The Portland Trail Blazers Are A Lot Closer To Being Elite Than You Might Think
by 30 January 2016, 12:50 PM
The Portland Trail Blazers have one of the youngest lineups in the league. Yet, they are not far away from contending in the Western Conference.
Despite losing LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Aaron Afflalo, Robin Lopez, and Nicolas Batum to free agency, the Portland Trail Blazers have had a positive first half of the 2015-2016 season. The Blazers front office put all of their hope into star PG Damian Lillard, and the kid from Weber State has not disappointed. Averaging 24.3 PPG, 7.1 APG, 4.4 RPG, and a Player Efficiency Rating of 21.78, Lillard has had his best season since entering the league back in 2012. These strong stats come as no surprise because Lillard has shown since his first day in the league that he is one of best point guards.
However, the player that has turned the most heads this season for the Blazers is their starting shooting guard, C. J . McCollum. Going from a meager 6.8 PPG to 20.8 PPG, McCollum is easily in the running for the most improved player of the year. Drafted by the Blazers in 2013, McCollum had not had an opportunity to showcase his talents until this season, but because of the departure of Wes Matthews, McCollum is now able to show off his great ability to score. He and Lillard have the second highest combined scoring average for point and shooting guards behind only Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
At the beginning of the season, the Blazers were a favorite to be one of the 15 teams in the NBA Lottery. Yet halfway through the season, they own the 8th seed in the Western Conference Playoffs and have a record of 21-26. The Blazers front office and fans have to be pleased with Blazers head coach Terry Stotts’ ability to crack up the dynamic duo of Lillard and McCollum, along with journeyman Al-Faroq-Aminu, Noah Vonleh, and Mason Plumlee. So now at the halfway point, the Blazers have some questions to ponder. Do they try and make a run to the playoffs, or do they try and get the best pick possible in the NBA Draft?
Why the Blazers Should Contend/Make a Trade
This season in the Western Conference has been quite atypical. The Warriors and Spurs are at the peak of the basketball mountain right now, while everyone else is just trying to get out of base camp. In a year were the chances of making the playoffs are considerably easier, it makes sense for the Blazers to make a couple of moves at the deadline to give themselves a fighting chance in the playoffs. Clearly they are just fine with their backcourt, but it’s their front court that needs some attention.
20 year-old Noah Vonleh has a raw skill set, but he simply isn’t ready to take on big minutes at this point in his career. Putting Vonleh back to the bench would open up a starting spot at power forward, and that is where I believe the Blazers should pursue their options in a trade.
With a plethora of shooting guards on their roster, the one that would make the most sense to send away is Allen Crabbe. Crabbe has had his best season of his career thus far, and is only 23 years old. Averaging 11.1 PPG in 26.1 MPG, Crabbe has been a serviceable sixth man for the Blazers. Even though these numbers are promising, general managers of other teams have to be skeptical of Crabbe. Prior to this season, he did not even come close to putting up the numbers he has been putting up this season. In the 2014-2015 season, he averaged 3.3 PPG and 13.4 MPG.
So to turn away the skepticism on Crabbe, the perfect choice is to bundle him with Meyers Leonard. Leonard has yet to reach his first round potential, but is still only 23. If traded to a team were he won’t be sharing minutes and become the focal point of the offense, his play will grow. Since he is still rather young, he’ll still have some value because of his potential.
So the Blazers decide to pull the plug on Leonard and Crabbe. Who comes to Portland then?
A trade that makes all too much sense is Leonard and Crabbe for Phoenix Suns power forward Markieff Morris. Their have been multiple reports that Morris is upset with the Suns front office because of the way they treated his twin brother Marcus. Averaging only 10.3 PPG, the lowest since his second season in the league, Morris is just not turning in the quality performances that he was consistently having the last two seasons.
A change of scenery could be exactly what Morris needs to change his game for the better. He has shown that he can be a starter in the league, but he clearly isn’t the same when unhappy. If Morris was traded to the Blazers, there’s no reason to believe why he couldn’t duplicate his numbers from the 2014-2015 regular season. Morris averaged 15.3 PPG and 6.2 RPG in 31.5 MPG. Morris’ ability to stretch the floor would also allow the Blazers to utilize the “Pick N’ Pop” with Lillard/McCollum, which leads to better floor spacing to run their offense.
Why the Blazers Should “Tank”
This route seems more logical, considering that even if the Blazers were to make the playoffs, chances are that they would meet the Warriors or Spurs early on. Excluding the monster freshman from the Bayou Ben Simmons, the upcoming draft isn’t filled with “franchise players”. However, the Blazers would have multiple options to explore in terms of finding a big man in the first round. The player that will create the best fit for Portland is North Carolina power forward Brice Johnson.
In a game against the Florida State Seminoles earlier this year, Johnson put on an absolute show. The senior from Orangeburg, South Carolina dropped 39 points and 23 rebounds. To say that this kid is NBA ready is an understatement. Johnson might be slightly undersized for the power forward position as he only stands at 6‘9, but has been compared to having similar skill sets as Chicago Bulls power forward Taj Gibson. Like Gibson, Johnson plays a very aggressive brand of basketball and is not afraid to fight at the rim.
Whether the Blazers take the route to land Morris or draft Johnson, this team is a lot closer to becoming a Western Conference powerhouse than you might think. With ONE player above the age of 30, (Chris Kaman) the Blazers have a very strong core of young players at their disposal. If Lillard and McCollum can continue to prove that they are one of the best young backcourts in the league, the Blazers are one player away from quietly having a “big three”.
The fact that the Blazers have both of these options to consider is nothing short of extraordinary. There are not too many teams, if any, in the NBA that would be able to say they are in the playoff hunt after losing four out of five starters from last season.
Is Damian Lillard ready to lead the Blazers to their first NBA Championship since their run in 1977? As a fan of point guards, I hope that the kid from Oakland is up to the task.
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