STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign was a tumultuous one for Portland, which began with cult hero Brandon Roy enduring a forced retirement before the start of training camp. Despite the development, the Blazers jumped out to a 7-2 record, only to enter a state of mediocrity. As the season wore on, certain players appeared to quit, longtime head coach Nate McMillan was fired, and starters Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby were jettisoned, spurring a rebuild. Under the direction of interim coach Kaleb Canales, Portland displayed a more competitive spirit. However, after LaMarcus Aldridgeís year ended abruptly on April 10 due to a hip injury, the team won just once more, finished 28-38, and missed the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.
The Blazers retooled this summer with the help of two lottery picks, Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard, both of whom may start immediately. Meanwhile, two former first-rounders, Joel Freeland and Victor Claver, left Europe and will provide further depth at forward. Portlandís primary offseason acquisitions will join Aldridge, gym rat Wesley Matthews, and do-it-all Nicolas Batum, along with J.J. Hickson, Nolan Smith, and company on a squad that is expected to weather its share of growing pains under new head coach Terry Stotts.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
Center is the primary question mark as training camp opens. However, coach Stotts shed some light on the situation, stating in early September that if Meyers Leonard is ready, he will start on opening night. Considering the roster has just one player in his 30s, Jared Jeffries, youth is slated to rule the day in Portland as Leonard earns 24 minutes per night. J.J. Hickson should average about 15 minutes with Joel Freeland seeing the remainder.
On the other hand, power forward yields the least concern in Portland. LaMarcus Aldridge should log 38 minutes per game, with some time coming at center when Stotts trots out a smaller lineup. Hickson will act as his primary backup, serving 22 minutes nightly between the four and five, as Freeland and Jeffries split the rest.
At small forward, Nicolas Batum has the starting spot to himself, which should include 34 minutes per contest after signing a brand new contract this offseason. Victor Claver should average 10 minutes, while Luke Babbitt Ė and to a lesser extent, Sasha Pavlovic Ė snags any garbage minutes.
Shooting guard will again be locked up by Wesley Matthews, who may take on more than his usual 35 minutes each night due to backup Elliot Williamsí season-ending malady. Pavlovic and Nolan Smith will share reserve duties, garnering 5-to-8 minutes per tilt, as rookie second-rounder Will Barton takes on the leftovers.
Starting at the point is rookie Damian Lillard, who should tally 32 minutes nightly. Smith will serve as his main backup, gathering up to 15 minutes himself. Finally, Ronnie Price will see very limited time as the floor general.
Meyers Leonard: While not set in stone, the 11th pick in the 2012 draft seems to be the frontrunner for Portlandís starting center this season. The 7-foot-1 Leonard may be pushed around at times as a rookie, like he was during Summer League, when he averaged 10.5 points (on 56 percent shooting), 8.3 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks over four contests. He should contribute boards, swats, an above average field goal percentage, fair free throw shooting, and the occasional double-double.
J.J. Hickson: Hickson is undersized at 6-foot-9 but may be the starting center to begin the year, acting as an offensive complement to LaMarcus Aldridge. If Hicksonís lacking defense results in Leonard taking over the starting gig, heíll be hard-pressed repeating his stats Ė 15.1 points (on 54.3 percent shooting), 8.3 boards, and one block in 31.6 minutes per tilt Ė from his 19-game stint with the team last season. If he can stave off Leonard at the five, Hicksonís fantasy prospects seem encouraging, with an opportunity to clean up on the offensive glass.
LaMarcus Aldridge: Following an All-Star berth in 2011-12, Aldridge has established himself as an effective post presence with a sweet stroke from the left elbow that is nearly unstoppable. He suffered a season-ending hip injury in early April, but not before posting 21.7 points, eight rebounds, and 2.4 assists in 36.3 minutes per game, while shooting a career-high 51.2 percent from the field. Luckily, his rehab went swimmingly this summer as he reached tip-top shape by the end of August. Coach Stotts would like to experiment with Aldridge expanding his game beyond the three-point arc in the same manner he did with Dirk Nowitzki as an assistant with Dallas which, if successful, would increase the fantasy value of an already top-15 talent.
Joel Freeland: The 30th selection in the 2006 draft, Freeland opted to develop his game in the Euroleague. During the 2011-12 season, he appeared in 31 Spanish league tilts, averaging 12.9 points and 7.5 rebounds in 27.7 minutes, while shooting 54.8 percent from the floor and 73.5 percent from the foul line. The Blazersí lacking center situation definitely played in his favor when he inked a three-year deal this summer, but with Aldridge in front of him at power forward, and Leonard and Hickson at the five, his playing time and import in fantasy may suffer.
Jared Jeffries: Jeffries was acquired by Portland this offseason in the Raymond Felton trade to New York. In May, Jeffries underwent a blood-spinning procedure on his ailing right knee. If the therapy keeps him relatively healthy, heíll provide hustle in the post in the form of his 26 fouls and 10 charges drawn in 39 contests last season.
Nicolas Batum: The 23-year-old returns to Portland after an offseason that included a stalemate in restricted free agency between the Blazers and Timberwolves. With a four-year contract in tow, Batum will be expected to fulfill the potential that heís previously flashed. Last year, he tallied 13.9 points, 4.6 boards, 1.8 treys made, 1.0 blocks, and 1.0 steals per contest, all career highs, but his shooting touch Ė 45.1 percent from the field, 39.1 percent from three-point range, and 83.6 percent from the foul line Ė reinforces his fantasy value, while tantalizing potential owners. With an expected minutes bump from last yearís 30.4, he again has substantial upside come draft day.
Victor Claver: The 6-foot-10 Claver comes to the NBA after spending six seasons in the Spanish league, where he averaged 8.7 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.3 assists in 2011-12. The 22nd pick in the 2009 draft is a competent ballhandler and defender who will supply depth at forward for the Blazers. Playing behind Batum and Aldridge to start his career does not bode well for his fantasy value, though.
Luke Babbitt: His status as a veritable assassin from downtown keeps Babbitt employed after knocking down at least one three-pointer in 17 of Portlandís final 18 games last season, when he knocked down 1.9 treys en route to 8.7 points in 22.4 minutes per game. Heíll find minutes difficult to garner unless the team is ravaged by injuries, so donít expect much output from the third-year forward.
Wesley Matthews: After Brandon Royís sudden retirement, Matthews filled in admirably as the starting shooting guard, despite losing the gig for a bit after a dreadful stretch of shooting. Overall, he averaged 13.7 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 1.7 assists, while notching career highs with 2.0 treys, 1.5 steals, and 86.0 percent at the free-throw line. Yes, he posted a career-low 41.2 percent from the floor, which cut into his scoring average from 2010-11 by over two points per game. Playing with rookie point guard Damian Lillard may not turn around his fortunes scoring-wise, but since Matthews hasnít missed a game in his three-year career, modest improvements across the board should raise his fantasy value to new heights.
Sasha Pavlovic: Pavlovic was acquired this summer as part of a sign-and-trade with Boston, where he appeared in 45 of 66 contests, posting 2.7 points and 1.6 rebounds in 11.7 minutes per game. He may take on a modest role with the Blazers after Elliot Williamsí injury, though his output is unlikely to be fantasy relevant.
Will Barton: The 40th selection in the 2012 draft, Barton averaged 15 points (on 44.4 percent shooting) and 4.4 boards over five tilts during Summer League action. He may not earn many minutes behind Matthews, Batum, or Nolan Smith at the two, but he should nonetheless have some memorable garbage-time performances.
Elliot Williams: The sky-walking Williams will miss the season after tearing his left Achilles tendon during a September workout.
Damian Lillard: Lillard was named the co-MVP of the Las Vegas Summer League after averaging an impressive 26.5 points (on 43.8 percent shooting), 5.3 dimes, and 4.0 rebounds in four contests. In the process, he dazzled the crowd with a smooth stroke from outside and an ability to finish at the rim through contact, while also excelling in the pick-and-roll. If he establishes instant chemistry with Aldridge the All-Star, Lillardís ample minutes load and status as Portlandís unquestioned floor general could result in an interesting Rookie of the Year conversation.
Nolan Smith: Smith will build upon a rookie campaign that included meager averages of 3.8 points, 1.4 assists, and 1.3 rebounds in 12.3 minutes. He displayed improvement in Summer League before suffering a scary concussion, ending his event early following 18.5 points per game (on 58 percent shooting) and 7-for-7 at the charity stripe over two tilts playing mostly at two-guard. The 24-year-old will back up both the one and two this season after Williamsí season-ender, which should amount to a stable reserve role.
Ronnie Price: The 29-year-old point guard will lend a veteran voice to a young guard rotation after signing a one-year deal with the club. Price put up just 3.6 points, 1.9 assists, and 1.6 rebounds in 14.4 minutes per game with Phoenix last season, numbers that he is unlikely to match with the team committed to player development.
Nolan Smith: Before a concussion ended his second Summer League contest, Smith had scored 27 points playing mostly at the two, including an aggressiveness rarely seen in his rookie season, as Lillard manned the point. Smith will be taking on more responsibility in Williamsí absence this year, and if he displays similar confidence in his game, expect great things from Smith in a Blazersí backcourt without established depth.
J.J. Hickson: The opposite is true in Portlandís frontcourt. Hickson has to contend with a rookie in Leonard, who may start at the five from Day 1, and an immovable object in Aldridge, whose 38-plus minutes leave little room to prosper as his backup. And have we mentioned the introduction of Freeland, Claver, and Jeffries to the equation? Hickson may find the playing time he requires to be successful hard to come by this season.