Portland Trail Blazers: What Should be Their Starting Five?
By Jennifer Fazioli: Lead Writer At Hoopstuff…
The Blazers return their entire starting five from the team that made it to the Western Conference semifinals last season before bowing out in a five game series loss to the eventual NBA champions San Antonio Spurs. Little should change for the quintet that collectively saw the most minutes among any starting rotation in the league, except with some key additions in the offseason and the continued development of second year shooting guard, CJ McCollum, they will hopefully see a reduction in their minutes, preserving them for a longer playoff run.
Point Guard: Damian Lillard. The newly minted All-Star and Rookie of the Year has had a busy last year, including becoming one of the new faces of Adidas, and is now in the mix along with John Wall, Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry, and Kyrie Irving to make the US squad for the FIBA World Cup. Playing against that caliber of guards will only serve to advance his game and help Lillard better perfect his passing skills. Lillard averaged 20.7 PPG and 5.6 APG while shooting over 39 percent from long range and watched both his efficiency rating (18.69) and true shooting percentage (56.8) improve from his rookie season. Lillard proved in last year’s playoffs, his first time in the postseason at any level, that he is not intimidated by pressure packed moments, elevating almost every facet of his game during both rounds and hitting the game and series winning 3-point shot against Houston as time expired. Lillard is strong, powerful, and long even for an undersized guard and is deceptively quick in his actions on the court. While he has become a more efficient shooter and is much improved at defending the pick and roll he would be best served focusing his efforts on further developing his defensive skills and bringing them up to par with his scoring capabilities, particularly if he is eying securing the same type of rookie extension that Irving just received from the Cavaliers (five years/$90 million). Lillard should receive some more rest during the season then he is accustomed to (and he will need that rest if he makes the FIBA team) with Steve Blake now heading up the second unit and more than capable of running an offense – all of which should help Lillard take yet another step forward in what has thus far been a promising NBA career that has exceeded most experts’ expectations.
Shooting Guard: Wesley Matthews. Until I see something more from CJ McCollum beyond just an occasional glimpse of a nice shooting stroke this job should belong to Matthews particularly after his career year last season. If McCollum can relocate some of the shooting prowess he exhibited at Lehigh, Matthews may see a slight decrease in his playing time but the defensive drop off between he and McCollum is too great to justify taking Matthews off the court for long periods of time, especially if he keeps knocking down threes at the rate he did last year. Matthews made 223 three point shots last year; sixth most in the league while averaging 16.4 PPG with a solid true shooting percentage of 58.8. If we compare McCollum’s per 36 numbers to those of Matthews, Matthews still comes out ahead and is much more efficient – McCollum put up an efficiency rating of just 9.0 (Matthews was at 15.70) and a fairly mediocre true shooting percentage of 52.1. Those numbers don’t scream “I’m taking this starting job no matter what” to me. Matthews is not the strongest straight-up defender but he’s a wily guard who is able to find any mismatches that exist on the court and is adept at exploiting them. For a team with a defense that is improving but still struggles to fully seal off the basket or the perimeter Matthews brings a necessary skill.
Small Forward: Nicolas Batum. There is no one currently on the Blazers’ roster that will be challenging Batum for his starting spot. Batum has been a solid, if not the most flashy, player since he entered the league six years ago and is just entering his prime. Batum is especially beloved by Portland fans and is the glue that holds this team together. He is Portland’s best overall defender, especially on the ball, and the multi-dimensional swingman has excellent court vision and is fully capable of orchestrating virtually any offense that head coach Terry Stotts chooses to run. His versatility (see his stat line for the season: 13.0 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 5.1 APG, 58.9 true shooting percentage) is what makes him so essential to this team as he is often asked to employ all of his skills in any one game – his tasks are often many and varied and he is another key cog to the Blazers’ 3-point shooting juggernaut. Batum is signed through 2016 and it would surprise no one if the Blazers try to ensure that he spends the entirety of his career in Portland.
Power Forward: LaMarcus Aldridge. In line for a very lucrative max contract extension from the Blazers when he hits free agency next summer, Aldridge just had a career season (23.2 PPG, 11.1 RPG) and just keeps getting better. For a good part of last season there was a serious debate as to who the best power forward in the NBA was among Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, and Aldridge. Despite losing ground to Griffin and Love later in the year due to some uneven play surrounding a few minor injuries, it is clear that at the very least Aldridge is among the top five power forwards in the league. His 21.84 player efficiency rating was the second highest of his career and he and Lillard excelled together. Though Aldridge functions best in the half-court, specifically on the left block and right elbow, he is mobile enough to function in the transition game that Stotts calls for at times. He does take a high percentage of midrange shots, traditionally derided as the most inefficient shot on the court which is why his true shooting percentage of 50.7 is quite low for a player of his caliber, but the shot is difficult to defend and Aldridge has displayed the ability to knock them down at critical moments when the defense sags off of him. Wanting to ensure that he is able to lock up that max contract which will most likely be the most significant deal he signs, look for Aldridge to have another career year in 2014-15.
Center: Robin Lopez. Although Portland signed former LA Laker and Clipper big man, Chris Kaman, to a fairly good sized salary earlier this month don’t expect Kaman to unseat Lopez from his spot in the starting lineup. Lopez quickly made himself into a fan favorite with his selfless, blue collar, do-it-all attitude last season. Lopez was the linchpin for a Blazer defense that saw some progress in its defensive rotations and performance as the season went on, concluding the year with a defensive rating of 104.8, good for 16th in the league (they would give up 102.8 PPG, just 22nd in the league). Though far from an elite defense, Lopez’s arrival allowed for Stotts to develop actual defensive schemes rather than just haphazardly scrambling to stop the bleeding on the defensive side of the ball. Lopez became the team’s big body on the offensive glass and was often placed on the low block by himself, forcing him to handle all comers alone and leaving him vulnerable to posterizing moves but Lopez never complained. Lopez’s scoring totals were down slightly from his time in New Orleans but he would see his shooting efficiency rise and would set a career high in rebounds (8.5 per game). By most advanced metrics he was among the top six centers in the league last year and with Kaman ready to come off the bench Lopez won’t face the high amount of minutes he did last season due to the lack of a legitimate, reliable backup on the roster. While Kaman’s scoring numbers are better than Lopez he isn’t nearly as efficient on either end of the court and Lopez has developed a nice chemistry with Aldridge and Lillard that would be risky to break up by inserting an aging, sometimes injury prone stranger into the mix in the starting 5.
With another training camp and year of work under their belt this starting five should be even better than last year – let’s hope we can say the same Portland’s bench too.