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Understated Blazers ready to sneak into postseason

POSTED: Aug 24, 2013 9:45 AM ET

By Scott Howard-Cooper

BY Scott Howard-Cooper


Damian Lillard aims to follow up his stellar rookie year with a better sophomore campaign.

This is the latest 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 2013-14. For a look at other teams in the series, click here.

This is the offseason the Trail Blazers went for understated. How very un-Trail Blazers of them.

The big steps could always be heard in the distance before, loud stomps to announce progress. The two lottery picks a year ago that progressed exactly on schedule, with Damian Lillard capable of an immediate impact and Meyers Leonard on a slower arc that would mean at least a season of waiting before a major contribution. The years-ago international draft picks, Joel Freeland and Victor Claver, finally coming over, and at the same time. The Kevin Pritchard ouster. The Rich Cho fly-by. Greg Oden coming. Greg Oden leaving. Brandon Roy coming in a draft-day deal. Brandon Roy leaving. And that's just pretty recent history.

2012-13 Blazers Top 10 Plays

The latest building blocks are the No. 10 pick in the draft (C.J. McCollum) who was immediately slotted into a role backing up the best hope for the future (Lillard), a starting center who averaged 5.6 rebounds (Robin Lopez) last season -- a career-high 5.6 -- a reserve shooter and another Lillard backup (Mo Williams). Not to mention the guy who went from No. 5 selection in 2012 to being traded twice (Thomas Robinson).

But, well done.

The Trail Blazers were in the playoff conversation against all logic deep into the second half last season before injuries hit and the lack of warm bodies that was an obvious concern from the start became an actual problem. To move forward in 2013-14, with the opening lineup basically set, they would need depth more than anything to be in position to last all the way to the playoffs, the next step. And depth is what they got.

"I know everybody on the other side of the computer wants to look at names," general manager Neil Olshey said. "You know what? Names don't get it done. Guys that fulfill their role get it done. Guys that play the right way get it done. Terry (Stotts, the coach), myself, the front-office staff, the coaches, we all sat down and knew how we wanted to construct this roster in terms of ability. It may not be in terms of name awareness, but it has to do with what they bring to the table after where we were lacking last year. These guys fill voids that we feel were there and we think we did it as effective as we could. We maximized out $11.6 million in (cap) room. We think we nailed the draft as well."

They nailed the assessment, too. McCollum, the lottery pick, can play behind Lillard or in tandem. They were opportunistic in getting Robinson, a year after he was one of the top prospects, when the Rockets needed to move salary for the Dwight Howard pursuit, and Lopez when New Orleans had to clear space for the Tyreke Evans sign-and-trade. Signing Williams and Earl Watson at point guard, adding Dorell Wright as a free agent for shooting help and Allen Crabbe as a second-round pick via a draft-night deal for the same reason, and dealing second-round picks for Robinson won't generate many headlines. But it will make the Blazers better.

Kia Rookie of the Year: Damian Lillard

Where they've been

Portland finished 33-49, 12 games behind No. 8 Houston, but that was with a 13-game losing streak to end the season amid injuries. In the bigger picture, the Trail Blazers established a positive foundation despite inexperience, the transition to a new coach and a porous defense.

The defense was the one thing they could control on the court, and that didn't go well -- the Blazers finished 29th in field goal defense, 21st in scoring defense and 19th in defensive rebounding by percentage. In addition to adding depth, that became a priority among areas in need of upgrades.

Where they are now

In short, they are in a decent spot to make the playoffs. It's not the most secure of locations, because there is a lot of counting on Lopez to deliver as a rim protector and Wright, Crabbe and McCollum to hit 3s, but the opportunity is real.

Most encouraging of all in trying to build off the promising 2012-13, the Trail Blazers will have much more depth. They are at least two-deep at point guard, shooting guard and small forward. If Lopez can produce on defense, there will be security at center knowing that LaMarcus Aldridge can get minutes there. Power forward is the final unknown, with Aldridge a very positive starting point in the conversation but a casting call from there.

Biggest hurdle

The defense should improve. But if it does not improve in a significant way, the Trail Blazers won't go far.

Terry Stotts Interview

The other hurdle: the competition. Portland will be better, but so will several other teams in the Western Conference. Some probably won't need to eek into the playoffs like before (Houston), some will be trying to make the similar push as the Trail Blazers and go from the lottery to the postseason playoffs (Minnesota), and others should be improved even if they don't play in May.

Where they're going

This is when the pressure points really get squeezed. Some of that may have existed before because there is no such thing as casual interest in Portland for its civic institution. At least before it came with the understanding that there were some growing pains to survive. No more.

While the growing pains will still exist, this is the season of expectations. This is proving time, about the playoffs, about Lopez, and about whether Aldridge can extinguish speculation he wants out. And if he doesn't end the talk, that he can at least play through it and keep it from becoming a distraction.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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