For the Portland Trail Blazers, the 2013-14 season not only represented a return to the playoffs, it ended a drought of not making the second round that had lasted longer than a decade.
Yes, the Trail Blazers got taken to the woodshed by the San Antonio Spurs in the conference semifinals, doing just enough against the eventual champions to avoid a sweep. But plenty of other teams got whooped by the Spurs, too.
Winning against the Houston Rockets in what was maybe the most exciting first-round series in franchise history – capped by an iconic buzzer-beater that will forever live in Blazers lore, changed the course of development for the 2014-15 season. Portland still is a young team without a stellar bench, with some holes to fill and questions to answer. But with two bona fide All-Stars fortifying one of the best starting lineups in the league, this Blazers team is expected (and expecting) to do big things.
Here are five things to watch for this season.
1. Frontcourt depth. The Greg Oden era in Portland didn’t last long; he played 82 total games. But it taught Blazers fans – and coaches – one important thing. LaMarcus Aldridge is nearly unstoppable when there is another bigger guy on the floor with him. Robin Lopez played the role of that bigger guy in 2013-14, and it worked great. Lopez had probably the best season of his career, and Aldridge was amazing.
There was one problem, though. The Blazers had no second option at center. Joel Freeland was good until he got hurt, but he’s not a traditional NBA center. Meyers Leonard was not good, and it really didn’t matter since he couldn’t figure out how to play defense without fouling.
So the Blazers spent a lot of time going small with their second unit. That worked occasionally, but the options at center were severely limited. Aldridge ended up playing a lot, sometimes playing center with the second team. That’s not really a winning formula, especially when you want to get 82 games out of your alpha dog.
Enter Chris Kaman via free agency, and suddenly the story changes. As both coach Terry Stotts and GM Neil Olshey said at media day, the addition of Kaman means Aldridge will never be on the court without a legitimate 7-footer alongside him. For the first time since Oden and Joel Przybilla were both healthy, the Blazers have two real options at center. After Lopez and Kaman, the Blazers can trot out Thomas Robinson, Freeland and even the foul-prone Leonard. The Blazers have options in their frontcourt, and that’s good for Aldridge.
2. Steve Blake brings veteran leadership to the bench. Blake is Mr. Blazer at this point. The 2014-15 season will be his third stopover in Portland. He has a history with this team and this city. He has been around the NBA block and will bring a steady veteran hand to the bench that is still almost exclusively filled with guys not yet to really break out at the NBA level.
Blake can shoot corner threes. And he knows that when he is on the court with the starting unit, his job is to pass the ball to Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum or Wesley Matthews and then just kind of get out of the way.
Passing to a star and getting out of the way was his job description when he played alongside Brandon Roy. It was his job description when he played alongside Kobe Bryant. Blake is a perfect addition to Portland’s roster. He won’t light up the stat sheet, but he will be super consistent and won’t make a ton of costly mistakes.
Oh, and the best part of Blake’s arrival? Mo Williams is on a different team.
3. Believe it or not, Damian Lillard is going to be better. It’s hard to imagine what Lillard will do to top the way he went out last season. Forget that he got toasted by Tony Parker in the second round; his buzzer-beater against Houston is one of the few things people will remember about the 2014 playoffs in 10 years. That shot not only elevated Portland to the second round for the first time in 14 years, it also made Lillard a star with a killer line on his resume.
So, yeah, it’s going to be hard for Dame to follow himself this season. But don’t worry; he’s going to do it. Lillard changed his diet in the offseason, so his fitness (which was never an issue, although he did claim to run out of gas a little against the Spurs) is going to be outstanding. He was cut by Team USA, and unlike most guys who would be grateful to participate, Lillard views it as a major slight. He is out to prove that he’s better than three of the league’s best point guards. And, coming into his third season, he is starting to figure out how to be a superstar.
Lillard is committed to improving his defense. He will probably average fewer minutes per game. He is going to spend some time running with Blake, who unlike Williams will probably pass him the ball. All these things point to Lillard having an even better season than he did last season. To match the jump he made between his rookie and sophomore seasons, Lillard would probably have to reach the top-five level for point guards. That might not happen, but there’s a good chance he gets pretty close.
RELATED: Blazers salaries and analysis
4. Lots of bench guys are playing for contracts. The Blazers picked up Lillard’s fourth-year option on media day but have decided to wait on Leonard, Robinson and C.J. McCollum (third year). The only non-starter locked up through 2015-16 is Allen Crabbe. Yes, the Blazers have to think long and hard about how much to pay Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez (after offering LaMarcus Aldridge a max deal as soon as they can), but the important guys playing for contracts are all on the bench.
The Blazers will win 45-plus games with their current starting five. All are around the same age and about at the same stages of their respective careers. Portland is set there. The bench? Not so much. But playing for contracts might change that. Every bench guy should look at this season as an 82-game job interview. Play well this season? Get paid – or at least have a job – next season.
That’s good motivation, especially for young players like Robinson, who is just starting to feel some stability in his career, or Freeland who is a great international player but is still working to figure out how his specific skill set fits into the NBA. A couple of those guys on the cusp are going to break out.
5. The Blazers still have LaMarcus Aldridge, for now. Lillard is the future of the franchise, but Aldridge is the present. LA promised to re-sign in Portland after this season – because that’s when he is eligible for the most money – and said at media day that he wouldn’t be addressing the “contract issue.” But there is almost no guarantee that LA is a Blazer beyond this season.
But Aldridge is a Blazer now, and as long as he is a Blazer, the Blazers are going to be a strong team. Just like most of the bench guys, LA is playing for a contract. Unlike those bench guys, LA is playing for a max contract that he is going to get. He will get an offer from Portland, but he might get offers from elsewhere, too. A max offer from Dallas or Houston or some other team not in his home state of Texas makes it harder for the Blazers to offer less than the absolute most guaranteed money they can.
LA has an incentive to play well. He is already an All-Star. He has said that his goal is to be the best Blazer of all time. The best power forward in the league playing for the right to be paid a lot of money by the Blazers – or someone else – is reason enough to watch Portland in 2014-15.
Mike Acker writes From the Elbow, a Blazers column for the Willamette Week, Portland’s biggest alt weekly. He is the former editor and lead writer of the Rip City Project. You can follow him on Twitter.