Five Things To Watch: Portland Trail Blazers

Wesley MatthewsThe 2012-13 season was not a kind one to the Portland Trail Blazers.

Forget the NBA Rookie of the Year Award given unanimously for only the fourth time in history to Damian Lillard. Forget, too, the second straight All-Star nod for LaMarcus Aldridge. Also forget that Aldridge, Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews comprised the top four-man lineup in the league. Portland finished the campaign on a franchise-worst 13-game losing streak and wasn’t competitive in a game for more than a month.

This season is shaping up to be a very different one for the Blazers. Clearly a lottery team as the months wound down on last season, the 2013-14 Blazers are primed to make a splash after a few free agent signings and a couple of one-sided trades bolstered arguably the thinnest roster in the NBA. However, with renewed positivity comes expectations; and with expectations comes the possibility of extreme disappointment.

It doesn’t seem fair to slam a team that had to throw rotation minutes at Luke Babbitt and Nolan Smith, two Blazers from last season’s roster likely to be out of the league come Opening Day. After adding some players and operating with a “win now” attitude, the Blazers should not be considered a rebuilding team.

Here are a few things to watch for this season.

1. A glut of guards. Last season was all about Lillard. He announced himself in Summer League and didn’t stop his impressive play until the final whistle blew on game 82. But he was working almost entirely by himself. Matthews had a fine season, but he’s not much of a ballhandler. Eric Maynor was a big help, but by the time he showed up in Portland, the season was mostly over.

Nolan Smith and Ronnie Price were criminally ineffective. Will Barton came on late but showed some serious shortcomings. And that was it. Lillard led the league in minutes played in part because he had to; without him on the floor, Portland was downright atrocious.

This season will be different. The Blazers acquired veteran point men Mo Williams and Earl Watson and drafted C.J. McCollum. Any of those three would have been Portland’s third-best guard a season ago. Williams might have been the Blazers’ second-best guard last season.

Watson is a third-stringer, but he’s the kind of third-stringer Blazer fans want. He won’t play many minutes, but when he’s in the game, there’s almost no way he will lose the whole thing all by himself.

As for McCollum, he is still a big question mark. But given that he is basically a pure scorer who will be Portland’s third or fourth offensive option at best when he’s on the floor with the starting unit, he is almost all upside.Robin Lopez

Add sharpshooting Allen Crabbe and a highly motivated Barton to the mix, and the Blazers have a guard rotation that is legitimately seven deep

2. An actual starting center. Robin Lopez is not an outstanding scoring center. He’s not even an outstanding center. What he is, though, is a center: an actual NBA-caliber starting center. He plays defense, he rebounds, he plays defense and he rebounds.

The Blazers will get plenty of scoring from Lillard, Aldridge and Batum. What they needed last season – what killed them in every single one of their 82 games – was somebody who could stop opponents from getting at-will layups. J.J. Hickson couldn’t do it; the combination of Meyers Leonard and Joel Freeland couldn’t do it. Lopez will do it. Blazer fans should know this because he did it to Portland last season with New Orleans.

And defense is just part of the package. Lopez is a rebounder. Portland hasn’t had a real rebounder in at least two seasons. The Blazers won’t be the worst paint-defense team in the league this season; they won’t give up a ridiculous number of offensive rebounds, either. Blazer fans will have Lopez to thank for that.

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