The Portland Trail Blazers won 50-plus games both last season and in 2013-14. They were considered by many one of the most-talented teams in the NBA. However, varying circumstances saw the team eliminated from the playoffs early both seasons. They were never a legitimate title contender over these past two seasons. That’s the harsh reality of it.
Another harsh reality is the fact that Portland will now struggle even making the playoffs after the departures of LaMarcus Aldridge and Wes Matthews in free agency. Unlikely even a .500 team, Portland is stuck playing in a Western Conference where it will continue to take much more than 41 wins to earn a playoff spot.
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Instead of finding itself mired in mediocrity (in comparison to top contenders in the conference), Portland has decided for a lengthy rebuild surrounding the recently extended Damian Lillard.
In what might very well be a scenario that forces fans in the Pacific Northwest to show frustration over the next couple years, the Blazers’ plan is clear. They added a couple solid assets and potentially have a nice core to begin the rebuild process.
We already know what Lillard brings to the table. He’s a top-10 guard in the Association and will see his game flourish over the next couple seasons. Making him the face of the franchise signals that Portland is fully prepared to move on from the Aldridge era.
But what about the rest of the team’s offseason?
Prior to the salary cap increase, signing mid-level players to lucrative contracts probably wouldn’t be the best possible plan for a team starting a rebuild. Portland’s three highest-paid players this upcoming season were all acquired within the last three weeks. Al-Farouq Aminu (four-year, $30.0 million), Ed Davis (three-year, $20 million) and Gerald Henderson (three-year, $18 million) weren’t exactly cheap investments. Though, all three bring something different to the table.
Aminu is one of the better wing defenders in the game. And despite a lack of offensive skill, he should be able to help shut down the best the West has to offer from the perimeter. The 24-year-old former first-round pick of the Los Angeles Clippers may have come a bit too expensive for his one-dimensional ability on the court, but it’s a heck of a dimension.
Davis, another role player, will probably start at power forward until the recently acquired Noah Vonleh is ready to take over (more on him later). Davis averaged 8.3 points and 7.6 rebounds per game for the Los Angeles Lakers last season. He also shot over 60 percent from the field.
Of those three acquisitions, Henderson provides the most intrigue. Never really able to up his game with Charlotte, the former lottery pick from Duke has been an above-average defender while adding a decent outside game on offense (34 percent from three over the past three seasons). He’s likely better served as a role player on a good team, but such is the nature of the beast for a team in rebuild mode. Henderson will likely start at the 2-guard in 2015-16. It will give Portland an entire season to view Henderson and whether to decide on potentially re-signing him next summer.
None of these three players are going to be difference makers by themselves. Instead, all three add an element to the game to go with All-Star guard Damian Lillard.
Completely overturning its roster, Portland also added front-court players Mason Plumlee and the aforementioned Vonleh in trades. Here are two young players who could play central roles in the rebuilding process moving forward. Still just 25, Plumlee offers solid upside from the center position. He averaged 8.7 points and 6.2 rebounds per game for the Brooklyn Nets last season.
Portland is hoping that Vonleh, 19, will act as another building block with Lillard down the road. He was the ninth overall pick of the Charlotte Hornets back in 2014 but didn’t produce a lick as a rookie. Considering the 6-foot-10 former Indiana big man is just two years removed from high school, the ceiling is almost unlimited here.
As we look at Portland’s roster, there’s no reason to believe that it will even sniff a .500 record in 2015-16. That’s obviously not the goal of the front office right know. The team knew full well that the loss of LaMarcus Aldridge was going to set the Blazers back big time in the short term. By retaining Lillard on a long-term deal and adding a few solid young pieces, this team has its sights set for 2016-17 and beyond.
Unlike other squads around the Association, at least Portland has a plan in place here. And while there is no telling whether it will work out, it’s better than attempting to tread water by adding high-priced veterans in a conference that has proven to be unforgiving in recent years. Take the hit this upcoming season, add a high-round pick and then see what happens.