1) Will the Blazers improve upon last year’s record?
By most accounts, Portland’s 48-34 mark last season was an overachievement. Gone for most the year was its leading scorer from the three previous seasons in Brandon Roy. Gone for the entire year was its dominant big man in Greg Oden. And interspersed throughout the regular season were a plethora of injuries that consistently kept Coach Nate McMillan’s starting lineup shuffled.
However, the absent personnel allowed the once underused members of the team to flourish. LaMarcus Aldridge showed that he is among the NBA’s elite power forwards. Wesley Matthews justified his once-controversial $34 million contract. Nicolas Batum again increased his production, and Gerald Wallace appeared to return to his All-Star form.
Given that the majority of the roster is hitting its prime as opposed to taking another step away from it, there is little reason to think that this adversity-tested team won’t get better.
That said, improving its winning percentage is one thing, but …
2) Can the Blazers finally get out of the first round?
This, of course, is assuming they make the playoffs in the über-competitive Western Conference. For most of last season, Portland floated around seventh, eighth and ninth place in the standings before surging to as high as fifth and finishing with the No. 6 seed. Many point out the fact that the Blazers lost to the eventual champions — the Dallas Mavericks — and played them as tough as anybody by stretching the series to six games.
But the NBA is a league of match-ups, and studying comparative results is often futile if the goal is truly evaluating a team’s talent. Still, with the Spurs aging, the Lakers losing Lamar Odom, and the Nuggets lacking the star power to boost through them through an entire season, it is not inconceivable for Portland to host a first-round playoff series. But with teams such as Grizzlies and the Clippers showing potential for growth, securing said seeding may be as tough as ever.
Portland will once again be a tough out, but unless it can make one more significant move before the playoffs, it is more likely than not to start its offseason before the second round of the postseason begins.
3) Will LaMarcus Aldridge make his first All-Star team?
Whenever Aldridge is asked about becoming an All-Star, you can see him go into robot-mode.
“I’m not thinking about that,” or “Winning is the most important thing,” are the answers he almost unconsciously gives. But make no mistake, being left off the team last year in favor of the statistically-dominant but win-deprived Kevin Love irked him — and Aldridge plans to do something about it.
Aldridge’s focus seems as acute as ever, and seeing how he made third-team All-NBA last year, it’s clear he has captured the attention of the league. So at this point, he need only maintain his level of production from last year, and heading to Orlando mid-season will be a lock.
4) Will Raymond Felton significantly increase Portland’s pace of play?
The 27-year-old point guard said at Fan Fest two Fridays ago that he plans on getting the Blazers running. But considering Portland has had the fewest or second fewest possession per game since Nate McMillan took over as head coach in 2005, it is dubious that the Blazers will suddenly morph into the run-and-gun Phoenix Suns of last decade.
Sure, Portland has the athleticism to convert fast-break opportunities into easy buckets, but it also struggles with stopping opponents internally, which can make it awfully difficult to get out in transition.
Additionally, the offense will still go through Aldridge, which almost always requires a half-court set. In other words, look for the Blazers to run more, but don’t expect them to run wild.
5) Will the Blazers extend Nicolas Batum’s contract?
Both Portland and the Frenchman’s representatives have begun negotiations, but as the lockout proved this offseason, talks and results are completely different things. Batum has clearly left an impression on Blazers management, and it appears that the city and franchise have successfully wooed Batum. Portland has until Jan. 25 to sign the 23-year-old to an extension, or else it must wait until June 30 when he becomes a restricted free agent. It appears that both sides want this deal to go down, but like a landlord renting out a room, all bets are off until the check is in hand.
6) Will this team stay together long-term?
Yes, Aldridge and Matthews are locked in for the next several years, but if you look at the rest of the Blazers’ core, the roster is tenuous at best. Felton is in the last year of his contract, as is Marcus Camby and Batum. Wallace can opt out after this year if he so chooses, while Batum will have the option of accepting a qualifying offer if he is not offered an extension.
It would appear that if there is discontent in the locker room, or if Portland underachieves, this team could very easily disband and once again force the franchise to restructure. But winning tends to be a powerful force when it comes to retention, which may make victories this season more urgent than usual.
7) Will Oden return to the court this year?
The 7-footer was initially projected to come back in mid-January or February, but then came the infamous “setback” on Dec. 9, which prompted Portland to sign Oden to a smaller contract than his original $8.8 million qualifying offer.
The reasoning was simple: The Blazers are less certain that the 23-year-old can return to action.
It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Oden, even if he has earned almost $20 million for playing just 82 games over four seasons. He has been in a perpetual state of limbo as he endures injuries that come without incident — lending more and more evidence that his body is simply not constructed to facilitate a career as a professional athlete.