2013--14 RECORD: 54--28 (2ND IN NORTHWEST) COACH: TERRY STOTTS (3RD SEASON WITH TRAIL BLAZERS)
Last season the Trail Blazers won a playoff series for the first time since 2000, despite ranking last in bench scoring for the second year in a row (24.7 points per game). A quiet summer means that Portland's starting lineup, one of the NBA's most reliable and effective units, will determine the team's fate again.
Clear role definition drove the Blazers' surprising 54-win season. All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard were the primary scorers, wings Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews gave two-way support, and center Robin Lopez paired with Aldridge to rebound and defend the interior. Durability was a huge help: Even though all starters averaged at least 31 minutes, the only one who didn't appear in 82 games was Aldridge, who missed 13. The quintet logged 1,373 minutes together (second in the league) and outscored opponents by 211 points (fourth), finishing first in points, rebounds and assists. Its continuity was evident in clutch situations; Portland's performance in the final five minutes of five-point games was second best.
Aldridge, Matthews and Lopez have been making strong cases for salary bumps as 2015 free agents, and Lillard will be eligible for an extension next summer. (Batum is under contract through '15--16.) The NBA's new nine-year, $24 billion television rights deal and an anticipated salary-cap increase in 2016 are arriving just in time. GM Neil Olshey should be in position to reward his starting five without having to pay repeated luxury-tax penalties, something owner Paul Allen has said he wouldn't do unless the Blazers have a shot to win the title.
20.7 PPG; 5.6 APG; 42.4 FG%; 39.4 3FG%
16.4 PPG; 3.5 RPG; 44.1 FG%; 39.3 3FG%
13.0 PPG; 7.5 RPG; 5.1 APG; 46.5 FG%
23.2 PPG; 11.1 RPG; 2.6 APG; 45.8 FG%
11.1 PPG; 8.5 RPG; 1.7 BPG; 55.1 FG%
6.9 PPG; 5.6 APG; 37.7 FG%; 37.6 3FG%
10.4 PPG; 5.9 RPG; 1.0 BPG; 50.9 FG%
The bench blossoms, and the Blazers ride their explosive offense to the West finals.
Last season's injury luck runs out and depth concerns drop Portland to the playoff bubble.
A RIVAL SCOUT SIZES UP THE TRAIL BLAZERS
I'd be surprised if they reach last year's win total, because it will be hard for their starters to repeat career years across the board.... They space the floor so well and get open looks. Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews are all capable of making five three-pointers in a game, and LaMarcus Aldridge ranks with Dirk Nowitzki as the league's best jump-shooting big men.... Aldridge posted up less and instead found his spots on the perimeter, where he's harder to double-team. Having a true five in Robin Lopez next to him was big because Aldridge didn't have to defend as much against more physical players. Lopez complements their other starters as a dirty-work guy who doesn't need the ball.... Lillard is such a dangerous shooter that you have to go over picks and guard him aggressively. He makes hard shots at the end of the shot clock and in game-winning situations.... People sleep on Batum, but he gets a lot done with his versatility, length and athleticism. He can drive, pass, finish in transition, rebound and defend.... Coaches should use Matthews as an example to young players about the value of hard work. He has made himself into a solid starter after going undrafted [in 2009]. He brings it every night.... The bench doesn't excite you. Young big men Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard don't project as future starters. Robinson needs to forget about scoring and focus on rebounding and running the floor. The Chris Kaman signing makes it harder for Leonard to establish himself in the rotation.
SAM FORENCICH/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
Batum is part of a stable starting five.