Playoff Result: N/A
Key Additions: CJ McCollum (draft), Robin Lopez (trade), Dorell Wright (free agent), Thomas Robinson (trade), Mo Williams (free agent)
Key Losses: JJ Hickson (free agent and probably the best thing they could have done)
Predicted 2013-14 Record: 42-40 (8th in West)*
What to Expect: Despite how much I detest JJ Hickson for his defense, Portland actually had a good starting lineup last year. LaMarcus Aldridge is one of the best power forwards in the league, putting up at least 20 points and eight rebounds in each of the last three seasons. Damian Lillard came onto the scene and quickly established himself as a quality point guard with his winning of rookie of the year. Wes Matthews isn’t a great shooting guard, but he’s not bad either. And while Nicolas Batum might not stick out to most people, he does a little bit of everything and is very solid wing player.
So the Blazers had four solid pieces in their starting lineup. So what was wrong?
Depth. Portland had none of it.
Last year at the All-Star break when Robby Kalland and I were working up things for the Anti All-Star Game, we brought up a list of the 40 worst players in the league by PER. Seven of them (17.5%) were Trail Blazers. Because of this awful bench unit, coach Terry Stotts was running his starting lineup into the ground; Lillard, Batum, and Aldridge were all in the top 10 in minutes per game last season. Eventually, when the Blazers figured out they weren’t going to make the playoffs this way, they scaled back and went into tank mode by losing their last 13 games of the season.
However, now they have depth. CJ McCollum and Mo Williams will bolster the backcourt, and Dorell Wright, Thomas Robinson, and Robin Lopez will be able to take off some of the pressure in the frontcourt. Will any of these guys be particularly special? Probably not, save for McCollum who could develop. That said, they are a huge upgrade from the bench unit last year that had five players with sub-10 PERs playing over 500 minutes. In my opinion, this added bench power should be enough to launch the Blazers back over .500 and into the playoffs.
Matchup with the Hawks: This will be Al Horford’s game to win.
The Hawks and Blazers match up very evenly. Teague and Lillard are both good point guards that can score, but not exactly defend. The matchup on the wings of Korver and Carroll against Matthews and Batum is also a spot where neither team has much of an edge.
Assuming that Aldridge is playing power forward, his matchup against Paul Millsap is definitely the most interesting. Aldridge is clearly the better player, but it’s not a huge gap between the two. For Millsap to be most effective against LMA, he’ll have to keep the Blazers All-Star out near the perimeter and prevent him from getting close to the basket.
Now, why does this come down to Horford? Well, even once the Hawks get Lou Williams back, the bench units will be pretty evenly set against each other, with the slight advantage going the way of the Hawks. With the Blazers having the advantage with LMA, we’re pretty much back to even with the only remaining matchup being between Horford and Robin Lopez. Lopez isn’t as bad as his reputation and was actually a pretty decent player last year in New Orleans, but he’s going against Al Horford. For the Hawks to win against Portland, they’re going to need Al to use his speed and refined outside game to win this matchup rather handily. If Horford has full control of his jumper, it will force Lopez out of the lane and open up things for everyone else on the team.
The two teams will play twice this season and I expect a split. Both teams will probably be just above .500 and there’s not a lot that separates them on paper. Expect each team to take the game on their home floor.
*predicted record based on Bo’s ESPN Forecast projections for every team