The Portland Trail Blazers were close. Real close. They could have been legitimate title contenders but were missing that final piece to take the next step into the league’s elite tier. However, changes have made the once offensively scary Rip City squad mediocre. Which isn’t necessarily too bad considering how many key players they lost this past offseason.
LaMarcus Aldridge was considered by many to be the best player on the team, but he wasn’t the heart. That belonged to and still belongs to Damian Lillard. Aldridge was a machine for Portland; dropping 20 points a night consistently while handling the boards. He grew increasingly frustrated playing with Lillard due to him not getting enough touches. The once star power forward of the red, white, and black who claimed he’s a life-time Blazer turned to the silver and black of the San Antonio Spurs and has yet to look back.
Arron Afflalo, the stud two-guard sharpshooter of the team left for the bright lights of New York and teamed up with Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks. Nicolas Batum is finally starting to show signs of life again, but that’s in Charlotte for the Hornets. Robin Lopez continues to mess with team mascots, but it’s with the Knicks as well and not with the Portland squad that grew to love him. Wesley Matthews tore his Achilles in May and never saw the court for the Blazers again. He took his talents to Dallas and got cashed out by the Mavericks.
The team that made the postseason in back to back years after dominating 54 and 51 win seasons was dismantled and will go down as one of the biggest “what ifs” in franchise history . . . below Brandon Roy, Sam Bowie over Michel Jordan, and Greg Oden over Kevin Durant -- but that’s a whole other story.
Damian Lillard has the keys to the team now and it’s up to him to decide where he’s driving the revamped roster. They started the season surprisingly well but have been on a skid as of late. C.J. McCollum has made himself comfortable in the Robin role to Lillard’s Batman and is the lead candidate for Most Improved Player of the Year. Meyers Leonard was starting to finally get into a groove before dislocating his shoulder, but has slowly crept back into the picture as one of the best players on the team as well.
Al-Farouq Aminu, Allen Crabbe, Mason Plumlee, and Ed Davis have all had their ups and downs this season, which is expected for a young team. The core looks talented and has a smart guy that will know how to bring the best out of them in coach Terry Stotts.
The Blazers rank among the top 10 in the league in offensive rating but in the bottom 10 in defensive rating. It’s clear what issues they have. In a league that’s so big on three-point shooting and scoring, they have what it takes to be exciting and pull out victories due to their high-scoring nature. Unfortunately for them, to take the next step, you need to have some sort of defense to balance it out.
But it’s okay, the Blazers weren’t expected to be good at all this season. They lost four of their starters and more. The future is bright for this team, led by Lillard who recently signed a five-year extension. This team could be fighting for an 8th seed down the stretch with how the Western Conference has been this season. They are still a few pieces away from competing again, though.
Regardless, the team is off to a good start rebuilding after losing several vital players. They are doing better than anyone thought they would and it starts with the fiery backcourt of Lillard and McCollum.