch shooting abilities. Matthews is more of a bruiser who likes to post up on smaller guards although he is a very efficient outside shooter as well. That gives Matthews a two-dimensional inside-outside game that opponents sometimes have a lot of Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images difficulty dealing with. Nicolas Batum returns for his seventh season on the Trail Blazers. Batum is a versatile player who contributes in a variety of ways. He’s a good shooter, passer and rebounder out of the small forward position. With Aldridge, Lillard, Matthews, and Batum all providing significant offensive contributions, Portland didn’t need Robin Lopez to step up and be a go-to offensive option. This was great for Lopez, who responded by making 55 percent of his shots from the floor and posting an excellent true shooting percentage of 60.5 percent. The best thing for the Trail Blazers is that this starting five now has a year of experience playing together. While Portland will have to answer questions about team defense, there’s no reason to think last year’s offensive performance was a fluke. Another top three finish will be tough to duplicate but Portland should again be one of the NBA’s most efficient offensive teams. Outlook If the Trail Blazers played in the Eastern Conference, they would probably be the favorites to earn the No. 3 seed in the playoffs. Unfortunately for their fans, they’re i n t h e We s t e r n Conference, and that means they have to regularly compete against opponents like San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Golden State, and the Los Angeles Clippers. As much as Portland has improved, they haven’t made the key additions necessary to break into the NBA’s top tier. Portland is an excellent offensive team anchored by two legitimate All-Star offensive talents in Aldridge and Lillard. However, the lack of a rim protector or a defensive specialist on the wing limits how well Portland can prevent opponent baskets. Those limitations will prevent Portland from becoming a true championship contender this season. It’s most likely that the Trail Blazers will finish with about 50 wins and a lower seed in the Western Conference playoffs. SPOTLIGHT: LaMarcus Aldridge Aldridge didn’t need to change the way he played to be valuable for the Blazers. As a terrific low-post scorer and rebounder for Portland, Aldridge was already an All-Star and a valuable member of postseason teams. However, Aldridge did change the way he played last season. More than ever before, Aldridge embraced the midrange shot, a development that was perplexing to a lot of experts. After all, Portland was considered an analytically savvy team, current on league-wide trends. One of those trends was to shy away from the midrange jump shot—but instead Portland, and particularly Aldridge, embraced it. Why? According to Aldridge and head coach Terry Stotts, the midrange shot was a way of spacing the floor and opening up driving lanes for his teammates. Aldridge also showed the ability to hit the shot regularly enough that it forced opponents to respect it—thereby accomplishing the stated goal of spreading out the defense. It’s hard to argue with the results. Portland finished second in the NBA in offensive efficiency, a dramatic improvement over the 15th place rating of the previous season. In the playoffs, Aldridge’s versatile offensive game gave the Houston Rockets nightmares. Terrence Jones was overwhelmed by Aldridge’s physicality and low-post game, while Omer Asik struggled to guard Aldridge’s perimeter shot. If anything, expect Aldridge to take his new playing style even further now that Portland has enjoyed newfound success. If Aldridge continues to succeed in his new style, there’s no reason to think Portland’s success won’t continue this season.
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