2012-13 Portland Trail Blazers Preview

Published October 26, 2012

| Sports Network

If you take a look at the Pacific Northwest from space, parts of the territory are unrecognizable except mountains and trees.

Gaze at the roster of the Portland Trail Blazers and the comparisons are quite similar.

In what was an offseason of change for the Blazers, expectations will not be at alpine heights for this year's version of the team. A new general manager, head coach and a roster overhaul leaves many to wonder how successful Portland can be in the 2012-13 campaign with some unfamiliar names, but things could get better down the road.

Neil Olshey came over from the Los Angeles Clippers to run the Blazers' front office and hopes to have the same type of success in his new digs much like he experienced with the "other" team from Tinsel Town. The Clippers added some key players and reached the postseason last season. It's unlikely Portland will have such a quick turnaround being that LaMarcus Aldridge is the cornerstone to a franchise lacking star power.

Aldridge is in the prime of his career at 27, while Wesley Matthews, 25, and Nicolas Batum, 23, are the other seasoned veterans. Aldridge, who has emerged as one of the top power forwards in the NBA and can test free agency after the 2014-15 season, underwent offseason hip surgery and made his first All-Star team, averaging team highs of 21.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 36.3 minutes. His 2.4 assists per game were a career best.

But after Aldridge, the Blazers are left with questions.

Batum gave the front office a few headaches in the offseason after he was signed to an offer sheet by the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Blazers gave in and matched the offer sheet, keeping Batum in the fold for a reported $45 million over four years. Batum averaged 13.9 points and 4.6 rebounds -- both career highs -- in 59 games last season, his fourth in the league.

Terry Stotts can rely on Aldridge, Batum and Matthews in his first season as head coach. Stotts, who takes over for Nate McMillan, spent the past four seasons as an assistant with the Dallas Mavericks, where he won a championship, and brings a new offense to the Pacific Northwest. Aldridge commented on the changes with the team.

"New pieces, new players, new locker room, new coach," Aldridge said. "Everything's new."

Stotts should understand this season will be more of a learning curve and expectations for a breakout performance are tremendously low. Things could change for the better right away, however, and plucking a pair of first-round draft picks may alter the course. Rookies Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard should see action right away, with Lillard pegged as the starting point guard. Lillard enjoyed a successful tenure at Weber State and has a plethora of talent. If he can develop quickly, the Blazers will be that much better.

The Blazers no longer have Brandon Roy or Raymond Felton running the point, which is why Lillard has big shoes to fill.

Speaking of big shoes, after failing to land center Roy Hibbert, the Blazers selected Leonard out of Illinois. Big Ten basketball is no joke these days and the 7-foot Leonard brings an edge to his new employer. After the Greg Oden debacle, Portland hopes it hit a home run with Leonard at the five spot. J.J. Hickson will most likely start at center until Leonard gets acclimated.

The Blazers should hover around the basement of the Northwest Division, a group that includes Western Conference-champion Oklahoma City Thunder, the Minnesota Timberwolves, Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets.

2011-12 Results: 28-38, fourth in Northwest

KEY ADDITIONS: Head coach Terry Stotts, PG Damian Lillard, F Jared Jeffries, G Sasha Pavlovic, C Meyers Leonard, F Joel Freeland

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:

PG- Damian Lillard SG- Wesley Matthews SF- Nicolas Batum PF- LaMarcus Aldridge C- J.J. Hickson

KEY RESERVES: G Ronnie Price, F Jared Jeffries, G Sasha Pavlovic, G/F Will Barton, G Nolan Smith, C Meyers Leonard, F Luke Babbitt

FRONTCOURT: Portland's production on both ends will come from Aldridge. The L- Train is fully recovered from a hip aliment that sidelined him the last eight games of the 2011-12 season. Aldridge, who was one of three players in the NBA to average at least 21.7 points per game and shoot at least 50 percent from the field, has great length down low and is a legitimate low post threat. He can score from the outside, too.

Batum has to prove the money was worth it for the Blazers. Arguably the team's top defensive player, Batum has versatility and is still developing his craft. Can he perform well enough to make the All-Star team or be considered as Defensive Player of the Year? That remains to be seen. He averaged career highs in points (13.9), rebounds (4.6) and steals (0.97), and led the team in blocks (1.02). Both Batum and Aldridge are pieces to build on for the future.

Leonard falls into that category as well. He had a strong Summer League and needs to weed out fouls and inconsistent play. Length and quickness are just two of Leonard's tools and he should prosper into a dominant player. Hickson will be there to guide Leonard underneath and recorded averages of 15.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 0.95 blocks in 19 games (10 starts) for the Trail Blazers after being acquired as a free agent in March. Hickson was re-signed in the offseason, so the Blazers like what they see in him.

BACKCOURT: Gone are Roy, Felton and Gerald Wallace. But in the fold is Rookie of the Year candidate Lillard. The explosive point guard has turned heads this offseason and has the Blazers feeling optimistic for the future. He still needs time to grow, but Batum is one of the impressed veterans, saying Lillard reminds him of Thunder All-Star guard and Olympic gold medalist Russell Westbrook and Bulls stud Derrick Rose. Being compared to Westbrook and Rose is a major compliment, and Lillard can't let that get to his head. Lillard had 14 points, seven assists and five rebounds in his preseason debut.

Lillard was a standout at Weber State and became the first player in Big Sky Conference history to be named to an All-American team. He has a quick first step and can be gone in a hiccup if defenders are caught sleeping. The Blazers pushed all of their chips to middle of the table when they selected Lillard with the No. 6 pick, who said he hopes he can be what is expected of him. Mind you, Portland did that with Oden and look what happened.

Matthews is the third-most important piece to the puzzle behind Aldridge and Batum, and is a rising shooting guard. He posted averages of 13.7 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.45 steals and 33.8 minutes in 66 games (53 starts) a season ago and did not miss a game in the strike-shortened campaign. In fact, the durable Matthews hasn't missed a game in two years. A reliable 3-point shooter, Matthews made 129 from beyond the arc (38.3 percent).

BENCH: Reserves in the NBA are as important as the starters. If your bench is brutal, then most likely so is your record. Yes, there are teams such as the defending champion Miami Heat that can get away with having scrubs on the pine, but not every team has three $100 million players in its starting lineup. Portland is one of those teams. Guard Elliot Williams won't be around this season and is out with a torn left Achilles. Swingman Sasha Pavlovic was acquired in a three-team deal, while Leonard will learn the ropes as a reserve.

Veteran Jared Jeffries came over from the New York Knicks via the Felton deal and didn't get much playing time with the talented Knicks. Jeffries' toughness and 6-foot-11 frame will help inside and the Blazers need someone who can push people around in the paint. Portland allowed 97.8 points per game in 2011-12 and averaged just 40.6 rebounds. Although he is good enough to start, Aldridge and Batum are just better at their position. Jeffries will spell them all season. Swingman Will Barton, guards Ronnie Price and Nolan Smith also highlight the reserves.

COACHING: Stotts is an offensive-minded coach and must take the time to develop better defensive habits. Teams were making almost 50 percent from the floor a year ago and that needs to stop. He can rest his hat on Aldridge and Batum and keep his fingers crossed that Lillard and Leonard turn out to be wise draft choices. Stotts, who replaced McMillan and interim coach Kaleb Canales, previously held head coaching posts in Milwaukee (2005-07) and Atlanta (2002-04), compiling a combined 115-168 record.

"Terry is one of the elite offensive minds in the NBA, has extensive experience with multiple organizations and was instrumental in the Dallas Mavericks winning the 2011 NBA Championship," Olshey said after the hiring. "He understands the vision for the future of the franchise, appreciates the process involved and will create an environment on the court that will produce championship habits."

OUTLOOK: The Blazers failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007-08 last season and had the second-worst road record in the Western Conference, going 8-25 away from home. That needs to improve right away. It may take some time with new faces in new places, but at least there's some familiarity with Aldridge, Batum and Matthews. The Blazers are not expected to win a lot of games, which is why they will most likely finish last in the Northwest Division. However, there's plenty of potential for the future, especially with another lottery pick headed Portland's way.

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