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2014-15 Portland Trail Blazers Preview

(SportsNetwork.com) - The bar has been set for the Portland Trail Blazers.

Whether they want to raise the Rip City Resurrection even higher is totally up to them in 2014-15.

The Trail Blazers exceeded expectations last season with a 54-28 record and their first playoff berth since 2010-11. The 54 wins were 21 more than the year before when Portland was 33-49 and finished fourth in the Northwest.

Portland was second behind Oklahoma City in the division and the chances of unseating the Northwest-champion Thunder any time soon are slim to none. Even the recent injury and future return of Thunder star Kevin Durant is too much to over come. Oh, the Thunder have Russell Westbrook, too.

What do the Blazers have? A lot of confidence and motivation.

"People expect us to be a good team because of what happened last year," star guard Damian Lillard said. "We need to expect that of ourselves."

Lillard is one of the cornerstones to the success of the Blazers as well as power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. The duo helped the Blazers to a sizzling 22-4 start and the first 50-win campaign since 2009-10 (50-32).

A third-year Blazer out of Weber State, Lillard recorded a career-best 20.7 points and handed out an average of 5.6 assists per game. That was enough for the Trail Blazers to exercise the fourth-year option on Lillard, who made 218 3-pointers to become the first Portland player to ever record at least 200 baskets from downtown. That's better than Terry Porter or Clyde Drexler.

In Game 6 of the Western Conference quarterfinals against the Houston Rockets, Lillard buried a dramatic 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the Blazers into the second round of the playoffs. The Blazers, who captured the West's fifth seed, won their first postseason set since May 16, 2000 when they beat Utah in five games in the conference semifinals. They had lost seven consecutive series.

However, the losing ways continued in the semifinals, as the eventual NBA champion San Antonio Spurs disposed of Portland in five games.

While Lillard handles the backcourt and ball distribution, Aldridge is Portland's great hope down low. Coming off a career year in which he averaged 23.2 points and 11.1 rebounds, Aldridge became the first Trail Blazer to finish among the NBA's top 10 scorers in three straight seasons.

Aldridge is not short on confidence for his team's chances this season.

"I definitely feel like we can be one of the top teams in the league," said Aldridge, who recorded a playoff franchise record 46 points on April 20.

The playoffs are no doubt a destination the Blazers will be making this season and they return nearly the entire roster with the addition of big man Chris Kaman to play alongside Aldridge and Robin Lopez. Steve Blake is back to bolster the guard play for head coach Terry Stotts.

Stotts received a multi-year extension in May and is 87-77 with the team.

"Terry has done an outstanding job during his first two years with the organization," Blazers general manager Neil Olshey said. "This extension illustrates our confidence in him as our head coach as well as the Portland Trail Blazers' continued commitment to building a model of consistency and stability."

Lillard said there's more to Stotts than just X's and O's.

"I don't think he's looking for credit just like we aren't looking for credit," Lillard said. "I think it's a group effort. He gives us the system to run and it's our job to go out there and execute it. But I think he does a great job with us as people. It's hard to manage egos and we don't really have any but when you're dealing with professional athletes it's tough because a lot of players have so much control. You have attitudes and guys making all this money, and it's hard to control but I think he does a great job of it."

Stotts has guided the Blazers in position to be one of the best in the Western Conference and it can only get better.

2013-14 Results: 54-29, 2nd in Northwest, lost in Western Conference semifinals to San Antonio

ADDITIONS: C Chris Kaman, G Steve Blake

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:

PG- Damian Lillard SG- Wesley Matthews SF- Nicolas Batum PF- LaMarcus Aldridge C - Robin Lopez

KEY RESERVES: G Steve Blake, G C.J. McCollum, F Dorell Wright, C Chris Kaman, F Thomas Robinson, G Will Barton, C Joel Freeland, C Meyers Leonard

FRONTCOURT: The Blazers hope to lock up Aldridge next summer when he can cash in with more dough and a longer deal. The team appears committed to Aldridge, an interior force who has averaged more than 20 points per game in each of the past four seasons. Aldridge, who posted 29.8 ppg against Houston in the postseason, became the first NBA player with consecutive playoff games of 43 points or more since Tracy McGrady (April 20-23, 2003). He joined Sidney Wicks (1971-72) as the only Trail Blazer to average at least 23 points and 11 rebounds in a season. Aldridge is no doubt a bona fide All-Star and the Blazers will go only as far as he can take them. He matches up well with the rest of the bigs around the league.

Lopez plays in the shadows of Aldridge, and does his damage there. The seven- footer is a returning starter and key piece to Portland's inside game. If the Blazers want to compete with Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Dallas, Houston or the Los Angeles Clippers, they have to get the ball inside. Like Aldridge, Lopez is also entering a contract year and played all 82 games for a second straight season after previous injury-riddled campaigns. His trademark is defense, but Lopez can also score.

Another defensive specialist is Nicolas Batum at small forward. The versatile Batum appeared in all 82 games, posting an average of 13.0 points and 7.5 rebounds, and has become more involved in the offense because of his skillset. Batum is a decent shooter from 3-point range as well. He is not afraid to take on the opposition's best player either and is expected to have a breakout season in 2014-15.

BACKCOURT: Oh, where to begin with Portland's backcourt. That's actually easy because it starts with Lillard. Lillard is known around the league as a dangerous threat and can distribute the ball. When Aldridge and Lopez are grinding down low, Lillard will get them the ball. He was selected to his first All-Star game last year and played almost 36 minutes a night, so getting him rested for the playoffs is key. Cutting out fast food, sugar and salt from his diet will aid in his recovery from a long season. It will also improve his already remarkable speed and athleticism. His dramatic 3-pointer to send the Rockets packing in the playoffs proves Lillard's not afraid to take the big shot and step up for his team. Look for another All-Star season from Lillard and emerging star status.

Lillard's running mate in the backcourt is sharpshooter Wesley Matthews. Matthews is another defensive-minded guard who averaged a career-high 16.4 ppg last season and played in all 82 games for a third time in his career. Matthews has the length to keep opposing guards at bay with his 6-foot-5 frame, and playing alongside Batum only makes Portland that much better on defense. Matthews has big shot capability and is a proven risk taker. There's a chance Matthews and Lillard will combine to sink the most 3-pointers in the league this season.

BENCH: This is where it gets tough for Stotts and Portland. The Blazers were awful off the bench last season and finished last in minutes with 13.7 and points (23.6). Those numbers took a dip in the playoffs as well and perhaps the series with San Antonio would have lasted longer had the reserves contributed more often.

The Blazers brought in Kaman to bolster the paint and give Aldridge and Lopez breathers. Blake is back and will bring his experience and leadership to the point, while the Trail Blazers are counting on second-year guard C.J. McCollum to have a big season. McCollum played in just 38 games because of a foot injury and posted 5.3 points and 1.3 rebounds. He's hoping to have an injury free campaign and a more increased role now that Mo Williams is gone. McCollum proved he was one of the NCAA's top guards with Lehigh University. Thomas Robinson, Meyers Leonard, Dorell Wright and Will Barton are other options off the bench.

COACHING: Stotts welcomes back the entire starting squad and has big hopes in his third season with the team. The franchise's 14th head coach, Stotts needs to get more production on defense and better play from the bench. A healthy McCollum and the addition of Kaman should be an aid. Having Kaman on the floor means Portland will not fall short of size and strength underneath, which will propel the Blazers even further. Stotts, though, will be in a tough spot if he loses either Lillard or Aldridge. But make no mistake, the Blazers have the talent to capture homecourt advantage for at least the first round. Then it gets tough after that with the West's best moving on.

OUTLOOK: Another 50-plus win season is on tap for the rising Blazers, as long as they stay healthy. Holding their own in a tough Western Conference is what the Blazers did a season ago, and it's no secret they're out to achieve more. Portland could make it all the way to the conference finals, but isn't ready to play for an NBA championship. Perhaps 2015-16 will bear more fruit as far as competing for the franchise's first title since 1976-77.