'13-14 outlook: Portland Trail Blazers
What's in store for the Portland Trail Blazers? Our panel of five looks back at the offseason moves (and nonmoves) and forward to what lies ahead in the 2013-14 NBA season.
1. What grade would you give the Trail Blazers' offseason?
Danny Chau, Hardwood Paroxysm: B. The Blazers brought in two big bodies in Robin Lopez and Thomas Robinson to help shore up what was a truly terrible interior defense last season, though it's unclear how effective those two will be. With Dorell Wright and Mo Williams augmenting their bench, the team is now deep enough to make a serious run at making the playoffs.
Nate Drexler, Magic Basketball: B. The Blazers added some offense, some defense, some veterans and some depth. They didn't score a marquee player, but guys like Robinson and Lopez will go a long way in rounding out this roster. C.J. McCollum was a terrific draft pick as well, giving Portland platooning options in the backcourt and bench depth that the Blazers have been yearning for.
Mark Haubner, The Painted Area: B+. Every significant move GM Neil Olshey made was a solid upgrade for little cost. Lopez and Robinson were acquired via trade for close to nothing. Wright and Williams were signed at low salaries. No major game-changers, sure, but the Blazers' bench -- the worst in basketball last season -- should be much better in 2013-14.
Danny Nowell, TrueHoop Network: A. Blazers faithful may have been clamoring for the addition of a game-changing starter in Portland, but Olshey pulled off something even more impressive. Surrendering no asset more valuable than Jeff Withey, Olshey added an entire bench rotation. No high-wattage studs moved to Portland, but the league's shallowest depth chart is now among the deepest.
Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: B+. I don't think I can give them an A without a game-changing acquisition, but the Blazers consistently got solid value and quickly rebuilt their bench while avoiding long-term salary commitments, making this the best possible outcome short of that.
2. What's the biggest question facing the Trail Blazers in 2013-14?
Chau: What will they do with LaMarcus Aldridge? While the team has improved its depth considerably this offseason, the ceiling still appears to be that of the fringe playoff contender. Aldridge is ready to make his mark as a winner, and it probably isn't happening in Portland. Will the Blazers be aggressive in the trade market?
Drexler: How much of an impact will these new acquisitions have? Lopez, McCollum and Robinson obviously add some much-needed depth, but the Blazers haven't added anyone of the caliber that suggests they're out of rebuilding mode. There's no question these players make them better, but how much better? Six wins? Eight wins? It's hard to say.
Haubner: Will they be good enough to keep Aldridge happy? At 28, Aldridge is the elder statesman of a young Portland core. What's unclear is just how much potential said core has. A first-round exit seems to be the team's ceiling in 2013-14. Another trip toward the lottery could lead to the opening of the LaMarcus Aldridge Sweepstakes.
Nowell: Can they convince Aldridge to stay? Should they? Count me among those who believe Portland's franchise centerpiece would prefer to log minutes on a serious title contender, even if he's dispatching his duties in Portland professionally. The Blazers have to establish that they are such a contender, or else decide whether true contention is realistic for their current roster.
Pelton: Can they improve defensively? Barring injuries, we know this team will score. But Portland will probably have to be one of the top 20 defenses in the NBA in order to make the playoffs, which would be a sizable step forward from last season (26th). The L.A. Lakers were the worst defensive team to make the playoffs in 2013, and they ranked 19th.
3. Who's the Trail Blazers' most intriguing player?
Chau: Damian Lillard. He was given the keys to the franchise after his outstanding rookie season. He's been lauded almost universally, but there's still much to prove. Where he goes from here could make or break the franchise. The optimist sees the league's next great point guard. The realist sees an inevitable regression a la Tyreke Evans.
Drexler: McCollum. I think he was drafted too low at No. 10 overall. This is a multithreat point guard who will also grab some minutes at shooting guard while Lillard runs point. His minutes will be limited his rookie season, but he may force his way into the lineup when he returns from injury.
Haubner: Nicolas Batum. With his tantalizing combination of athleticism and length, the 24-year-old is the perennial answer to this question. The Blazers need Batum to become an All-Star-caliber small forward (especially after signing a four-year, $46M contract extension in 2012), but so far, the young Frenchman has been too inconsistent to make that leap.
Nowell: Batum. He took a leap last season before a wrist injury grounded his campaign somewhat, and he remains the lone player whose upside may still elevate the team. If he can harness his newfound passing creativity and dead-eye shooting to steady aggression, Batum could be one of the game's premier swingmen.
Pelton: Batum. During the first half of last season, he seemed ready to become the consistent contributor he's got the potential to be. But he slipped in the second half, and we still have yet to see him play a full season at a high level.
4. What's one bold prediction about the Trail Blazers?
Chau: Meyers Leonard will be a productive starter for the team by January. He's raw, underdeveloped and has made some questionable decisions (like trying to add a 3-point shot to his limited arsenal) over the summer, but he's also a physical marvel figuring out how to best leverage his body. Trial by fire is a tantalizing move for the Blazers.
Drexler: They will have a better record than the Lakers. This might say a little more about the Lakers than the Blazers, but in several positions (including point guard), Portland looks significantly stronger. Not only that, but the offseason moves added depth that the purple and gold don't have.
Haubner: Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard won't be one of the top three sophomores. This mainly speaks to a deep list of young sophs with more room for growth than Lillard, who entered the NBA at age 22. But it also suggests the question of whether Lillard can become a truly elite point guard in a league so incredibly deep at the position.
Nowell: Aldridge leaves town before his contract is up. I absolutely do not mean to cast Aldridge as some sort of agitator; he's as professional and consistent as players come. But the Blazers likely don't have the serious postseason hopes to justify keeping a top-15 player on their payroll, and Aldridge could fetch quite a haul.
Pelton: McCollum's foot doesn't heal as quickly as the Blazers hope, and to minimize the risk of reinjury (and with Williams and Wright effectively covering for him off the bench), he doesn't make his NBA debut until after the All-Star break.
5. Prediction time: How far will the Trail Blazers go this season?
Chau: Not very. The Blazers could certainly make the playoffs, but if they trade Aldridge by the deadline, it certainly won't be to make a final playoff push. Recent acquisitions have made the Blazers a surprisingly deep team, but not enough to break free from purgatory. Trading wins for a more promising foundation seems like where they're headed.
Drexler: They will win 43 games, get back to the playoffs and bow out in the first round. And there will be no waltzing into the postseason. This team is better than it was last season, but the Blazers will have to fight for a low seed in April.
Haubner: The draft lottery. There are just too many teams competing for those last playoff spots in the brutal Western Conference. But, regardless, the Blazers should definitely be an improved team -- especially given the big upgrade to their bench -- which is a step in the right direction after four straight years of declining winning percentages amidst front-office instability.
Nowell: Eighth seed, first-round exit. I love what the Blazers did this offseason, and if they can find a little defense somewhere to pair with the shooting and depth, they'll win a lot of games. They're a step down from the West's elite, but a playoff squad.
Pelton: Even though this is an improved team, the depth of the Western Conference makes me think they're in for déjà vu. Portland stays in playoff contention through the end of March, then suffers a late-season losing streak trying to ensure its lottery pick is in the top 12 and isn't conveyed to Charlotte from the Gerald Wallace trade.