5 Things Every Fan Needs to Know About Portland Trail Blazers for 2013-14 Season
The leaves are changing, the weather is getting colder and grocery stores are already starting to stock Halloween candy.
And most importantly, the NBA season is quickly approaching.
For Portland Trail Blazer fans, this means that they once again have the task of wrestling the hearts and minds of Portlanders away from the MLS Portland Timbers.
So around town, you will start seeing more and more Blazer jerseys taking the place of the green-and-white scarves that flood down Burnside Avenue every evening.
For the first time in a few years, Portlanders actually have a team worth getting excited about. That being said, most of the moves that have been made during the offseason really were below the radar.
The overall talent level of the team got much better, although there really will likely be only one new starter on opening night.
And while this team isn't going to be confused with the mid-90s Chicago Bulls, there certainly is reason for optimism in the Rose City.
Here are five things that every fan needs to know about this year's Portland Trail Blazers squad.
LaMarcus Aldridge Is the Best Power Forward in the Game
Generally speaking, players in the Pacific Northwest tend to fly under the radar on the national stage.
There are a few different reasons for this. First, Portland isn't in the top-20 television markets, so the national media has less reason to really push storylines involving the Blazers. Obviously this can be lazy journalism but we live in an era of low-hanging fruit.
Second, the Pacific Northwest is perceived to be far away from nearly everyone. It is viewed as the last frontier, a far-off destination that attracts only fringe members of society.
Third, Portland operates in a different time zone, so their games tend to take place after the bed times of many national pundits.
Whatever the reason, star players that don Portland jerseys take a little longer to attract the attention of the nation at large.
Clyde Drexler obviously was a huge exception, but it took folks around the country years to realize Brandon Roy was the best shooting guard on the planet not named Kobe Bryant. And by then, his knees had already compromised much of his game.
Well the next player that is destined to attract the attention of the national media is LaMarcus Aldridge.
Aldridge has quietly been racking up statistics and, more importantly, improving his overall game.
Once known as the quiet big man that deferred to his teammates, Aldridge has assumed the role of leader of this team and is poised to start turning some heads.
For your basic Portland fan, this isn't big news. Aldridge has been spoiling them with fantastic play for years now.
But after being forced to really up his defensive game last year, Aldridge has quite simply become the top power forward in the league.
Dirk Nowitzki is on the downside of his career. Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett are more centers than forwards at this point of their Hall of Fame careers. And with the emergence of the stretch 4 and hybrid forwards, there are very few elite power forwards left in the league.
The true debate now turns to Kevin Love versus LaMarcus Aldridge.
And while there are arguments that can be made for Love, Aldridge has the better overall game. He can score inside, outside and everywhere in-between. He can rebound and pass, and he has improved his interior post defense dramatically in recent years.
There has been talk that Aldridge is growing impatient and is looking for a change of scenery. But for all intents and purposes, he still is under contract for a couple more years and the Blazers should be able to hold on to him for the foreseeable future.
Now is the time for the league to take notice of this gem.
Damian Lillard Will Be the Next Chauncey Billups
Okay, so I may be showing my Detroit roots with this slide and the reference.
And for some Portland fans, Chauncey Billups may seem to be a low ceiling for the lofty expectations they have for Damian Lillard.
But ignoring the first few seasons when he was struggling to find his way, Billups eventually became one of the league's top point guards and the leader of a championship team.
Lillard has all the characteristics that make him someone worthy of this comparison.
First, look at the size. Lillard is a strong 6'3" with a good frame. He isn't an elite athlete, but he isn't exactly a plodder either.
Second, their games are eerily similar. Both have tremendous range and can create their own offense. They both can set up teammates and have the ability to initiate offense in a number of ways.
Third, they both play under control. Billups made a name for himself by leading a team that created turnovers but rarely committed any. The Pistons routinely led the league in fewest turnovers per game, and this started with the point guard.
However, there are two things lacking in Lillard's game that are keeping him from reaching elite status—but they could be addressed this year.
First, Lillard lacks Billups' defensive instincts. Billups was never a lockdown defender, but he used his intelligence and strength to play very effective defense.
Last year, Lillard looked lost on defense. He was routinely beaten to the hoop and off the dribble. But defense is all about effort, and it appears that Lillard is going to have the opportunity to improve this facet of his game.
Last year, Lillard had a ton of pressure to deal with. The Blazers had a terrible bench, and Lillard was forced to play a ton of minutes right from the start. He also was still getting to know his teammates and trying to prove himself as a rookie.
This year, the overall talent level of the team has drastically improved, and so Lillard will not be forced to shoulder nearly as much of the overall burden.
Secondly, Lillard is still learning when to shoot and when to pass. Last year he needed to score a ton just to keep the Blazers competitive. This year, he has plenty of weapons to choose from, and therefore his assist numbers should rise dramatically.
Anything less than eight assists per game should be viewed as a disappointment—especially given how much more they should be able to run the pick-and-roll with Aldridge.
Lillard is going to have a breakout season, even if his stats don't go up drastically.
This Year's Bench Should Be a Strength
Last year's bench was perhaps the worst group in NBA history.
They couldn't be counted on to preserve leads, they couldn't score, and they really didn't stand out on defense either.
Heading into this season, the Blazers have effectively turned that weakness into a strength. The Blazers went out and addressed every position on the court.
They picked up Mo Williams to relieve Damian Lillard, Thomas Robinson to spell LaMarcus Aldridge and Dorell Wright to give Nicolas Batum a breather. They also grabbed Robin Lopez and drafted C.J. McCollum.
From top to bottom, every position on this team just got better.
The real key for this unit will be to find cohesion. There are concerns that McCollum might not pair well with Williams, so perhaps he may essentially play a hybrid-guard role.
Robinson had a very disappointing rookie year, but the talent exists for him to become a huge fan favorite in Portland. His game is hustle and rebounding, and Blazer fans love that. He also comes cheap, so the Blazers can kick the tires on him for a couple of years without worrying about investing too much in him.
The real key to this group will be Meyers Leonard.
Leonard had a disappointing rookie year himself. He looked lost on defense and was only slightly better on offense. But given that Lopez will likely secure the starting gig, this will give Leonard time to work himself into the game slowly.
Where Leonard needs to improve is on defense, specifically finding ways to protect the hoop without fouling so often. Leonard committed over three fouls per game despite playing fewer than 20 minutes per contest.
Last year, Aldridge was forced to do it all. This year, he will need some help.
Especially from Leonard.
Wesley Matthews Will Beat out C.J. McCollum
When the Blazers plucked Wesley Matthews away from the Utah Jazz a few years ago, everyone knew that they had picked up a valuable player.
Few understood just how valuable he would be.
Matthews can really do just about everything. He can score from deep, get to the hoop, and he is a solid defender. He isn't an elite athlete, and he lacks prototypical shooting guard size—but he makes up for it with good strength.
That being said, Matthews is not a future star. His ceiling as a player is right about where his level of play is at right now. He will knock down about 38-40 percent of his triples, score around 15 points per game and provide solid defense.
But he isn't going to get demonstrably better than he is now.
That was why the Blazers liked the idea of drafting C.J. McCollum.
McCollum is a pure scorer, plain and simple. He can shoot, drive and play off the ball. He also can create his own shot, something that should take even more pressure off of Lillard.
However, at this point Matthews is still the much better player. McCollum has the higher ceiling, but Matthews can contribute now. That's why, despite what the fans may say, it behooves the Blazers to take things slowly with McCollum.
He needs to come off the bench and provide instant offense. Let him catch and shoot or play in motion off of screens. They need to get him comfortable with the higher level of competition and ease into the game.
Therefore, expectations need to be tempered for McCollum.
Anything more than eight points per game would be fantastic, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-24 minutes per game would be a nice rookie campaign.
McCollum has the potential to be a fantastic player for a number of years. The key will be playing up his strengths while working on his weaknesses.
The Blazers Will Make the Playoffs
For the first time in recent years, the Eastern Conference appears to be the better conference top to bottom. It boasts the two-time defending champs, the scoring leader from last year and some of the league's most exciting rookies.
But the west still is loaded in its own right.
The Blazers flirted with the playoffs last year before ultimately falling apart due to their lackluster bench.
This year, they have addressed most of their major weaknesses and should be vastly improved.
And if Lillard and Aldridge can both continue to blossom, and the interior defense improves, this team could become a very dangerous group.
Additionally they have shooters, rebounders and athletic wings.
Overall, this squad doesn't have a ton of shortcomings aside from a lack of a stud shot-blocker down low. But if the guards continue to improve the perimeter defense, this should cut down on the need to protect the rim.
The key for this team will be to gel quickly. The second unit is completely new, and players will need to find their specific roles. Add to that a dynamic new scorer in McCollum and what should be a breakout season from Lillard, and this team could go as high as a sixth seed.
That being said, more likely this will be the eighth-seeded team in next year's Western Conference.