Seven Questions for Blazers: After Aldridge, then what?




Aldridge is the leader but who’s No. 2?

That role belongs to Nicolas Batum. There he is standing just to the left of seated All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge on the front of the Blazers 2012-13 media guide. This summer, the Blazers matched the cover boy’s offer from the Minnesota Timberwolves with hopes that he will take a leap worthy of the four-year, $44 million contract.

Batum comes off a season in averaging career highs with 13.7 points, 4.6 rebounds and 0.97 steals per game — but the Blazers need more now.

The change in offensive system, predicated on trusting the pass and moving without the ball, should benefit Batum as a hard-to-cover wing.

General manager Neil Olshey, who came from the Clippers organization, likes to use Eric Gordon’s bump in production in 2010 as an example as what Batum could do in a similar system. Gordon had averaged 16 points through two seasons before breaking loose in Vinny Del Negro’s offense for 21.3 per game. Hopes remain high that Batum can progress comparably with the help of Terry Stotts’ playbook.

How much will the Blazers depend on their five rookies?

A lot. Damian Lillard took over the starting point guard position the moment he returned from summer league. Meyers Leonard does not start but has found a spot in the position as the first center off the bench. So, significant roles belong to two of the youngest Blazers but after Lillard and Leonard, Stotts has cautiously used his rookies.

Joel Freeland — a rookie in name only — still stands behind Leonard on the depth chart. Will Barton missed much of the early part of training camp and has no defined rotation spot yet. (Is he the backup behind Batum or the third small forward?) And Victor Claver could see minutes at the 3 or as a stretch 4 but he’s still behind reserve forward Luke Babbitt.

If Blazers don’t exercise team options on Nolan Smith, Luke Babbitt and Eliot Williams, what happens next?

The Blazers have until the deadline on season-opening night to extend the three young players’ contracts through the 2013-2014 season. Otherwise, Smith, Babbitt and Williams will become unrestricted free agents this upcoming offseason.

That does not completely mean their short era in Portland has ended.

The organization invested first-round picks in these three, yet the players have not had the opportunities — saddled with limited minutes or injuries — to reveal their potential. The Blazers simply need to know who they are. The healthy ones, Smith and Babbitt, need minutes and should get them in this make-or-break season.

Will the Blazers make a move for another veteran to join the team?

Nope. Again, it comes down to developing what they have. At least for now.

The organization stood pat by making incremental deals to bring in veterans Jared Jeffries, Sasha Pavlovic and Ronnie Price to surround a young cast. By the time the Feb. 21 trade deadline rolls around, the Blazers should have more clarity in where they’re headed and which young players have become valuable assets to build around. If a move happens at the deadline, it would be for a player who fits into the core.

Olshey does not want to rent a player for five months until the start of summer free agency, but rather make the big move when the time is right.

Just stop checking your watch — because that time will not come this season.

What are the earliest concerns?

Turnovers and transition defense.

Let’s not call it a trend, but through the final two games of the preseason, the Blazers got careless with the ball and committed 25 turnovers each night. Stotts wants that turnover average down to about 14 a game, so going into the season the Blazers put an emphasis on protecting the rock.

When it comes to defense, the Blazers have worked with a zone, committed to showing on high pick and rolls to slow down point guards, and contested shots. Still, the transition defense is a work in progress.

Where will the Blazers finish this season?

Let’s just say it like this: they ain’t planning a parade route through downtown Portland this summer.

There will be some fun nights in the Rose Garden, but even team officials concede that there will be tough nights as well.

The Blazers are another impact draft away from competing for a playoff spot. This season will concentrate on player development and could resemble the 2005-2006 season, when first-year coach Nate McMillan led a young team to a 21-61 record. These Blazers should win more than 21 games but expectations should remain humble.

Yikes! Then, will there be any bright spots this year?

Of course, because Aldridge has reached elite status in the NBA and he’s still well within his prime. Although Aldridge may at times feel forgotten in the Northwest, he has earned the All-Star respect — voted into his first game in 2012 — as one of the very best in the game. While Batum should flourish in Stotts’ system, Aldridge will be the top dog and this season should feature his best work.

Also, Lillard has shown promise and could become the next Robo-point guard conquering the league (score-first floor leaders like Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving.)

Lillard can shoot from distance, slash with fearlessness and throw lobs to the Blazers’ athletic and lithe big men.

Out of the 2012 class, Lillard and New Orleans center Anthony Davis are the early favorites to compete for Rookie of the Year honors.