Early Predictions for Portland Trail Blazers' Starting Lineup Next Season
After a relatively quiet offseason, predicting who will be in the Portland Trail Blazers' starting lineup is like shooting fish in a barrel.
It's an absolute given whose name will be called at each spot on opening night and for every game thereafter, save for injury or illness. The Blazers' starting squad played a total of 1,373 minutes together last season, per NBA.com, trailing only the starters for the Indiana Pacers.
Few moves were made that could potentially omit any of the starters from last season, so it's almost certain we'll see the same lineup.
As such, we can focus on predicting just how each player will fare during the season. With the continued improvement of Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum, the reserve squad growing stronger and the veterans being a year wiser, it'll be interesting to see how the season plays out.
Furthermore, Portland was a team on the rise last season and made an impact in the Western Conference. With a stronger supporting cast and an abundance of star power, the Blazers should follow up last season with one just as good or better.
But I digress. Let's take a look at some predictions for the 2014-15 starting lineup of the Blazers.
After signing Chris Kaman and Steve Blake, Portland will have an improved bench in tow for the season. Last season's reserves offered little contribution, ranking among the worst in the league, which ultimately became an issue in the postseason.
The starters offer much more than the players on the bench do, so it's unlikely any would be switched at some point during the season. But if injuries or personal leave do come into play, a few players could be called upon.
Blake and Kaman offer the most in terms of experience and leadership, while C.J. McCollum, Will Barton and Thomas Robinson provide an injection of youth and athleticism. It's dependent on what head coach Terry Stotts decides, but either path would match well with the other starters.
Each player offers a unique skill set that meshes well with the roster, so it's a matter of choice for Stotts. All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge was the only starter for Portland who played less than 82 games last season, with small forward Dorell Wright starting the 13 games he missed.
With Kaman and an improved Robinson, Stotts won't necessarily have to rely on an undersized Wright (6'9") to come in at power forward. In the backcourt, should any players miss time, Blake makes more sense than McCollum.
While he's younger and more talented at this point, McCollum's (age 22) lack of experience will hinder his ability to start over Blake. The veteran is also more diversified in terms of being able to run the offense as well as play off the ball. In addition, having McCollum come off the bench as a scoring punch works better than an older Blake (34).
PG: Damian Lillard
Predicted 2014-15 stat line: 22.3 PPG, 6.3 APG, 44.5 FG%, 40.1 3P%
After his first All-Star selection, there's zero chance anyone starts over Lillard next season.
His 20.7 points and 5.6 assists per game last season were terrific for a second-year player, and he'll only improve going forward. Lillard's debut postseason was a great example of the guard stepping up his play when it counted.
Though his many clutch shots, including the dagger to send the Rockets packing, did the talking, Lillard exhibited a high basketball IQ and a maturity rarely seen in young players throughout the season and the postseason.
He raised his averages to 22.9 points and 6.5 assists during the playoffs, despite struggling from three-point range against San Antonio in the second round. As such, it's likely Stotts will look to take the offensive pressure off Aldridge slightly and shift that onto his point guard.
Lillard's shooting ability is right up there with the best in the league, and Portland's offense need only run him off a few more pick-and-rolls to generate the necessary scoring.
Per ESPN.com, Aldridge registered a usage rate of 27.9 possessions per 40 minutes. Lillard wasn't far behind with a usage rate of 24.7, but the difference is the equivalent of how the Miami Heat used LeBron James (29.1) and Dwyane Wade (26.1) last season.
Giving Lillard the ball more can't be a bad thing, as his offensive diversity is sure to benefit the Blazers. Portland has a multitude of weapons on that end of the floor, but using its point guard at an increased rate will work in its favor.
SG: Wesley Matthews
Predicted 2014-15 stat line: 14.9 PPG, 45.9 FG%, 39.9 3P%
Despite the continued development of McCollum, Matthews shouldn't be at any immediate risk of seeing his minutes drop.
In doing so, Matthews can focus on being the competitive, quick-trigger shooting guard that he is. He scored 16.4 points per game last season, converting on 39.3 percent of his long-range attempts.
While a talented player, Matthews can be inconsistent offensively at times. He had back-to-back 20-point games in Games 4 and 5 of the first round against Houston but didn't shoot better than 37.5 percent in the other four games.
Having said that, Matthews is most likely to receive a bit of a hit statistically as Lillard and McCollum play increased roles. He'll still be relied on to knock down shots and handle the ball on the perimeter, though.
It just won't be quite as often.
SF: Nicolas Batum
Predicted 2014-15 stat line: 15.1 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 6.5 APG, 46.1 FG%
If there ever was an all-underrated NBA team, Batum would be the starting small forward.
At just 25 years of age, the do-it-all wing for the Blazers is already an experienced and intelligent six-year veteran with a plethora of skills.
Offensively, Batum offers sharpshooting from beyond the arc and adept passing skills. Defensively, he gives you a seemingly endless wingspan and nimble footing that makes it tough to do much against him.
In short, the steps taken last season by Portland would have been unachievable without Batum.
His modest 13.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists display his all-around talent, as he often initiated the offense in pick-and-roll sets and off screens. Batum shot his best field-goal percentage in four seasons, though his long-range shooting did take a slight dip.
It would be wise for Stotts and his staff to look to use Batum much, much more next season. Without building a "Batum bandwagon," the forward was tied for No. 194 in usage rate last season.
It's difficult to fathom that Portland's third-best player ranked so low in terms of possessions, especially considering his diverse set of skills.
Batum increased his scoring to 15.2 points during the playoffs while still collecting 7.6 rebounds and 4.8 assists with just 2.5 turnovers.
His usage rate remained on par with that during the regular season, but having Batum in the role of a point forward of sorts would do wonders for Portland's offense.
It just needs to happen more often.
PF: LaMarcus Aldridge
Predicted 2014-15 stat line: 22.6 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 47.9 FG%
With his supporting cast much improved and another year of experience under its belt, Aldridge can look to breathe a little more this season.
There were times during the season and the playoffs when the All-Star forward looked alone on the court. His 46-point, 18-rebound performance in Game 1 of the first round were monstrous, as well as his 43 points on 64.3 percent shooting three nights later in Game 2.
Aldridge ended up averaging 26.2 points and 10.6 rebounds for the postseason, going slightly beyond his regular-season numbers of 23.2 points and 11.1 rebounds.
Since he's arguably the league's best power forward, Stotts and his staff want the ball running through Aldridge offensively. Despite Lillard's improvement, the team won't change things up too much.
Especially if it means taking away from Aldridge.
While that seemingly contradicts the opening statement of this slide, the overall improvement of the team means that he doesn't have to go all-out every night. Aldridge is more than capable of putting up an identical campaign to last season, but he doesn't have to.
That's the central difference. With Lillard, Batum and McCollum playing as improved scorers, as well as the addition of Kaman in the frontcourt, Aldridge won't be as relied on to net 20-plus points to help the team win games.
Don't be fooled, though, as Aldridge will still reign against the best the NBA has to offer.
C: Robin Lopez
Predicted 2014-15 stat line: 9.7 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 1.4 BPG
With the arrival of Kaman in Portland, Robin Lopez may be at risk of seeing his minutes drop ever so slightly.
He’ll remain the starting center for the team, as he has terrific chemistry and a complementary playing style with Aldridge. There’s a better chance Meyers Leonard and Joel Freeland play even less, but both had limited roles as it was last season.
Leonard played just 8.9 minutes in 40 games, with Freeland playing 14.0 minutes in 52 games. Unless one of them is moved, it makes giving Kaman a significant supporting role difficult without some cooperation from Lopez.
His 11.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks were noteworthy for the Blazers last season, and his postseason numbers of 10.0 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks were right on par.
Lopez played an average of 31.8 minutes per game for the season, playing in all 82 contests. He’ll only see a handful of minutes less per game, but he and Kaman will work as a one-two punch at center.
Both play similar styles to a certain extent, although Kaman is a better shooter and passer. Lopez is also a tad slower with his footwork but is still able to work well in the post and on defense.
It’s easy to see where both players fit for the team, and it’s just a matter of making it work minutes-wise to have a special frontcourt for the 2014-15 season.
Lopez has shown to be a terrific teammate in past seasons; therefore, splitting time with Kaman is believable in the sense that Lopez won’t have any gripes about it.
Especially if it’s for the good of the team.
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