The Portland Trail Blazers are on the verge of a breakout season as a team. They have added a lot of talented new players to fill roles that were missing last season and coach Terry Stotts thinks these changes will show results immediately. Anything less than a playoff berth will be a disappointment and the Blazers feel they have all the pieces needed to make that run. Here’s what to watch for heading into the season.
Terry Stotts is the perfect man for the job. What did he say? Terry Stotts, the man with a .405 winning percentage in his five seasons as a head coach, is the perfect man for this job?! Correct. On the surface you see this hire last year and think it’s not a great fit and just like any first-year coach with a new team, there were growing pains. His team wasn’t great on defense (which we will touch on more in the next segment), but he really didn’t have much to work with after the starting five. Stotts has brought a tough, defensive-first attitude to this Portland roster and really has revitalized it after the departure of well-liked coach Nate McMillan. The changes weren’t evident last season but get ready for some noticeable changes this year as he now has personnel to work with and a legitimate 7-foot center to protect the rim.
The new emphasis on defense. Last season the Blazers finished 21st in the league in points allowed (100.7) and 24th in rebounds per game (40.8). Understand this — the run-and-gun teams are not winning championships. I know teams like the Golden State Warriors are fun to watch, but let’s be real — they aren’t winning a ‘ship anytime soon. Defense wins in this league. The Indiana Pacers were second in points allowed, the Miami Heat fifth, the Oklahoma City Thunder ninth and the San Antonio Spurs 11th. The Pacers were exactly 10 points better on defense per night; imagine if you took 10 points off of the Blazers opponents last year — they would have won 25 more games! Twenty-five! Now we all know it’s not that easy, but even if it translated to 17 more victories, they would have gane 50-32 instead of a pitiful 33-49. Huge changes coming!
Nicolas Batum‘s development could be the key to a successful season. Nic Batum constantly gets a bad rap from analysts and fans alike. We all have in our minds what a “star” should look like and Batum is far from a prototypical star in that sense. Forget the fact that he will rake in almost $11.3 million this season, because that is irrelevant at this point. Think about this instead — Batum is just 24 years old and just had career highs in all relevant categories last season; points (14.3), rebounds (5.6), assists (4.9), steals (1.2) and blocks (1.1). Prime years for an NBA player are normally 25 to 28, people! He is steadily improving and will do so again this season. He might be the most confident he’s ever been after leading his French national team to the Eurobasket championship alongside Tony Parker.
Chemistry with the new players on the roster. General manager Neil Olshey did his job this offseason by going out and finding talented players to build a viable bench in Portland. On paper, the job is done, however in reality there are chemistry issues that must be worked out for this endeavor to be successful. The key component off the bench will be Mo Williams, who has experience being a sixth man back in 2011-12 for the Los Angeles Clippers — he averaged 13.2 points, 3.1 assists and 1.9 rebounds in 28.3 minutes that season. Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson both come in with something to prove; Wright that his season in 2011-12 wasn’t a fluke and Robinson that he’s not a draft bust already. If Stotts can get everyone to buy in to their roles, then this bench will be much improved and could be top five in the league in terms of scoring.
At media day Mo Williams had this to say about his new role:
“You mean I gotta play against backups every night?” After cracking a smile he followed that up with, “I think I can handle that.”
The battle for the starting shooting guard position. If you think that Wesley Matthews‘ spot as the starting shooting guard is 100 percent safe, then you’re as gullible as my wife when I tell her, “The game is almost over, honey.” Don’t get me wrong, Wes has been a really solid wing in this league since going undrafted back in 2009, but C.J. McCollum is coming in with a lot of hype and a proven ability to score. At only 6’3″ and 180 pounds, McCollum is a bit small for a shooting guard — compare that to Kobe Bryant at 6’6″, 200 — but again showed an amazing ability to fill it up in the NCAA ranks. Now that doesn’t always equate to the NBA, but like his point guard C.J. also attended a mid-major and didn’t disappoint. In 111 games at Lehigh he averaged 21.3 points along with 6.3 rebounds; not too shabby for a 6’3″ guard. I don’t see this happening early in the year, but rest assured McCollum is coming for that spot.