Four years ago, on Valentines Day in February 2009, the Portland Trail Blazers were the team of the future. They were 32-20 going into the All-Star break, riding Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and a deep bench, playing Nate McMillan’s slow-paced, low-risk brand of basketball. Greg Oden was finally playing, and he’d shown flashes of brilliance. He was inconsistent and had trouble staying out of foul trouble; he had just put up 16 points and 10 rebounds in a win against Oklahoma City a few days earlier, outplaying the number two overall pick, Kevin Durant, who went 6-15 from the floor. The Blazers were headed for the playoffs, and the Thunder were 13-40, headed for the lottery.
Despite Oden’s slow start, he was starting to get back to full strength and looked like he might one day be a dominant interior defender and rebounder. Roy was an emerging superstar, one of the ten best players in the league, and an elite closer. He was days away from playing in his first All-Star Game, and months away from earning 2nd team All-NBA honors. Aldridge was also coming into his own, averaging 18 points a game and showing why he was the 2nd overall pick in the ‘06 draft.
The idea of the Big Three may seem overblown, but many of the league’s greatest teams have been built around three elite players, with five to six role players to carry the rest of the load. In February 2009, the Blazers had their big three of the future, two potent scorers off the bench, and the 2nd youngest team in the NBA. Of course, this Portland team never made it past the first round of the playoffs; Roy and Oden each blew out their knees and were forced into early retirement, and other than Nic Batum and Aldridge, no one is left from the ‘09 Blazers.
Which brings us to February of 2013. Batum, Aldridge, and the likely 2012-13 Rookie of the Year, Damian Lillard, are the Trail Blazers’ next big three. Aldridge is a free agent in 2015, and Lillard and Batum are under contract until 2016. That gives the Blazers front office two years to build this group into a perennial contender.
Aldridge is the centerpiece, now a two-time All-Star and one of the best low-post scorers in the league. Lillard is going to be a star. He plays the game rhythmically and creatively. He can shoot, pass, handle the rock, and lead an offense. His poise, demeanor and confidence remind me of Derrick Rose. He looks like he’s totally comfortable being relied upon night after night, something most guys in the NBA just can’t handle. His defense has been atrocious this year, but that’s normal for a young guard, especially one who’s playing close to 40 minutes per game and running an NBA offense for the first time. Batum has been an NBA starter since he was 19, and playing international ball in France every summer has helped harden him into a true professional. In January, he contained LeBron James in a victory over the defending champs at the Rose Garden. His three point shooting is reliable and he has vastly improved his passing and ball handling. He is the lock-down perimeter defender every contender needs. I always thought Batum’s ceiling was a poor-man’s Scottie Pippen, someone who could put up a triple double now and then, hit threes, and defend the opposition’s best perimeter scorer. I think he’s already there, and he’s only 24. He’s been a starter for five years—he’s only going to get better. He’ll be in his prime in two to three years, and he’s going to be scary.
So going forward, can this team become a conference finals regular and win a championship someday? With these three guys, I think they can. Obviously, their competition in the west is Durant, Westbrook, and the Thunder. Lillard will never be able to defend Westbrook, but he might be able to match him offensively one day. He’s already a better passer and three-point shooter. Durant is the best pure scorer in the NBA, but I think Batum is more than capable of slowing him down in a playoff series. And Aldridge will always be able to score on Serge Ibaka.
The foundation is in place for Neil Olshey. If he wants Aldridge to stick around come July 2015, he has to add pieces to this championship puzzle. First and foremost, the Blazers need an interior defender. Aldridge has gotten better on defense every year, but Portland needs an elite rebounder and shot blocker, someone who can protect the middle and allow Aldridge to save his energy for offense. This rebounder/defender doesn’t have to do much on offense, just catch lobs from Lillard and score on put-backs. These guys are expensive, and few and far between. Joakim Noah, Omer Asik, Tyson Chandler and Dwight Howard are the prime examples. A 7-footer would be ideal, but keep in mind that the Heat just won a title with Chris Bosh playing center. The Thunder’s best lineup is Durant at the 4 and Serge Ibaka in the middle. The NBA has become a small-ball league, so it’s conceivable that Aldridge could be the center on a championship team with the right “stretch 4” who can also defend and rebound. He just needs someone to protect him in the post, someone who can block shots and intimidate perimeter drivers.
Second, Olshey has to find a three-point shooter. Wesley Mathews is a very average NBA 2-guard. You are not winning a title if he’s a starter. I actually like Mathew’s game and he’s a decent defender, but he’s a sixth man at best. He’s shooting 38% from three, which is pretty good, but Portland needs a Mike Miller/Ray Allen/Jason Terry-type knockdown shooter to spread the floor for Aldridge and Lillard pick and rolls.
Third, Olshey has to think about backups for Lillard and Batum. Lillard needs a spell for 15 minutes per night, and it would be ideal if this signee could also play with Lillard in the backcourt at times. If Terry Stotts has a guy he can put in for Batum, who can do Batum things for 15 minutes a night—hit threes, be active on defense, get a steal now and then—that’s a huge advantage. There are plenty of these guys in the NBA. Batum is rare because he can do it for 35 minutes.
So there you have it. Portland needs a couple shooters and an interior player who can go toe-to-toe with the likes of Ibaka, Chandler and Noah every night. Easier said than done. The good news is Portland has the foundation in place. The front office will have around $12 to spend this summer, plus a half-decent slot in the draft, so there’s plenty of potential. Olshey has made savvy moves since taking over, and I’m confident he can find a few solutions. Once again, the future looks good for the Portland, and Blazers fans deserve a little luck finally.