Looking Down the Trail

They’ve had a surprisingly good season, but the Portland Trailblazers simply don’t have enough to get by the Spurs. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and the gang seem well on their way to a gentleman’s sweep of the Blazers, and soon Portland will have to start looking forward to how they want to approach next season.

Almost everyone who has played any significant time this season for the team is under contract for one more year. Mo Williams is the only notable possible exception – he has a player option for next season that he may decline to seek a longer-term deal.

Generally returning the core of a 2nd-round team is a pretty good thing, and I’m sure that the front office is thrilled that LaMarcus Aldridge has quieted his desire to be traded following the team’s surprise success this season. Finding a way to improve the roster enough to truly contend for a title in the Western Conference may be tricky though.

This season’s success was built around a high-powered offense that offset a mediocre defense. Driven by Damian Lillard’s continued growth and Aldridge’s always strong play, the offense was among the very best in the league for most of the regular season, although a lot dropoff resulted in the team dropping a bit to fifth in offensive efficiency. That “swoon” resulted in a drop in wins in the 2nd half of the season, even as the defense improved. Basically, this was an offense-reliant team, and if they couldn’t score they didn’t win.

Hopes for internal roster improvement are limited. Most of the starters are in their primes, and Lillard is already an All-Star. He still has areas in which he can improve, but he’s old for a 2nd year player at 23 and his growth curve is likely to start flattening out. C.J. McCollum played sparingly in his rookie year between injuries and lack of opportunity, and he wasn’t particularly impressive in his limited minutes. It looks like he can shoot, and the hope is that he will add quality depth to the backcourt next year behind Lillard and Wesley Matthews.

Otherwise the cupboard is fairly bare. After years of waiting it looks like this is what you get from guys like Nicolas Batum. No one of note is likely to suffer a big decline, but you more or less know what you’re going to get by bringing this team back.

So is that enough for the Portland brass?

Some teams are content to rest on their laurels with a roster this good. They have a strong coach in place in Terry Stotts who may have a few more tricks up his sleeve to get additional improvement out of the squad, and the roster is good enough to make the playoffs and make some noise once they get there depending on matchups and injuries. They may be happy enjoying that level of success and reloading after next season when most of the veterans’ contracts expire.

If they want to strike now and make themselves a real contender next season the path forward is a lot murkier. The starting lineup is successful thanks to its number of quality veterans. Aside from Lillard, everyone else on the team has been around for a while, has playoff experience, either in Portland or elsewhere, and can contribute on both ends. This is nice to have in a starting lineup, but it does make it difficult to figure out where to upgrade.

The defense is the most glaring weakness, but singling out one or two players who are not contributing is difficult. Up front Aldridge and Robin Lopez aren’t the best defensive anchors in the world, but they are long and compete. The wings can be a source of strength depending on the matchup – Matthews did strong work on James Harden in the 1st round and Batum is another long defender who can use his size to bother opponents. Only Lillard is a notable weakness, and he’s not going anywhere. As the point guard his defensive shortcomings don’t stand out as much as they would at another position anyway.

So that leaves the Blazers either making a drastic move wherein they shop one or more of their veterans in search of a star-caliber player (How crazy would this team be if they could pull off a deal for Kevin Love centered around Batum and picks? All of their games would end 145-140), or they are left to sign a few players around the margins to upgrade the bench and hope that another year together improves the defense. That’s not as exciting as gearing up for a run to the finals, but for a team that’s in the playoffs for the first time in two years and plays in the ridiculously competitive Western Conference, that may be enough for now.