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How The Trail Blazers’ Offseason Turned Them Into Real Contenders For The Playoffs

Aside from the 2012-13 ROY Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers fans did not have a lot to get excited about last season. They badly whiffed on the playoffs after losing their final 13 games to finish a dismal 33-49. But during the off-season, GM Neil Olshey didn’t sit idly, content with a starter-heavy roster that collapsed down the stretch. The Blazers totally refurbished their bench, and now they’re one of many teams hoping for a place in next season’s Western Conference playoffs.

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Things didn’t start well this summer in Portland. There were rumors that LaMarcus Aldridge was looking to force a trade to Chicago, and Cleveland even dangled the No. 1 pick for his services. Aldridge has since denied the rumors his agents were looking to get Chicago interested, but it said something that people even entertained the notion Aldridge wanted out.

Olshey didn’t panic trade Aldridge after reports surfaced he was unhappy, though. Instead, he set about reconstructing his team so their core starters, Aldridge, Lillard, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and [insert center of your choice: J.J. Hickson, or Meyers Leonard] weren’t playing catch up after the league’s worst bench came off the floor.

Hickson signed with Denver, and so the 5.3 points per 100 possessions the Blazers gave up with him on the court, per NBA.com, was extricated from the center position, something he was unprepared to handle at just 6-9 and with the paint-averse Aldridge sharing the front-court. Meyers Leonard remained, but Olshey had a plan. He traded the rights to rookie Jeff Withey plus cash to the Pelicans, who were in the process of bringing Tyreke Evans on board with a four-year $44 million contract that’s still leaving NBA followers scratching their heads. Olshey knew Dell Demps was under the gun from owner Tom Benson to get better, and with Anthony Davis as New Orleans’ front-court player of the future, he made a smart offer for Robin Lopez.

While Lopez doesn’t put up the numbers of his twin in Brooklyn, he is a solid center with the size and the tenacity you want near the basket. The rangy fro of Lopez stands at 7-0, and he doesn’t mind bruising down low, something Aldridge can’t, or won’t, do. Bringing Lopez to the Pacific northwest allows the Blazers to get a solid rebounder and defensive presence to pair with Aldridge.

But Olshey wasn’t done upgrading Portland’s disastrous bench, and the next move he made really stuck it to the GM most consider one of the brightest in the league.

Houston GM Daryl Morey was desperate to clear enough cap room so when their Houston Hall-of-Fame contingent pitched Dwight Howard on becoming a Rocket, they’d have the money to sign him to a four-year max contract. The only way to do that was to trade a top-five pick in the 2012 draft, power forward Thomas Robinson. Olshey gave up two future second-rounders and the draft rights to Kostas Papanikolaou and Marko Todorovic to bring Robinson to Portland. It was a cagey move to acquire a top-five talent from just a summer before. It also doubled as a way to spell Aldridge, or pair the young Robinson with Aldridge as a de facto front court presence if Lopez needed a break and Portland wants to go small.

Keep reading to see how Olsey continued to upgrade Portland’s bench

The Robinson trade might have been the best move of the summer by Olshey and the Lopez deal might be the most under-appreciated; seriously, Lopez moves a lot better than his brother does on defense and while he’s not exactly a low post presence on offense, he understands space and sets smart screens. For a team that finished in the bottom third of the league in offensive rebounding last season, his presence will also be huge while Aldridge drifts outside the paint for those mid-range jumpers he loves.

At the same time as the Lopez and Robinson deals, Olshey was also signing free agents, Earl Watson and Dorell Wright, while inking deals for rookies Allen Crabbe and C.J. McCollum. July 10-11 were two big days in Portland because Olshey basically revamped his team’s entire second string.

Instead of D-Leaguers coming off the bench for the start of the second quarter, now coach Terry Stotts has legitimate talent to grow, in Robinson and point guard McCollum. He also has a legitimate center in Lopez that doesn’t mind playing offensive second fiddle to Aldridge in the post and is someone who will do all the little things you need without bitching about lack of touches.

Watson is a pro’s pro who will be steady off the bench for Lillard and who can tutor McCollum — a possible 6-3 steal as the No. 10 pick and someone who was very well-spoken when we spoke with him at the rookie photo shoot. McCollum also presents intriquing off-guard capabilities if Matthews needs a break and Stotts doesn’t want to go to Will Barton, a guy that was dreadful last year, with the team giving up 12.3 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court, per NBA.com.

Wright’s signing was also big because Batum’s lone backup last year, Victor Claver, left a lot to be desired. With Claver in for Batum — who struggles with back issues — the Blazers gave up 9 points every 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Wright also sported the highest PER of his career last season in Philadelphia. While all the plus/minus figures mentioned don’t do a perfect job assessing individual performance, Portland’s starters were overwhelmingly better in that capacity when compared to their bench players.

Olshey could have patted himself on the back and sat tight for training camp after that July 10-11 stretch, but he wasn’t done. With a back-court that had plenty of options at point with Watson and the rookie McCollum, but also one that was still lean at shooting guard, he waited until most free agents had been signed. Then, with Mo Williams looking around wondering why no one was interested in a capable shooting guard, Olshey got him at just two years and $5.4 million, with the second year a player option. Williams can also play point if Lillard and Watson go down and McCollum isn’t ready.

Boom. The Trail Blazers are now deep at both guard positions and in the front court.

Keep reading to see why the improved second string makes Portland a certifiable threat for the postseason next year.

While Damian Lillard is the cornerstone of Portland’s team both now and in the future, they’re still going to struggle next season. The Blazers missed out on an opportunity by failing to offer a deal for Nikola Pekovic, who would have upgraded their front court a lot more than Lopez. But they have leapfrogged many in their conference by improving their woeful bench. A core of Batum, Lillard and Aldridge is a foundation Olshey and Co. are hoping can grow together over the next two seasons before Aldridge’s contract ends.

Aldridge is in his prime, Batum is one or two years away, and Lillard was old for a rookie last year, but that maturity translated on the court, too. He can run an NBA offense and his pick-and-roll skills should be deadly next season with a year of NBA action under his belt. But the one thing that was preventing the Blazers from really having a shot at making the postseason and giving their fans something to think about besides failed draft picks and injured stars, was their bench.

In just a few quick months, Olshey — who also did a good job removing the stigma attached to the Clippers after taking over for GM/coach Mike Dunleavy, Sr. in the summer of 2010 — should be applauded for building this team up, rather than dealing Aldridge and starting from scratch with just Lillard and Batum. The Blazers are solid now, they just needed some key bench pieces, which Olshey was able to acquire. But it’s a far from perfect group, even now.

Last season the Blazers finished dead last in the league defending in the paint, giving up a remarkable 47 paint points every 100 possessions, per NBA.com. They were also a bottom five team in opponents points off turnovers. Lillard will improve his ball-handling and make smarter decisions so as to limit the turnovers, and the addition of Robin Lopez will ensure there won’t be as many easy paint points next season. But this team is far from perfect, and they’re going to be bad on defense again. Just how bad depends on the additions.

Lillard can get sloppy with the ball, and he’s not running and gunning, either. The Blazers were near the bottom of the league in points off turnovers and fast break points themselves last season, per NBA.com. The Blazers also let opponents shoot an effective field goal percentage of 51.19 (via hoopdata), with only the Kings, Bobcats, Cavaliers and Pelicans worse last season. That won’t change dramatically with all their bench additions. But that bench was so bad, it’s worth wondering if the moves made this summer will have an overall affect where the starters are playing harder knowing the guys that are backing them up can get it done too.

This Portland team will still be on the cusp of the playoffs just like Dallas, New Orleans, and Minnesota, but you have to like their chances after they did so well to get into playoff contention last season before imploding down the stretch. Remember, take away those final 13 losses, and the Blazers were near .500 at 33-35 with a month to play. That’s with the league’s worst bench, too. It’s not too crazy to envision them playing a lot better in the season’s final month with rested starters and a team that’s 9 or 10 players deep, rather than last seasons’ mess.

This team might not be a threat to advance out of the first round of the playoffs, but with so many bad breaks over the last half decade, fans can finally be excited. The Blazers are looking a lot better right now, and it’s only a matter of getting it done on the court. They have the personnel now to compete, they just have to make it happen.

[HoopsWorld numbers and NBA.com stats were used in this post]

Do you think with all their off-season moves the Blazers are legitimate threats for a final playoff spot out West?

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