NBA Preview: Blazers recharged with Lillard

It’s hard to justify getting overly excited about the NBA draft, summer league or preseason.

But if you let yourself, even for moment, then you might get excited about the Portland Trail Blazers. They seem, after all, to have discovered a dynamic young player — a point guard with pizzazz and a penchant for putting up points.

So, go ahead. Allow yourself to believe in Damian Lillard. It’s what the Blazers are doing. And you can’t blame them.

Lillard is 6-foot-3 and arrives from little Weber State. He is likely to move right into the starting lineup, and based on everything we’ve seen so far, he’ll drive, he’ll dish, he’ll dazzle. He has a game all his own, but seems to continuously draw comparisons to Isiah Thomas.

Lillard looks just that good.

OK, now that we’ve properly hyped the kid, let’s take a look at the guys most likely to be on the receiving end of his passes. Let’s start with LaMarcus Aldridge. Let’s admit that the Blazers’ power forward isn’t too shabby himself. In fact, you can safely assume that this is still Aldridge’s team, and the Blazers will still go as far as he carries them.

On the wings are the likes of always-improving Nicolas Batum and forever-underrated shooter Wesley Matthews. Either Meyers Leonard (another rookie) or a rejuvenated J.J. Hickson will man the pivot.

Not bad, if you’re looking for youth, athleticism and a team capable of stealing some surprising wins.

It all starts with the guy with the ball in his hands, and if you want to take a leap of faith, the Blazers got a pretty good one.

Last season: 28-38, did not make playoffs.

Coach: Terry Stotts (fifth year, 115-168).

Top returnees: PF LaMarcus Aldridge, SF Nicolas Batum, SG Wesley Matthews.

Key additions: PG Damian Lillard-r, G Ronnie Price, C Meyers Leonard-r.

X-Factor: Hickson. In Cleveland, Hickson was viewed as a young big man with loads of talent, an inside presence who could block shots and quickly rise up for dunks. In Sacramento, he was viewed as completely miserable. And that’s probably because he told everyone he was. In so many words. Then came his stint with the Blazers, in which Hickson seemed to put it all together. But that was just a flash, as he played only 19 games in Portland. Still, he averaged 15.1 points on 54-percent shooting. He comes anything close to that this year, and it’ll be like the Blazers got a third lottery pick.

Strengths: Aldridge does a little bit of everything well, a throwback power forward who can beat you inside and out. He still doesn’t get enough credit as someone who possesses a winning edge — but it’s there, and should only be more evident with more talent around him. Aldridge may not be the best power forward in the West, but the man is on his way. Also not to be overlooked is the coaching of Stotts. His resume doesn’t pop along the lines of a Larry Brown or Jerry Sloan, but Stotts has some NBA experience and seems exactly the type of low-key teacher this relatively young team needs.

Weaknesses: Aside from Aldridge, it’s hard to find anyone here who does his thing consistently. That probably won’t change much with rookies such as Lillard and Leonard learning on the fly. It probably will take these guys some time to adjust to each other, as well as to Stotts’ philosophy. But as far as major flaws, the Blazers don’t have anything that can’t be easily corrected in time.

The main pieces are in place. Now all the Blazers need to do is ride out the inevitable rough patches that come with development and general unfamiliarity. But they hould have a good time doing it, exciting the crowd, pulling off some surprising wins, and, if all goes really, really well, sneaking into the playoffs.

Prediction: 40-42.

2012-13 schedule: Link

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