Portland, a long-time playoff team, decided to rebuild this off-season. How much they progress in 2012-2013 will depend in large part on their highly touted rookie PG from Weber State.
Dave Deckard is a staff writer for SB Nation's excellent Blazers blog, long one of the leading sites on the NBA blogosphere. You can follow their takes on the NBA in the Pacific Northwest on Twitter at Blazers Edge. Head over to his site for my answers to his questions about the Mavs.
As someone who has watched LaMarcus Aldridge since he played at Seagoville and later UT, I've always felt that he's never quite received as much national acclaim as he deserves. Where would you rank him among the top players in the NBA?
He's among the top power forwards for sure. Most serious basketball people would rank Kevin Love above him. Casual fans would add Blake Griffin. Dirk Nowitzki isn't going anywhere although you'd not start a team with him as readily as you would with these three youngsters.
I'm of the opinion that whichever one of these guys your team has will be your favorite. It's easy to love them all for different reasons. We're probably looking at Aldridge being the second or third best power forward in the game.
Beyond that, though, we have to admit that the overall level of power forward play in the league right now is fairly high and that great power forwards don't tend to bend the game (or win totals) as much as, say, great point guards or centers. LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Tony Parker all rank above Aldridge and you could name maybe a half-dozen players on his level that you still couldn't trade him for because of value to their teams and/or potential. That leaves him somewhere between 12th and 18th in the league overall, depending on your criteria and taste.
Aldridge's contract expires in three seasons. Do you expect that he will spend the prime of his career in Portland and how much worry, if any, is there among the Trail Blazers fan base about the whole situation?
Worry is modest at this point, as three years is an eternity in the NBA. The issue is evident and gets discussed plenty, but it'll likely resolve itself. If the Blazers get good in the next three years LaMarcus doesn't have a ton of incentive to leave. If they are bad enough to give him doubts when his contract runs out, that means he wasn't making them that much better in the interim. He's unlikely to carry them to the promised land alone, so there wouldn't be a ton of incentive to keep him at that point. After three straight years of stinking, most folks would probably agree it was time to blow it up and start over. Likely that would start with a trade in the final year of his deal, hopefully bringing back young pieces for the next generation. Either outcome would work. Portland's future is so clouded right now that it's hard to make firmer plans than that.
Damian Lillard has been getting a lot of hype as a rookie, with many expecting him to be Anthony Davis' main competitor for Rookie of the Year. What are your expectations for him this season, and from what you've seen, what NBA vets would you compare him to?
Expectations are that he learn the job, improve steadily, and keep scoring as he adjusts to running a team against NBA defenses. The Blazers aren't making the playoffs this year even if he plays out of his mind. Even if by some miracle they did, they aren't going anywhere in the post-season. It's not like the kid will make or break the season. In many ways he's the reason for the season in terms of letting him develop. As long as he doesn't end up a rancid, stunted failure and keeps his public perception relatively likable, he will get a passing grade for the year.
One-to-one comparisons are inevitably inadequate. Lillard has a kind of sneaky athleticism, not raw but in the way he attacks and moves his body, reminiscent of an early Brandon Roy. Roy didn't look that impressive standing still but then you blinked and he was by you for an open shot without ever seeming to move that fast. Lillard has a nice outside shot, including a wicked step-back. He also sees the floor incredibly well for a rookie. His passing ability is well beyond his experience, which is where some of the Chauncey Billups comparisons come. Defense is his biggest weakness.
At worst, Lillard will end up a serviceable point guard, heady and capable of canning a jumper. After his debut, Blazer fans are kind of thinking star-level player. He's probably capable of reaching that level too. Either way, Portland got their money's worth out of that pick.
Meyers Leonard, Portland's other lottery pick, has somewhat snuck under the radar, but he's a very intriguing prospect. What type of role will he have on the team this season and how do you see a pairing of Leonard and Aldridge working long-term?
Leonard doesn't do any single thing that well. The key to his game is mobility. He's a legit 7-footer who gets around the floor, noticeably on defense. His show and recover on picks is a sight to behold. But he needs work on fundamentals: footwork, powering up for the basket, any kind of go-to move, and just knowing where to be on the floor. The kid's got guts, though. He plays like he wants to get better. I'd anticipate that Leonard will end up as a good all-around center, not a standout but one of those guys you're never sorry to have on your team.
Leonard's mobility and Aldridge's will make them a formidable defensive combo. You worry about post scoring a little. Perhaps rebounding as well.
The Blazers have certainly assembled an interesting young core. What needs do you think the team will need to address going forward, either in free agency or the draft, in order to challenge teams like Oklahoma City and the Lakers?
"Interesting" is polite. Aldridge is the least-heralded star in the league and his style of play isn't going to change that situation. Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews have been good role-players to this point in their careers. One or the other will have to break out of that mold if Portland's fortunes are to change without major upgrades through the draft. Though each had a promising first outing this year, the proof is in the pudding and the pudding is served every night. Lillard looks promising but he's still a question mark. The most dependable guys on the roster might not have much ceiling left overhead. The guy with the highest ceiling we don't know much about yet. Most of the rest of the roster has neither ceiling nor a dependable track record. Therefore it's fair to say the Blazers need almost everything.
Depth will be a huge issue as the season progresses. Portland could use a boost in the interior on either end. The Blazers could use another scorer who could attack off the dribble. Tough rebounding bigs would help. You name it, the Blazers could probably make use of it. Portland will probably depend on one more high draft pick, cut loose a lot of cheap, temporary players, make a run at somebody in free agency, and hope like heck that Lillard pans out and either Matthews or Batum becomes a star-level player.