Can an overhauled bench get them in the playoffs? Portland Trailblazers Season Preview

Starting five: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C Robin Lopez
Key bench players: PF Thomas Robinson, PG CJ McCollum (10th overall pick), SF Dorrell Wright, PG Mo Williams, SG Allen Crabbe (31st overall pick), C Meyers Leonard
Offseason additions: Thomas Robinson (from Houston for two second round draft picks), CJ McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Mo Williams, Dorrell Wright, Earl Watson
Offseason subtractions: PF JJ Hickson, PG Eric Maynor, G/F Sasha Pavlovic
FACT OR FICTION: GM Neil Olshey upgraded his team’s bench enough to make the Trailblazers a playoff team.
FACT. Last season, only one Portland reserve averaged more than six points, four rebounds or four assists off the bench. That guy was Eric Maynor, who dropped a very modest 6.9 ppg and 4 apg. The problem was that he only played in 27 games after being traded to the PDX from Oklahoma City.

In other words? The Trailblazers bench was putrid last season. They were undoubtedly worst reserve unit in the league, and more than likely the reason why the Trailblazers missed the playoffs. Guys like Wil Barton, Victor Claver, Luke Babbit and rookie Meyers Leonard couldn’t do anything beneath an excellent starting five, which created an easy offseason directive for GM Olshey.
In a major upgrading project, the Portland front office went out and acquired essentially an all-new reserve unit. This included dealing for 2012 number 5 overall draft pick Robinson and rookie Allen Crabbe (in two different deals), as well as signing Mo Williams and Dorrell Wright and drafting Lehigh scoring machine McCollum. Along with now second year big man Leonard, this overhauled bench should, at least in name, be able to produce for the Blazers. Williams and Wright can be sieves defensively, but at the very least should be able to shoot the lights out, with a .386 and .367 three-point percentages, respectively. Robinson should be able to fill some of the gaps Wright and Williams can’t by rebounding and playing defense off the bench, which is what he was drafted for in the first place. Crabbe and McCollum were recruited to score big, which is exactly what both did in college.

However, it’s not as if Olshey got proven products here. Robinson has been dealt twice in the last six months, even with such a fine draft pedigree. McCollum was a potent scoring threat, but did so at Lehigh University in the prestigious Patriot League. Crabbe is a second round pick. Meyers Leonard showed some flashes of competency this year, but there’s a reason why he hasn’t been mentioned much in this preview–in short, he kind of sucks. Wright and Williams are solid vets, but Mo has had his troubles staying healthy and Dorell has seen his numbers decline for two straight years.

For the Blazers, taking a step forward into the playoffs really depends on the bench, but when they get there, advancing will depend on their stars.

As good as LaMarcus Aldridge has been, it’s clear that the present and future of the Blazers starts and ends with second year point guard Lillard. His rookie year surpassed most people’s expectations of him: 19 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 6.5 apg and a .429/.368/.844 shooting slash line that was far above league average. He was a fearless competitor that didn’t shy away when faced with marquee opposition in the biggest spotlight. His five 30 point games last season were against the Lakes, Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets and the eventual NBA champion Miami Heat–and every one of those games except against LA were on the road. If the Blazers are going to win a playoff series–which would be their first since 2000–then they’ll have to do it on the shoulders of Lillard.

Don’t get me wrong: Aldridge is a very, very good player. But at age 28, we’ve seen how far the Blazers can go on his back. Two All-Star berths and one Third Team All-NBA nod is impressive, but he’s certainly not the franchise savior that’s going to take Rip City anywhere. If anyone, it’s going to be the 22 year-old Lillard, who still has a lot prove before we anoint him as a top-10 point guard.

It’s an absolute FACT that Olshey put the team in a place where they can make the playoffs. But even so, the bench still has a ton of question marks, while the starting lineup has to stay extremely healthy in order to compete. In the opinion of this humble blogger, it’s simply too many questions and unproven players to ignore.

Best case scenario: The reserves are exactly what they were billed as, and more. CJ McCollum is the front runner for Portland’s second consecutive Rookie of the Year, while Leonard and Robinson take two big steps forward. Williams and Wright find their niches and happily accept their roles as mentors to their young swingman teammates. The starting five is just as solid as last year’s addition, with Lillard proving that yes, he is a top-10 NBA point guard. The Blazers make the postseason as a 6-seed and stun Houston with a first round victory.

Absolute apocalypse: All of the offseason tinkering works about as well as Brandon Roy’s knees. The rookies are a bust and both second year men prove they weren’t worthy of the lottery pick status. Williams gets hurt and Dorrell can’t do it all himself. The starting five doesn’t stay as lucky and healthy as they were last season, as LaMarcus, Dame and Matthews all break down from such vicious workloads. The best thing about Portland this year is a Fred Armisen show that only obnoxious people watch.

Expected outcome: 4th in the Northwest, 10th in the Western Conference

Do you smell what MAMBINO is cooking? Check out the rest (so far) of our 2013-2014 NBA Season Preview series:

Southeast Division

Atlanta Hawks
Charlotte Bobcats

Miami Heat
Orlando Magic
Washington Wizards


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