What appeared to be a promising season after a 7-2 start took a nosedive into a 28-38 finish and left nothing to look forward to now but the sight of lottery balls and next season's opening tip.
The point guard position had been a question for Portland in recent years, as they were relying on the steady, but aging hand of veteran Andre Miller. However, a draft day trade for Raymond Felton, who averaged 17.1 points and nine assists as the New York Knicks starting point guard, seemed to be the perfect deal to help usher in a new era in Rip City.
Nearly a year later, that proved not to be the case. Felton averaged a career low 11.4 points, on 40.7 percent shooting and connected on just 30.5 percent of his attempts from three. His 6.5 assists per game, while not horrendous, were tied for the second lowest season average of his career.
Felton was brought in for his speed and ability in the open court, something the team did not have with the half-court reliant Miller. The Blazers, armed with athletes like LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Gerald Wallace, were hoping to transition into a faster paced offense with Felton as the initiator, and everything looked great for the first couple weeks of the season.
Things went south quickly, as the out-of-shape Felton played poorly down the stretch, and the Blazers spiraled from a postseason contender to a sub-.500 team struggling to keep pace with every opponent.
Felton's contract expires this offseason, and despite their need for a point guard of the future, it is very unlikely after a season like this that Felton will be brought back to Portland. There is, however, one player available in free agency who would make a perfect addition to the team: Goran Dragic.
Dragic played for the Houston Rockets this season, and for the brunt of the year was unspectacular. Off the bench, he was a capable backup to the multi-faceted Kyle Lowry, averaging 7.1 points and three assists in under 20 minutes of playing time.
But when Lowry was injured, Dragic rose to the occasion and kept Houston in the playoff picture while averaging a stellar 18 points, 8.4 assists and 3.5 rebounds with a pair of steals in nearly 37 minutes per night. Dragic shot 49 percent from the field and was a consistent threat from the perimeter as well, helping to space the floor.
The Blazers have as much cap space as any team in the league this summer and should be looking to spend it in the hopes of solidifying themselves as a playoff threat after such a turbulent and disheartening showing in 2011-2012. Murmurs of the team contending for Deron Williams are nice, but while a player of that caliber is certainly worth a few phone calls, superstars rarely end up in Portland as free agents.
Dragic made $2.1 million last season, and that number is sure to spike as many teams are looking to snare a starting caliber point guard with few quality options on the market. The advantage the Blazers have, unlike a team like the Phoenix Suns or Dallas Mavericks, is that Portland can offer both a hefty paycheck and a clearly defined player nucleus for Dragic to grow with.
LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum, who should be tendered a well-earned contract extension, along with potentially a pair of lottery picks make Portland an enticing option for a guard looking for a starting spot on a competitive team. Add to that a rabid, devoted fanbase and hopefully a talented new coach and a fully-committed GM, and few potential locations can offer those assets.
Dragic showed some nice chemistry with Luis Scola and even Amar'e Stoudemire in his sporadic playing time while with Phoenix. As the Blazers point guard, he'll need to be able to mesh well with Aldridge, something Raymond Felton failed to do.
He responded well to playing crunch time minutes with the Rockets, and it would be nice to have a go-to guy on the perimeter to complement Aldridge. Oftentimes the Blazers would get in trouble because teams knew L.A. was the guy when they needed a bucket and defenses could really key in on the power forward, but adding Dragic along with the development of Batum, who showed some clutch chops, would give Portland more options in tight games.
Portland was an anemic 3-11 in games decided by three or fewer points, and part of that was due to errors in ball handling from Felton and Jamal Crawford, who will also likely not return next year.
Another reason the Blazers need to add Dragic is that there really isn't another great option out there. Going all in on Deron Williams would be incredibly foolish, and Steve Nash will either stay in Phoenix or go to a team that is at the top of its conference. Players like Kirk Hinrich, D.J. Augustin and the illustrious Jeremy Lin are all free agents, but are any of those options really better than bringing in the 26-year-old Dragic for a three-year deal?
Portland also simply doesn't have a high quality point guard option on the roster. First-round draft pick Nolan Smith had some nice games down the stretch when he received extended minutes, showing he could score and facilitate competently. Still, Smith also struggled often while out on the court and certainly would benefit from more time in a reserve role. Johnny Flynn was also brought in at the trade deadline and had his impressive moments, but he too has struggled in his career and has dealt with a variety of injuries.
Despite this year's draft being one of the deepest in recent history, there are really only two point guards Portland would consider with their selection (or selections depending on where the New Jersey Nets' top-three protected pick ends up).
Weber State's Damian Lillard was a tremendous scoring guard in college, averaging 24.5 points in his junior season, and is projected as a late lottery pick. North Carolina's Kendall Marshall is the other "elite" point guard option, a gifted passer with uncommon court vision.
The problem is that Lillard and Marshall each present a very specialized kind of point guard. Lillard is a scorer first and could have trouble running an NBA offense instead of looking primarily for his shot, and Marshall's passing is offset by a shaky, but improving, offensive game that allowed defenses to frequently sag off of him. For a team that is looking to rebuild as quickly as possible, it may not be wise to count on a 21-year-old to lead your ball club back to the postseason.
Dragic has the talent as both a scorer and facilitator to keep a defense honest, while being able to hit teammates in their spots and simply make winning plays on the basketball court. Defensively, he can read passing lanes very well and has shown a grittiness that would mesh will with Portland's identity.
Picking up a player like Dragic off of a fairly small sample size is always a risk, however impressive it was, but with the Blazers currently mired in mediocrity and flush with cash, it is the perfect time to take a gamble on a long-term option at the point guard.
The Blazers hope they bottomed out this season and seem committed to rebuilding as quickly as possible. If that is the case, Goran Dragic is the kind of player that simply must be wearing red and black next season.
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