Blazers optimistic despite finish
Wesley Matthews succinctly summed up the Trail Blazers' feelings as the season ended with a thud.
''Empty,'' he said.
Matthews missed the team's final five games with a right ankle injury, watching from the bench as Portland's season-ending losing streak stretched to 13 games. The Blazers finished 33-49 and out of the playoffs for the second straight season.
''I just felt there was a little more in the tank for us,'' he lamented.
The Blazers started the season in rebuilding mode, led by new general manager Neil Olshey and new head coach Terry Stotts. It was understood that Matthews, Nicolas Batum and All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge would be surrounded by largely untested players, including starting point guard Damian Lillard and fellow rookies Meyers Leonard and Will Barton.
Portland got off to a slow start with losses in five of its first seven games, but then began to jell. A 92-74 victory over Toronto on Dec. 10 touched off a stretch where the Blazers won 12 of 15 and climbed to five games over .500.
A seven-game February losing streak hurt the Blazers, but they were still in the playoff picture after the All-Star break. Then injuries struck the young team down the stretch and there simply wasn't the depth to overcome it.
While certainly this season wasn't what the Blazers had hoped for, Lillard gave the team reason to be optimistic.
The draft pick out of Weber State led all NBA rookies with an average of 19 points and 6.5 assists. He broke the rookie record for 3-pointers with 185, and he led the entire league in minutes with 3,167.
He was named NBA Rookie of the Month for each of the first five months of the season.
''He's fantastic, really fantastic,'' Kobe Bryant said after the two squared off in a game earlier this month. ''A lot of players get hot, but he's got the moves, the patience, intelligence, the balance on his jumpers. He's the real deal.''
Lillard is considered a shoo-in for the NBA's Rookie of the Year honors, something he has played for all season. And not because he wants the award, but because he wants to be the best.
''I thought my impact on my team is what makes my case strong,'' he said. ''I was consistent. I played in every game, and I played a lot of minutes in every game.''
Aldridge, who was named an All-Star for the second straight year, averaged 21.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. He had a career-best 38 double-doubles.
Batum averaged career-bests with 14.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game. He amassed more than 100 3-pointers, 350 assists and 80 blocks this season, becoming just the fourth NBA player to do so.
''A lot of ups and downs,'' Aldridge said in assessing the season. ''We started out doing better than everyone thought. Then we kind of stalled at the end with injuries and guys being out, but I thought throughout the whole year guys tried to get better and worked hard every day. The young guys came in and they tried to lean the game. That's all you can ask right now.''
Blazers owner Paul Allen, who normally eschews interviews, spoke to reporters before the season finale against Golden State about his thoughts on the season.
''You have to remember a year ago, we were in a situation, a GM situation was in transition, the coaching situation was in transition so there was a lot of change from last year to this year, and it's been positive,'' he said, but added: ''We're never satisfied with a losing season. It's painful to be on the outside looking in in terms of the playoffs.''
The Blazers are positioned well for an active offseason. The team has the 10th spot in the lottery order for the draft, with the caveat that they land a draft pick in the top 12, or the selection goes to the Charlotte Bobcats because of the 2011 Gerald Wallace trade.
Portland also has an estimated $11.8 million in salary cap room to work with in free agency.
Olshey has identified Portland's biggest need as a center, something Allen agreed with.
''I think Neil has talked about getting somebody to do a better job protecting the rim. Our interior defense needs to improve. You can always have more shooting, more depth,'' Allen said. ''We had a lot of young players, especially the international players, we didn't know what they could do. But we need to add depth.''
Matthews said he's disheartened that most will remember this season for the 13-game losing streak at the end, which matched a franchise record set in the 1971-72 season.
''It's up to us to make sure we erase that as soon as possible next year,'' he said.