Last year was one of the most miserable seasons in Portland Trailblazers history. Granted, their record wasn’t that bad, but they were probably the most disappointing team in the NBA. After an impressive showing in 2010-11, the Blazers were supposed to be legitimate contenders in the west, with LaMarcus Aldridge leading them to glory. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work out that way. Aldridge played well, but he received almost no help from the supporting cast. Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford were supposed to be the guys who gave Portland what they needed for a serious playoff run. Instead, they floundered and put up the worst seasons of their respective careers. Going into the offseason, there wasn’t much hope in Portland.
One draft pick later, however, and joy has been restored to Rip City.
When Damian Lillard was selected by the Blazers with the sixth overall pick, many people figured he would take off. He was the best point guard in college, and while he lacked the youth of Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, he had a better resume than just about anyone else, and few doubted that he could run an NBA offense. He quickly took off in the summer league, sharing the MVP with Josh Selby, and finally giving Blazers fans something to cheer about.
Of course, the summer league isn’t everything. Just ask co-MVP Selby, who has made exactly one field goal in the NBA this season. But when Lillard was given a chance to shine on the big stage, he didn’t hesitate. He quickly proved himself to be a high-volume scorer, as well as an able floor captain. He gave the Blazers the leadership they lacked under Felton last season, and the team quickly developed a tougher personality.
Lillard’s coming out party came on December 13th, when he lit up Tony Parker in a nationally televised game against the Spurs. Lillard put up 29 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists, carrying the Blazers to an easy victory over one of the best teams in the NBA. Anybody doubting Lillard’s ability had to seriously reconsider after that brilliant showing. Lillard had made it clear that he was already one of the better point guards in the league, and that he had the potential to become something even greater.
Of course, Lillard is hardly the only reason why the Blazers currently find themselves with a winning record. Aldridge has been excellent of late as well. When the season started, Aldridge looked like he might be reverting back to the good-but-not-great player he was before his breakout over the previous two seasons. Luckily, he quickly snapped out of it, and regained his top form. Aldridge is as deadly in the post as anyone, and he’s been as good as any power forward in the league this season. It would not be remotely shocking if he was once again selected for the All-Star game.
Finally, the Blazers have gotten a ton of help from J.J. Hickson, who has thrived since becoming a center this season. As a member of the Cavaliers and Kings, Hickson tried to succeed as a forward (playing the 3 and 4 at various time), but he could never quite work it out. Anytime it looked like he was finally getting it together, he would regress, and cement his reputation as a skilled-but-unreliable, who could never be a major-minutes guy on a contender (unless they had LeBron James).
He’s certainly proven the doubters wrong in 2012, though. When the Blazers received Hickson from the Kings at the trade deadline, he didn’t waste any time putting on a show, as he posted the best numbers of his career. Still, it could’ve been merely a late season fluke by a player who was desperate for a contract. Hickson has put any of that doubt to rest this year, however, by becoming one of the better centers in the game. His per-36 minute averages are 15.6 points, and 13.7 rebounds. A player who no one was giving a lot of respect to has a become a double-double machine, and all because one team finally found the right position for him. Hickson’s improvement hasn’t gotten much press, but it’s one of the nicer stories we’ve seen this year.
So, after a season in the abyss, the Blazers have a talented, scrappy young team. We haven’t even gotten to the contributions by Nicolas Batum, who is incredibly efficient, and gets a little bit better every year. This is a very intriguing team. Their lack of a strong second unit could hurt them as the season goes on, but even if they don’t make the playoffs, they have the pieces in place to be a very competitive team for a very long time.
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