#AskDwight: Focusing on Blazers bigs
OAKLAND, Calif. – It’s safe to say that the Portland Trail Blazers have exited the 2013 preseason a success by going 5-2 and ending on a remarkable five-game winning streak.
A revamped roster of NBA quality players blended in with a newly designed defensive scheme has been a recipe for success, thus far. This collection of unique talent bought in on the defensive end during training camp and we are now witnessing the fruits of their labor.
Although it’s just the preseason, general manager Neil Olshey likes the direction this team is headed.
“I think all the guys that we brought in compliment the style of play that we’re trying to reinforce from last year,” Olshey told CSNNW.com. “Clearly the defensive end has been an area of focus for Terry [Stotts] and we’ve seen the results. I think we’ve been really good defensively in the preseason. Everybody is buying in to how we’re playing defensively. It’s as much the schemes Terry has put in as it is the personnel. But clearly that’s the area we had the biggest need for improvement. We’ve been very good on that end of the floor.”
The summer acquisitions of Mo Williams and Robin Lopez have proved to be huge. CJ McCollum fracturing his left foot in camp isn’t such a mammoth blow with Williams’s preseason stats of 12.5 points to go along with a team-high 5.5 assists. He simply tore up the opposition from off the bench.
His ability to play beautifully alongside Damian Lillard has eased the burden of Portland losing McCollum for the time being. Williams was picked up late in the free agency process, but better late than never.
“You just can’t have too much depth in this league,” Olshey said. “It’s an 82-game schedule. Injuries happen. You just try to overcome them and it’s a lot easier to overcome them when you’ve got high-level players on the roster. When you got guys that are not capable of stepping into that role, it makes life incredibly difficult on the coaching staff and it puts your season at risk. Nobody anticipated CJ getting hurt and it would have been nice to have the element of having Mo and CJ together, but that’s one of the reasons why we were so aggressive in pursuing Mo.”
And when it comes to Meyers Leonard, well, he’s still a work in progress. In the final exhibition game Thursday night against the Golden State Warriors, the 7-1 athletic center was excluded from the nine-man rotation.
After the game, Stotts revealed Joel Freeland has earned the backup center minutes behind Lopez who has been posting stud-like numbers of 9.1 points and 8.3 rebounds in 25 minutes a game.
It hasn’t been the most pleasant professional span for Leonard. In the six preseason games he participated in, he failed to block a single shot. Maybe this demotion will ignite a fire.
Taking into consideration Leonard’s development, Olshey deserves commendation for the plan of attack in acquiring the veteran Lopez. Whichever way the rotation ends up playing out come opening night, Olshey reiterates that the kid is only 21 years old.
“This is only Meyers Leonard’s second year,” he said. “One of the things you have to realize is bigs take a while to develop in this league, especially young bigs that left school early. Meyers is going to contribute to this roster just like Joel Freeland is, but when you have the opportunity to get Robin Lopez who fits in so well with exactly what we needed which was a rebounder, a defensive-minded player, a rim protector that will have LaMarcus’ back in the paint, we couldn’t have designed a better player to go get.”
The city of Portland is ramped up with anticipation and expectations for the upcoming season. LaMarcus Aldridge predicts the Trail Blazers will finish seventh in the Western Conference after a convincing 90-74 win over a Warriors squad that has the potential to be a Top-4 team in the conference.
How much stock can one take in preseason success?
“The preseason is about process, not results,” Olshey said. “It’s very hard to calibrate what it actually means. While it’s always better to walk out of the gym after a win, it makes the flight home more enjoyable but at the end of the day, until you can really dig in and look at the next day or two, what matchups performed, who our guys were actually on the floor with, who is really playing, it’s really hard justifying rather you won or lost. It’s not as result oriented as the end of the season. It’s more about are our guys developing, are they healthy, are they buying in.
“The silver lining is some guys getting hurt, you never want guys to get hurt, but it has given guys the opportunity to play longer minutes instead of having to be divided among as many guys. Other than CJ, we’re coming out of the preseason where everybody has had an opportunity to play with the starters, everybody has gotten an opportunity to play with each other in different combinations which gives Terry and the staff a nice sample size to mess with to refine their rotations starting next week.”
Owner Paul Allen stated earlier in training camp that he didn’t view this season as a playoff or bust year. He understands that more time is warranted if truly serious about being bona fide playoff contenders. The Trail Blazers, quite frankly, have outperformed since Olshey and Stotts took over at the helm.
They are getting the most out of their talent, and that is apparent again during exhibition play. You have to be impressed with what this team has been able to accomplish the last five exhibition games. And keep in mind this team has yet to play a game with its true starters on the court at the same time.
With Wesley Matthews (irregular heartbeat) being cleared and CJ McCollum (fracture left foot) progressing, once they reach full-force, the sky’s the limit. Playoffs aren’t out of the realm of possibility. It’s an ambition on the agenda, but according to Olshey, it’s not only thing on the agenda.
“The playoffs are a moving target,” Olshey explained. “You can’t put an objective number on if we win this many games we’re going to be a playoff team. Because depending on how deep the West is, nobody knows today what the number is to get in. It’s a sliding scale. It’s a moving target. But we’re approaching it like the goal of this team is to be a playoff team. I don’t think it’s going to be a failure if we don’t get in, if we achieve other things. I think we’ve accelerated things a little bit. This was not a playoff caliber roster when we took over and nobody anticipated us turning it into a playoff caliber roster in one year. But some things broke our way with trades and free agency where we were able to accelerate our growth a little bit.
“I think we’re hoping that we’re sitting here in April as a playoff team. But there are other things that we have to look at. We’re going to continue to develop our young players. The only difference is we’re not going to be in a vacuum of only developing. It’s not going to come at the expense of winning. Our veterans are going to lead, our young guys are going to grow and hopefully when we get into late spring, that’s good enough to make the playoffs.”