Think of where the Blazers might be if Brandon Roy and Greg Oden had healthy knees. Roy, 28 and a 3-time NBA All Star, averaged 22.6 points per game in 2008-09 and 21.5 the following year before his knees began to degenerate so quickly that he was forced to retire following an injury-shortened 2010-11 campaign. Oden, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft, missed his entire rookie year due to microfracture surgery on his right knee, then saw 2 more seasons end prematurely because of knee-related injuries. In all, Oden’s played 82 games in his career, a full-season schedule, averaging a respectable 9.3 points and 7.4 rebounds on 58% shooting in 22 minutes.
With a healthy Roy and Oden in their primes, as well as All Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, there’s no reason to think this team could not compete in the top half of the Western Conference. But, for Portland fans, the status quo is not too bad, either; rookie Damian Lillard, this year’s No. 6 overall pick acquired via the Gerald Wallace deal, is a surefire bet to win Rookie of the Year. Meyers Leonard, another lottery pick at 7’1″ and age 20, shows promise as a rotation filler. And Portland’s starting 5, man for man, is as good as anyone’s in the Western Conference.
All 5 of those guys — Aldridge, Lillard, J.J. Hickson, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum — are averaging at least 13 points per game. Hickson, perhaps the biggest surprise, is earning himself some serious coin this offseason, when he enters a weak market as an unrestricted free agent, averaging a double-double with a team-leading 10.4 boards and absurd 57.4 field goal percentage. Matthews is one of the league’s most exciting players to watch, with a very under-the-radar 15 points per and team-high 39% mark from 3. And Batum is rewarding Portland for that borderline max deal they offered this summer, with 15.5 points per game.
But let’s not kid ourselves, this team is built on 2 guys: Lillard and Aldridge. Lillard has been sensational in his rookie season as the team’s primary ball-handler and crunch-time facilitator. The Weber State product is more of a scoring guard, 18.3 points per game, than a distributor, similar to the Kyrie Irving mold, but his 6.5 assists and 2.1 assists-per-turnover ratio both demand an opponent’s respect.
Aldridge, 27, is one of the few post threats left in today’s NBA, with a mid-range game more consistently used than any other big. I’d like to see him get to the line more — only 4.8 FT attempts per game, on 17.7 field goals — but his 48% shooting is a positive considering the defensive attention he attracts.
Portland’s problem, though, is its bench. As good as the starting unit is, Terry Stotts’ bench is dead-last in the NBA in scoring; in fact, the Blazers bench scores, on average, 16.5 points per game, about 10 less than 29th-ranked Indiana. Aside from Hickson, 29.5 minutes, all 4 other starters play at least 34.9 minutes per game; Leonard and Luke Babbitt, each at 4.1, are the only bench guys to tally at least 4 points a night.
The unit’s stretched so thin, they’ve tried Ronnie Price, to Sasha Pavlovic, to Jared Jeffries, and everything in between. Excluding Leonard, no bench player has a PER exceeding 8.6, Luke Babbitt’s mark already 6.4 points below the league’s 15.0 average.
The deadline acquisition of Eric Maynor, formerly Russell Westbrook’s backup in Oklahoma City, can’t hurt, though Maynor has not lived up to his 2010-11 Western Conference Finals run level, even being replaced by sophomore Reggie Jackson as OKC’s primary reserve PG this season. If Maynor fails to produce, Portland’s stuck with Nolan Smith’s 36.6% shooting and poor 1.2 assist-to-turnover ratio as Lillard’s backup. Hell, Maynor got 15 minutes in his debut game with the Trail Blazers, showing you just how badly he’s needed.
But, man, is this team fun to watch. Rarely can you put a lineup on the floor with 5 guys and tell any one of them, ‘Hey, go get me 2 points this possession,’ and have a reasonable chance of that player succeeding. Even still, Portland’s -2.9 points differential is 23rd in the league, they’re 18th in FG percentage and 27th in 3-point percentage, at 33.8%. The fact that Portland’s 7th in turnover differential, at 1.5, speaks volumes for Lillard. On the other end, largely thanks to the perimeter defensive energy of Batum and Matthews, Portland’s 8th in 3-point percentage allowed. Defensively, they’re 27th in opponent’s FG percentage, though, and 17th in rebound differential.
Nestled into the West’s No. 10 seed, Portland, 26-30 and 4 games behind No. 8-seeded Houston, still has playoff aspirations. But they’re 3-7 in their last 10, and 19 of their remaining 26 games are against likely playoff teams, so it’s a far-fetched possibility at this point. Either way, Portland’s future is bright, especially with Lillard, who will benefit from another full offseason and hopefully some bench support via the draft and free agency.
From an organizational perspective, Portland’s in a precarious spot financially, with about $44 million committed to 9 players next season, as well as the $32+ million the team owes the amnestied Brandon Roy over the next 2 years. Maynor’s a restricted free agent with a $3.35 million qualifying offer this summer, meaning he’s essentially a short-term tryout for the next 26 games, and Pavlovic has a less-than-queasy $1.4 million team option.
Based on the year he’s having, my best guess is Hickson could command $10+ million annually this offseason, which I’m not sure Portland’s ready to deliver, given that he was very much dangled before Thursday’s deadline. The Blazers committed about $46 million to Batum this offseason, Aldridge’s deal is up in 2015, and, even though he’s not eligible to enter unrestricted free agency until 2017 at the earliest, it’s never too early to start thinking about Lillard’s future deal. With Leonard waiting in the wings, Hickson seems the most expendable of the 5.
Bottom line: The playoffs are not likely this season, but with a few veteran cogs and an improved Leonard, this team is going to make some noise in the years to come.
Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.