Summer Scoop: Blazing forward
May, 15, 2014
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com
Courtesy Shea SerranoESPN.com senior writer Marc Stein has the lowdown on the Blazers as they head into the offseason.
Five burning questions and answers about Portland's immediate future in the wake of the Trail Blazers' season-ending loss Wednesday night in Game 5 of their second-round series with San Antonio:
1. How much does one of those so-called "gentlemen's sweeps" suffered at the hands of the Spurs detract from what Portland accomplished this season?
How 'bout not much?
The Blazers were a popular pick to give San Antonio something resembling Dallas-level trouble after what they did to Houston, but they had the misfortune of running into a South Texas buzzsaw. That's OK, though. These Blazers ultimately did too many good things to lament their struggles against a title-tested band of vets.
Portland won 54 games during the regular season, sprung the West's big upset by winning the first two games on the road in Houston en route to a six-game dismissal of the Rockets and enjoyed the sort of November-to-May coming-out party that elicited multiple proclamations of satisfaction during the season from franchise forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
Aldridge and Damian Lillard were introduced to a level of intensity and execution against the Spurs that they had never experienced before, but that's part of growing up in the playoffs and it will serve them both well from here. Lillard, don't forget, never played in the NCAA tournament, so this playoff run was filled with life lessons and milestones for the Blazers' star duo. Good ones and necessary evils.
2. Why is Terry Stotts' future even a subject of discussion after the season Portland had?
The reality is that Stotts' option for next season hasn't officially been picked up yet. So his 2014-15 status takes over now as the hot story in Portland until it is clarified.
But only temporarily.
The strong belief in coaching circles is that Stotts has meshed too well with the Blazers' core foursome of Aldridge, Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Wes Matthews for Blazers owner Paul Allen to withhold the contractual reward he deserves for much longer.
The Blazers just won their first playoff series since 2000, which should drown out any supposed concerns lingering from Portland's midseason swoon. The most sensible scenario, given what was expected from this team and what it achieved, is a one-year extension tacked onto Stotts' 2014-15 option.
Surely Allen will see sense.
3. Is there any downside to the Blazers' storybook season?Downside is a strong word. The wrong word here.
Back in the fall, when not even the most diehard Blazermaniacs had 50-win visions, some skeptics projected this to be a season that topped out with mere playoff flirtation, which in the Blazers' case would have been accompanied by the solace of preserving their lottery pick in June.
Portland surely prefers the way it busted through in the standings Cinderella-style and all the hope this run spawned for the club's future, but their first-round pick in the June draft was only top-12 protected. So Charlotte will be making that pick instead of the Blazers because of the long-ago Gerald Wallace trade, which of course paid off in its own way when Brooklyn sent the pick that became Lillard to Rip City to acquire Wallace.
Arriving a season early to the "50-win club" does mean, though, that the Blazers, given their limited financial flexibility projected this summer, will have to be creative to find the attacking guard (or swingman) off the bench they need.
4. Should we expect a contract extension for Aldridge this summer?
Aldridge wants to be a Blazer. He's made that pretty clear.
But his last deal wasn't quite a max deal, which limits the size of the extension he can receive. So Portland might be forced to wait until after Aldridge plays out the final season of his contract at just over $16 million and hits free agency on July 1, 2015.
The summer of 2015 looks like it's going to be a huge one for the Blazers, with not only Aldridge's free agency to handle but also the max extension that looms for Lillard. The scary part there for the Blazers, of course, is what potentially happens to Aldridge's sunny outlook if the Blazers backslide in any way next season.
5. What will we see the Blazers do this summer, then?
Thanks largely to his vision in targeting Robin Lopez and projecting what trading for the seemingly pedestrian big man could do for Aldridge and the Blazers' fortunes at large, Blazers GM Neil Olshey finished third in the NBA's Executive of the Year voting and enhanced his rising reputation.
Next up for Olshey is improving a bench that, while clearly fortified by the addition of Mo Williams as well as some playoff flashes from Thomas Robinson, still wound up being outscored by 143 points (220-77) in the five games with the Spurs.
Finding an attacking guard or swingman to change games as a reserve, as mentioned, is a priority. Trouble is, Portland will be up to 14 guaranteed contracts by the beginning of August if Will Barton sticks, which doesn't leave much roster wiggle room.
So do they shop young big man Meyers Leonard? Try to buy out Spanish forward Victor Claver to open up a roster spot that way? They'd obviously like to hang onto Williams if they can -- and you can be sure there will be outside interest in the 31-year-old in free agency -- but they'd still need more shooting (and creativity off the drive) even if Williams sticks around.
Nothing looms as a greater area of need for the Blazers than team D. They got away with it in the first round against Houston's own intermittent D, but that's not going to work against the West elite.
So even if Robinson continues to remember he's a former top-five pick who can turn his playoff flashes into something longer-lasting -- or even if C.J. McCollum takes a step next season to be a longer and more dangerous version of Williams -- Portland is going to have to pick things up defensively in a meaningful way to move up the West ladder.