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  • 17 Sep 2014

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Expectations, lineup juggling don't faze Blazer brass

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - The Trail Blazers want 2012-13 NBA Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard to step up his defense, shooting percentage and assists/turnover ratio this season.If I’m buying what Neil Olshey and Terry Stotts were selling as they met with reporters on the Trail Blazers’ media day, I’m feeling pretty darn good about Portland’s chances to go beyond the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2000.

I understand the optimism. It’s the start of a new season, a time when every team is unbeaten and all the offseason moves look promising.

And Olshey, as promised, made moves. As many as any other general manager in the Western Conference, in fact.

In the coming months, we’ll find out how much of

a difference Robin Lopez, Mo Williams, Thomas Robinson, Dorell Wright, Earl Watson and rookie C.J. McCollum will make for a Portland team that was 33-36 before dying a slow death, dropping its final 13 games of last season.

With starters LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Nic Batum and Wesley Matthews returning, Lopez providing defense and the others replacing what may have been the weakest bench in NBA history a year ago, are the playoffs possible for this Portland club?

“I don’t see why they wouldn’t be,” says Olshey, beginning his second year as Portland’s GM. “The West is incredibly deep, incredibly talented. A lot of the teams returning to the playoffs probably figure they have a seed locked up.

“But we’re going to do everything in our power to get back in. We’re talented enough. The way our four core players played last year, being supported by the new additions, it gives us a great chance.”

Second-year coach Stotts goes even further.

“Expectations are the playoffs and beyond,” says Stotts, who considers the 2013-14 Portland roster far superior to any he has had in five seasons as a head coach in Milwaukee, Atlanta and Portland. “We’ve made roster moves. We’re more experienced than we were last year.

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts on his rebuilt Portland team: Its a lot better knowing you have a chance to win every night.“Our goal last year was to make the playoffs. Our goal this year is to make the playoffs, but not necessarily be satisfied with just making the playoffs.”

It’s a legitimate goal. The L.A. Clippers, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Houston, Golden State and Memphis figure to be the top six in the Western Conference. I’d put Portland in a group with Minnesota, the L.A. Lakers, Dallas and Denver as the teams with the best shot at the other two playoff berths. That’s some heavy lifting for the Blazers, who must make a quantum leap at the defensive end to survive that minefield of competition.

“Defense is going to be the No. 1 priority for us to do what we want to do this year,” Stotts says. “We’re going to change some of our schemes. We’re going to change our emphasis. We’re going to change our mentality about it. Our offense is going to get better, but there’s no question we have to make long and large strides with our defense.”

A year ago, Portland allowed opponents to shoot only .340 from 3-point range, third-best in the league behind Indiana (.327) and Memphis (.338). That’s the good news. The Blazers were 26th in opponents’ fast-break points (14.6) and 29th in opponents’ field-goal percentage (.474), better than only Cleveland at .476. Those are unacceptable numbers.

Portland’s philosophy in defending the pick-and-roll, a bugaboo last season, will become more conservative. The interior defenders won’t “show,” meaning there will be less switching and more bigs staying home to protect the basket.

“We were one of the worst teams in giving up shots at the rim,” he says. “We want to protect the rim better. When we improve our pick-and-roll and transition defense, those two areas alone will jump us up in the top half of the league.”

Lillard, one of the worst point guards in the league defensively despite winning Rookie of the Year honors, will surely be better in that regard in his second season. The Blazers need Batum — terrific at chasing down opponents to make spectacular blocks in transition but less effective in the half court — to become better at team defense. Matthews thinks the addition of the 7-foot Lopez will help out there.

“We have a true legit center that clogs the paint now,” Matthews said. “You’ll probably see mine and Nic’s defensive numbers go up because we have a little bit of rim

protection.”

Olshey had some interesting observations. Among them:

• “Guys who played minor roles on their teams last year, like Meyers Leonard and Thomas Robinson, (along with) C.J. McCollum, are going to make bigger impacts than you guys realize. And being supported by guys like Mo and Earl and Dorell — that’s as good as any bench in the league.”

Wow. Not sure about that. They’ll get their chance to show it, though. Stotts intends to play his starters fewer minutes. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a 10-man rotation early, with Williams, Robinson, McCollum, Wright and Leonard getting regular minutes.

• Robinson “is a monster. He is going to have a chance to be a big-time player in our league. (Reporters) are going to be incredibly surprised just how gifted this kid is. He has renewed energy, he’s engaged, he knows we’re invested in him, and he’s responded.”

The 6-10, 235-pound Robinson, taken by Sacramento with the fifth pick in the draft a year ago, had a disappointing rookie season, averaging 4.8 points and 4.5 rebounds in 70 games with the Kings and Houston. In a salary cap-clearing move after the draft, the Rockets traded Robinson to Portland for two second-round picks and the rights to a pair of European players.

Robinson ranked third in rebounding during Las Vegas Summer League play at 12.8 per game, but looked lost offensively. Maybe he’ll regain his shot once he begins to fit into the Portland system. He doesn’t have to score a lot, but he’ll need to be able to finish around the basket and made the occasional short jump shot.

• McCollum “is going to be a big-time player. ... All the veterans keep raving about his ability with the basketball, his ability to create plays for others and create shots for himself. ... He scores like he breathes, so that’s not going to be a problem. Like a lot of young guys, his arc and ability to contribute will be on the defensive end.”

The 6-3 McCollum was second in Las Vegas Summer League scoring (21.0), but took more shots than anyone (20.2 per game) and shot only .366 from the field. McCollum, as Olshey points out, was playing point guard, a position he hasn’t played regularly since high school. The rookie from Lehigh will be a combo guard with the Blazers, and he looks like he can handle some duty at the point. It will be how interesting how much he contributes in his first season.

• Nic Batum “is the X-factor. He can be as good as almost any small forward in the West. He thrives in Terry’s system. Coming off EuroBasket, it can only build his confidence.”

I’m in full agreement here. Batum was as good as any small forward in the conference through the first half of last season, before a wrist injury affected his performance. His role in helping France claim the European championship this summer should help his confidence going forward. He will play a key role in Portland’s success.

Lopez is not a big blocked-shots guy — he was 14th in the league with New Orleans last season at 1.56 and and 15th in blocks per minute — and averaged only 5.6 rebounds in 26.0 minutes per game. But I like his attitude. He’ll be an all-about-team player that the Blazers need more of.

“I’m primarily focusing on defense,” Lopez says. “I want to be somebody who deters the lane, makes people think twice about driving the basket. LaMarcus is a big guy. I’m a big guy. That should be pretty intimidating down low, I’d imagine.

“Defense is a team concept, first and foremost. Everybody needs to be on the same page. That needs to be our first goal.”

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Guard Wesley Matthews, one of four returning starters, says he thinks the Blazers, who have added center Robin Lopez and a handful of other new players, have what it takes to make the NBA playoffs. Lillard had a spectacular rookie season, but the Blazers need him to not only be better defensively but, as Stotts points out, to shoot better (.429 from the field, .368 from 3-point range) and have a better assists/turnover ratio (2.19, 42nd in the NBA).

“It’s the efficiency part of his game,” Stotts says, “that and defending. A lot of his improvement will be within the team structure.”

The rebuilding project and development of youth that prevailed last season is over, Olshey declares. It’s about winning in the future, sure, but also right now.

“Everything we did in the offseason was with winning in mind,” he says. “We’re going to continue to develop our young guys, but it’s not going to come at the expense of winning games.”

Matthews thinks the Blazers are a playoff team, although he admits he thought that a year ago, too.

“I like the roster,” Matthews says. “We answered the bell in that sense. Now it’s our turn to respond on the court. We’ve revamped and added some veteran leadership. That along with the guys we have back, I think we’re good.”

The Blazers could be. They’re going to be better than a year ago. They’re young, with Williams (30) the oldest of the probable rotation players, Aldridge (28), Matthews and Wright (both 27) in their peak years and Lopez (25), Batum (24), Lillard (23), McCollum, guard Will Barton (22) and Robinson (both 22) and Leonard (21) still in the formative stage.

I’m not sure that it equates to a playoff team. There is no need for guarantees and promises, which always ring hollow, anyway. The Blazers must prove it on the court.

“I don’t know if we’re there yet,” Stotts observes, “but it’s a lot better knowing you have a chance to win every night.”

Indeed.

kerry This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Twitter: @kerryeggers