The future of the Portland Trail Blazers is both bright and exciting, but no long-term plan is without a few kinks that need to be smoothed out.
After a successful turnaround season and the addition of some veteran help in free agency, the Blazers are looking onward and upward to achieve greater feats. Last season's breakthrough into the second round of the playoffs was the team's first advance since the 1999-2000 season, when Portland was led by Rasheed Wallace, Scottie Pippen and Arvydas Sabonis.
Thus, it's important to recognize the team's growth and where it currently stands. With almost exactly the same roster as last year, the Blazers will look toward the development of young stars Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum, the guidance of veteran All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, and the timely help of the supporting cast to take bigger steps this season.
While Portland's short-term goal is to obviously contend for a championship, the following long-term goals should remain in sight.
Even if the Blazers are looking to contend with their current roster, there should always be a plan B.
As presently constructed, Portland's pool of undeveloped talent is one of the biggest in the NBA. It isn't overly abundant, but it is when compared to other teams.
Between C.J. McCollum, Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard, the Blazers have three lottery picks who have not yet realized their full potential. No pick is a surefire success, but all three exhibited enough talent early in their collegiate careers to warrant high selections in the draft.
McCollum missed a sizable chunk of his rookie year. A broken foot hindered his play early on, forcing him to miss most of training camp and extending his debut until Jan. 8 against the Orlando Magic. McCollum's chance of breaking into the rotation and adjusting to Portland's system became very low, which in turn limited his role to 5.3 points and 12.5 minutes per game.
But with the Blazers opting not to re-sign reserve guard Mo Williams, it would seem head coach Terry Stotts and the front office are preparing to hand McCollum the role of the team's sixth man.
While he was playing against equally inexperienced players, McCollum did manage to put up 20.2 points in the NBA's Las Vegas Summer League. That is indicative of his scoring ability, but it should be taken with a grain of salt.
It's a rule of thumb that big men should be given more time to develop, but there comes a point at which a realistic approach is needed.
For Robinson and Leonard, picked No. 5 and No. 11, respectively, in the 2012 draft, that time is slowly approaching.
Neither player has made the necessary improvements to compete at the professional level, despite the fact that both were competent players at the collegiate level.
Robinson was a strong rebounder and had a decent array of offensive skills but didn't specialize in one area. Leonard was a terrific passer for his size and was solid defensively, but he has been pushed around in the NBA without putting on much muscle.
Both players can be contributors, and there were flashes throughout the season when both Robinson and Leonard looked like they were adjusting to the NBA level and realizing their potential. But inconsistency hurt their chances of making continued impacts for the team and keeping roles in the rotation.
It should be a major focus of the team's coaches and training staff to draw as much from these three players as possible going into next season. The Blazers are the next up-and-coming team rife with youth, much like the Oklahoma City Thunder a few seasons ago, and this trio could be potent off the bench.
Developing players is much easier said than done, but it's a viable path for the team to walk. McCollum, Robinson and Leonard have shown the ability to compete, and it may be as simple as instilling some confidence in them.
Carving a niche in the rotation for Robinson and Leonard is more difficult than McCollum, given the recent signing of center Chris Kaman. But if Stotts and his staff are able to pull it off, all three have tremendous upside.
It's not going to happen overnight, but it's a long-term plan the Blazers can put into practice starting this season.
Keep Financial Flexibility
Portland's roster is set at 15 heading into next season, as the contract of reserve guard Will Barton became fully guaranteed on July 31, per Joe Freeman of The Oregonian. While roster moves are almost certainly locked until next year's offseason, the Blazers should be mindful of keeping things flexible.
Looking forward to the 2015-16 season, Portland will have only starting small forward Batum on a guaranteed salary for the season. Lillard, Robinson, McCollum and Leonard will be on the fourth year of their rookie-scale deals, which acts as a team option for the front office to either accept or decline (and it's probably obvious who will stay).
Wesley Matthews, Dorell Wright and Robin Lopez will be free agents, Joel Freeland, Victor Claver and Barton will be restricted free agents, new acquisition Steve Blake will have a player option, and Kaman and little-used guard Allen Crabbe both have non-guaranteed deals.
But the cream of the Blazers' free-agent crop will be All-Star forward Aldridge.
He could have signed a three-year extension, but it's clear the big man will wait to become a free agent and re-sign for a five-year deal.
Aldridge told Freeman, "I don't want it to be perceived that I'm not happy or I'm not staying on because I'm not signing a three-year deal. It's just financially smarter to wait, and I'm looking forward to signing the five-year deal when the chance comes."
While Portland fans can breathe a tentative sigh of relief, Aldridge hasn't yet put pen to paper. It's a great sign that he's publicly committed to the team, and there doesn't seem to be anything that could change that. He said himself that he wants to be "the best Blazer — ever," so the bets are on him staying.
Having said that, the team will need to prove to Aldridge that it will contend going forward.
While he will obviously be the focus, re-signing other players will need to be done gingerly to maintain financial flexibility.
Matthews and Lopez will be free agents next season, and both were major contributors during the regular season and the playoffs. They will still be on the good side of 30 years old by that time, but re-signing both will be difficult if either expects more than a mid-level deal.
Lillard will become a restricted free agent for the 2016-17 season, and a number of teams will be ready to pounce. The point guard is already one of the league's best shooters/scorers going into just his third professional season, and he will be instrumental in Portland's contending for a title.
Batum will also be a free agent in the same season, and he has proved to be a valuable player. He's the Blazers' best perimeter defender and is extremely versatile offensively, acting as the third part in Portland's lead trio.
If the signing of Matthews or Lopez has the potential to cut into the return of Lillard and/or Batum, expect the move to be shelved. The starting 2-guard will earn $7.2 million this season, with Lopez earning $6.1 million.
These deals are not overly burdensome in terms of the salary cap, but they have the potential to be when Lillard is expected to receive a max-level deal, Batum will be a free agent and the Blazers will have re-signed Aldridge.
Pay cuts can generally be expected of older veteran players but not necessarily from starting-caliber players in their prime. Matthews and Lopez will fall into that category, and it's highly unlikely Aldridge takes anything less than a max-level contract.
The Blazers can keep the roster together, but it'll need to be done very carefully. Otherwise, chances are it'll come back to bite them.
All financial information courtesy of Basketball Insiders.
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