For whatever reason, the Spurs have traditionally had a tough time against Portland. In fact, since San Antonio joined the NBA in 1976, there are only two franchises with an all-time regular season head-to-head record of .500 or better against the Spurs: the Lakers (74-75) and the Trail Blazers (74-74). Last year was no different, as two of San Antonio's 24 regular-season losses came at the hands of the lottery-bound Blazers.
If you thought Portland was a tough matchup for the Spurs last season, then this year should be even tougher for you, as general manager Neil Olshey has added plenty of talent around young stars LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Nic Batum.
Prediction: After an entertaining season, the Trail Blazers will make it into the playoffs, losing in the first round
This prediction seems pretty straightforward and intuitive to me. The Blazers were very much competitive in the race for the eight seed before completely collapsing over the last month, including an 0-13 record to conclude the season.
Portland wasn't able to make the final push to get into the playoffs because of their bench. Their bench last season was atrocious, and arguably the worst in the NBA. These guys had the worst points per 48 minutes with 13.4. There's a 1.8 points per 48 minutes difference between them and the next worst team in the Miami Heat with 15.2. The problem is that Portland has no LeBron James or Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade to carry such an offensively questionable bench. What amplifies this problem even further is the fact that Portland's bench shooting percentage was a paltry 39.9%, which was almost the same as the Miami bench's three-point percentage at 39.3%.
It seems apparent that a bench with Victor Claver, Nolan Smith, and Meyers Leonard (among others) doesn't promise consistently solid play. Heading into this offseason, Neil Olshey was well aware of this fact, and looked to make moves in the free agency, trades and the NBA Draft to transform his mediocre bench into a potential juggernaut.
Via trades and free agency, the Blazers picked up Mo Williams, Dorell Wright, Robin Lopez, Thomas Robinson, and Earl Watson. Although the Trail Blazers had a great starting five last season, they got even better with the loss of the defensively-challenged J.J. Hickson in free agency, and the immediate insertion of a palm tree disguised as a basketball player in Lopez. Williams, Wright, and Robinson can provide some much-needed scoring, athleticism, and quickness off the bench that was nowhere to be seen just a few months ago.
In the draft, the Blazers picked up C.J. McCollum and Allen Crabbe. McCollum will be sidelined for a while with a broken foot, but I don't see that as any reason as to why he won't play a solid role as a scorer off of the bench next season. Of course, the last time I said that was with James Anderson in San Antonio, and he's stuck in Limbo (AKA Philadelphia) now. Crabbe likely won't be a contributor for a few years, but he has the tools and the talent to be a key role player for Portland. It's especially important that he provides some three-point shooting, since their bench shot 29.8% from distance last year.
Of course we can't forget about Damian Lillard. Lillard was a flat-out beast his rookie season, and unanimously won the Rookie of the Year award. I had my doubts about Lillard, and didn't believe in the hype. Then I saw him torch the Spurs twice last season, and, well, goodbye doubts! Lillard by no means is a perfect player right now, but he's quickly becoming a savvier player, which could be the difference if Portland wants to become a force in the NBA.
Portland is heading in the right direction. Things should be looking up for a franchise that has been so consistently plagued by injuries for a good part of the past decade. They can't guarantee winning basketball right now, but Lillard certainly promises an exciting future.
Other Trail Blazer Predictions:
- Damian Lillard will make the All-Star Game this season, and will place in the top six for MVP voting.
- Thomas Robinson will have a breakout season, and receive consideration for the Most Improved Player award.
- Nicolas Batum will be Nicolas Batum.
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- J.R. Wilco breaks down the Western Conference contenders on the Phil Naessens show
- Preseason Game Preview: Spurs vs. Rockets
- NBA GM Survey: Everybody loves Gregg Popovich
- Game React: Spurs roll Magic 123-101