Posted Sep 4, 2012 2:31 PM - Updated Sep 7, 2012 9:44 AM
This is the 12th in a series of articles on the teams that did not make the playoffs last season, previewing their prospects of making it to the postseason in 2012-13. Coming Wednesday: the Washington Wizards.
The Portland Trail Blazers weren't supposed to be here.
The lottery was supposed to be a thing of their past with all of the hard work the franchise had done in the lottery four and five years earlier. Yet here they are, after Greg Oden, Brandon Roy and several of those other prime draft picks they've had in recent years went awry for one reason or another.
New Portland general manager Neil Olshey has to feel like the guy on Yard Crashers, when he walks into the back yard and realizes just how tough a challenge his project will be to complete. Unlike some of the other teams in the advanced stages of a franchise rebuild, the Trail Blazers are starting basically from scratch. New GM, new coach (Terry Stotts) and a largely new cast of characters on the court.
They have the resources and a steady hand in control in Olshey, who helped revitalize the Los Angeles Clippers in his most recent position. But the raw materials are still in question. No one is certain what to make of this latest incarnation of the Trail Blazers, not with so many lingering questions about so many different aspects of this team.
Just two years ago the Trail Blazers were locked in an intense playoff battle with a Dallas Mavericks team that would not only survive Nate McMillan's scrappy bunch in the first round, but go on to win it all. Roy was trying to make a comeback from yet another knee surgery, LaMarcus Aldridge was just coming into his own and there was that specter of hope that Oden might still have a chance to at least contribute some day, most folks having given up on the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 Draft ever being able to live up to the hype.
The bottom fell out shortly thereafter. Roy knees were so bad he opted for a medical retirement, Oden was lost for yet another season and new free agent acquisitions Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford struggled to adjust under McMillan. The end was a foregone conclusion, the only thing left to decide was when and how. It was done by the trade deadline. McMillan was gone and the rebuilding process was already being formalized.
But a shrewd deal at the trade deadline in March set the Trail Blazers up for a potentially big night when the draft lottery was unveiled and they came away with two lottery picks that turned into Summer League co-MVP Damian Lillard, a point guard, and 7-footer Meyers Leonard.
The summer of 2012 was not about chasing big name free agents or taking unnecessary risks for the Trail Blazers (depending on how you view them matching that $45 million offer sheet the Timberwolves presented to Nicolas Batum in July). They had to get their house in order first. And that started with sorting through a list of potential head coaches that led them to Stotts, the "offensive coordinator" for that title-winning Mavericks team.
Aldridge will be coming back from offseason hip surgery, but he'll have a couple of reliable friends supporting him in Batum and Wesley Matthews. So much of what the Trail Blazers do this season will depend on how capable this trio is of leading instead of being lead. Lillard and Leonard figure to be central figures as well, since there isn't a returning rotation already intact.
Stotts promises that his team will play "fast and free," which will require everyone to live with whatever growing pains Lillard goes through if he is indeed their point guard of the present and future.
Avoiding the Northwest Division cellar this season is the first goal for Stotts. With the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Denver Nuggets already locked into those top two spots and the Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves on the rise, that leaves the Trail Blazers basically no wiggle room within the division.
But they don't have the frontline depth needed to inspire a ton of confidence if Aldridge struggles at all with his comeback. J.J. Hickson, Jared Jeffries and Joel Freeland aren't exactly the sort of names that strike fear into the likes of the Thunder,
Nuggets or anyone else.
The expectations for this crew are basically non-existent, what with all of the change that has gone on the past 11 months. That doesn't mean there isn't anything to be excited about where the Trail Blazers are concerned.
If his performance during the Summer League was an appetizer, Lillard has the potential to be one of the breakout stars from a deep Draft class. And if Leonard just stays healthy and contributes on a consistent basis, he'll have outshined his big man predecessor (Oden).
That said, a dose of reality is needed when assessing the prospects for this team right now. They are a long way from being the force many envisioned they'd be by now. They are a mere shadow of the team fans in Portland thought they'd be when they embarked upon their last rebuild.
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