Trail Blazers final grades for 2012-13 season

The plusses and minuses are in

By Candace Buckner, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

After a season that produced both exhilarating and exhausting moments, the 2012-2013 Trail Blazers are ready for their report cards.

While some players received admission straight to summer school, others have deserved a pass.

Damian Lillard, who swept every Western Conference Rookie of the Month award, earned the distinction as the only Blazer to start and play all 82 games.

Lillard also joined elite company with Oscar Robertson and Allen Iverson as the only rookies in NBA history to finish with at least 1,500 points and 500 assists in their introductory season.

So, yeah, Lillard sits at the head of the class. Now, check out how the other Blazers rated.

LaMarcus Aldridge

Stats: 21.1 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 1.23 bpg

Midterm grade: A+

Final grade: A

A banner year for Aldridge. For the third consecutive season, he averaged 21 points. His 9.1 rebounds per game and 38 double-doubles this season rank as the best figures in his seven-year career. Also, the "L-Train" continued to rumble up the franchise ladder in all-time points (currently in seventh place) and rebounds (sixth place).

Statistically speaking, Aldridge has just completed his best season in a Blazer uniform. However, these numbers don't begin to gage Aldridge's worth with the 2012-2013 Blazers.

Without Aldridge in the lineup, point guard Damian Lillard's production plummeted, the defense faltered and the losses stacked.

In the eight games without Aldridge, Lillard scored nearly three fewer points off his season average as he became a volume shooter with fleeting accuracy. Also Portland's defensive rating, points allowed per 100 possessions, dropped by four points — the sharpest decline on the team among the rotation players. Finally, the Blazers finished 1-7 when Aldridge was absent and during the one win — a 101-93 victory of Denver — the interior defense performed so badly that they allowed 74 points in the paint, which at the time was the highest by any team this season.

Still, Aldridge does not finish with the highest mark of 'A+,' because the newly-minted captain could improve his clutchness. In the last five minutes or less in a close game, Aldridge's free-throw percentage plunges at least 17 percent.

Luke Babbitt

Stats: 3.9 ppg, 34.8 percent 3-point shooter, season-high 14 points

Midterm grade: C-

Final grade: D

Thanks to coach Terry Stotts' offensive ingenuity, Babbitt found a role with the team as a "stretch-four" forward. When Babbitt filled that position, the Blazers produced some of their more higher-paced lineups that averaged more possessions per game than their traditional power forward-center frontlines. However, the stretch-four alignment did not produce many wins as the team finished 3-9 in games when the Babbitt-Batum-Hickson-Matthews-Lillard lineup appeared on the floor and 7-15 when Babbitt and Aldridge fulfilled the frontcourt.

Through 62 appearances, Babbitt played inconsistent minutes — a frustrating fate for any professional. But when he did finally walk on the floor, Babbitt gave the Blazers nothing more than a garden-variety 3-point shooter. Sticking to his money-making skill set, Babbitt attempted more than twice as many 3-point shots as field goals inside the arc. Also, Babbitt worked best as a spot-up shooter — he thrived from the corner three for 42-percent accuracy (21 of 50) — but had to depend on his teammates to make the extra pass.

Through the summer as a free agent, Babbitt said that he has to work on enhancing his game beyond being "just a 3-point shooter." The work will serve him well, especially if Babbitt can learn how to create his own shot off the dribble and develop a mid-range game. Surprisingly, for a player who loves distance, Babbitt cannot drill the shot from 19 feet and below with consistency (34 percent).

Will Barton

Stats: 4.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg, career-high 22 points

Midterm grade: B-

Final grade: C

This report card will take a cue from Barton, who evaluated his rookie season as average. However, by far, Barton had his best moments during the final month as the Blazers sacrificed competitiveness for development. Through every passing loss in April, Barton saw gains in his minutes and points. Also, during the final regular-season start, Barton played all 48 minutes and scored 21 against the Golden State Warriors.

The extended time should encourage Blazer fans who believe that Barton will be a future option as the back-up shooting guard. Even so, Barton, who naturally plays loose and on the run, needs to buckle in and develop a consistent jump shot.

Over the summer, Barton said that he would like to gain five to 10 pounds but "The Thrill" doesn't want to get too bulky. For years, players like Tayshaun Prince and Jamal Crawford have succeeded in their slight frames, so Barton should be well suited to "bulk" up to 190 or 195 pounds.

Nicolas Batum

Stats: 14.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 4.9 apg

Midterm grade: A

Final grade: B-

Besides becoming the only Blazer to record a triple-double — twice — Batum also registered the sharpest decline among the starters. At his peak, Batum averaged 16.9 points per game and ranked fourth in the league in made 3-pointers. Then on Jan. 19, Batum strained his right wrist and was never the same.

The wrist never quite healed, still Batum tried to play through the pain. Oftentimes, the injury changed his mindset as Batum eschewed shooting to take on a facilitator role. However, the Blazers needed an aggressive Batum, and even Aldridge said that he would like to see his teammate focus on scoring in the future.

Although Batum dipped through the second half of the season and altogether disappeared in the final eight games (DNP — shoulder), his body of work for the 2012-2013 still should be applauded. Batum averaged career-highs across the board. After this upcoming summer with his French national team, expect an even better Batum.

Victor Claver

Stats: 3.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg, career-high 12 points

Midterm grade: C

Final grade: C

Here's another player who could benefit from the camaraderie of his countrymen. Claver plans to play with his Spanish national team in the summer and the Blazers would be muy contento if he returns with an improved shot, (39.2 percent this season) as well as some low-post moves that he could use when playing the small forward position.

Even more than the tangible skills, Claver mostly needs to build up his confidence. Consider the difference between Barton who logged 894 minutes to Claver who recorded 812. Though the rookies' minutes were similar, Barton (309) still attempted nearly twice as many shots as Claver (189). Why? Barton oozed confidence — even when making mistakes — while Claver did not always trust himself. Even in the final game of the season, Claver logged 34 minutes and only attempted four shots. That would be basketball blasphemy in Barton's world.

Claver admitted that the NBA transition turned out to be more difficult than expected, and this timidity continued in March as he recovered from an ankle sprain.

Joel Freeland

Stats: 2.6 ppg, 2.3 rpg, career-high 13 points

Midterm grade: D

Final grade: D+

Got to give it to the Blazer rookies and their self-awareness. Like his fellow first-year players, Freeland recognizes his weaknesses — defending the post and rebounding.

"I expected a lot more of myself," Freeland said, "but at the end of the day, I had to obviously realize how much I had to learn about the game coming over here and adjusting to this style of basketball. It's a big difference than what I'm used to."

As the elder statesmen of the rookies, the 26-year-old Freeland might have had a jump on the others. However, those six years playing professional ball overseas did not help in the learning curve as he struggled to fit into the Blazers' plans. The Portland offense prefers its power forwards in the mold of Aldridge (bigs who can step out and shoot), and not how Freeland had been accustomed to working through the post.

Still, Freeland gained a slighter higher mark for his final grade because he showed improvement through the last month of the season. In April, Freeland earned career highs in minutes, field goals, free throws, defensive rebounds and points.

J.J. Hickson

Stats: 12.7 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 40 double-doubles

Midterm grade: B

Final grade: B-

Consistency defined Hickson's best year as a pro. Hickson worked hard under the glass and also scored at a steady clip (55 percent). As an upcoming free agent, Hickson should attract interest from teams who can use an active power forward. Note the keyword: "power forward."

Desperate for an interior presence, the Blazers tried to transform Hickson into a starting center and their defense suffered because of this experiment. Although Hickson would describe Portland's defensive problems as an overall team issue, it didn't help having a 6-foot-9 anchor protecting the rim. As a consequence, the Blazers ranked last in the league in opponent points in the paint and second to last in defensive field-goal percentage. The same hustle and heart that Hickson showed as a rebounder, he simply did not — or could not — show as an interior defender.

Still, Hickson graded well among the top rebounders in the league and became the first Blazer in 31 years to finish with at least 800 rebounds and 50 blocks.

Jared Jeffries

Stats: 1.2 ppg, 2.3 rpg, team leader in most offensive fouls drawn

Midterm grade: D+

Final grade: F

If this report card solely measured leadership and locker-room value, then Jeffries would be an honors student. Young players like Barton and Meyers Leonard praised Jeffries as a teacher, Stotts hailed him as a future basketball coach, and karaoke and stand-up comedy fans across Portland cheered him as a crowd pleaser. But since nice guys have to produce in this league too, Jeffries simply did not appear in enough games to impact the team on the floor.

Jeffries earned his most minutes through November (14 games) and January (11). When he did appear, Stotts used Jeffries for defensive purposes and there were nice moments when he drew a charge against Dwight Howard, forced a turnover against Amar'e Stoudemire and poked the ball away from Blake Griffin on a post-up.

Nevertheless, as the team directed its energies toward the youth, Jeffries was benched and did not appear in 26 of the final 28 games of the season. Last Thursday, he became the first target in the 2013-2014 rebuild as the Blazers waived Jeffries after his worst statistical season in his 11 years as a professional. So, essentially, the 'F' stands for "farewell."

Meyers Leonard

Stats: 5.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg, career-high 10 rebounds

Midterm grade: C

Final grade: B-

Through much of the year, Leonard waded through his rookie season with floaties on. The youngest Blazer unexpectedly thrown into the deepest part of the pool — or paint, for that matter. Then on Feb. 27, also his 21st birthday, Leonard had a breakthrough. No longer just the raw and athletic center-of-the-future, Leonard made an impact against the Denver Nuggets by scoring 13 points and grabbing five rebounds. Leonard closed February by piecing together a nice three-game stretch, then an even better trio of games followed near the end of March.

Leonard has grown offensively, finally trusting his perimeter shot, but still must work on his defense. As a 7-foot-1 center, Leonard can still be a pushover in the paint. He's tall, but doesn't block shots. Strong, but gets bullied out of box outs. Even so, Leonard begins the mission in becoming that interior presence the Blazers urgently need and hopes to grow even more by attending the heralded Tim Grgurich camp.

Damian Lillard

Stats: 19.0 ppg, 6.5 apg, 185 3-pointers made (Blazer rookie record)

Midterm grade: A

Final grade: A+

Why waste words? Just buy a new suit, Damian. You'll need it for your NBA Rookie of the Year award presentation next month.

Wesley Matthews

Stats: 14.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg, made career-best 169 3-pointers

Midterm grade: B+

Final grade: B

Gritty. Tough. Stubborn. Frank. All words that can describe the Blazers' beating heart, Wesley Matthews. Now, how about "rested?"

Matthews admitted that his "Iron Man" streak of playing in 250 consecutive games since the start of his NBA career might have hurt him this season. Ultimately, it was a right ankle sprain that closed the curtains on Matthews' highlight year but he had previously battled ailment after ailment. Matthews appeared in 69 games, the fewest of the team's core four starters.

On Dec. 8, Matthews experienced a hip flexor strain, rested for two games but rushed back too quickly and had to sit down even longer. Now, Matthews said that he has learned to take better care of his body and not fight the urge to rest. If he can pry himself away from the court for the next month, a healthier, stronger Matthews should emerge next season.

Eric Maynor

Stats: 6.9 ppg, 4.0 apg, career-high 12 assists

Midterm grade: N/A, joined team after the "midterm"

Final grade: B

The above stats reflect Maynor's time with the Blazers and far exceed his first 31 games spent with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Maynor showed up at the trade deadline and immediately filled a void as the reliable point guard behind Lillard. Also, the addition of Maynor allowed Lillard to play off the ball when the two appeared in the same backcourt. Through March, Maynor's first full month with the Blazers, Lillard produced his best numbers: 21.3 points per game with a 47.6 field-goal percentage.

Sasha Pavlovic

Stats: 2.6 ppg, 1.4 rpg, season-high 10 points

Midterm grade: D

Final grade: D-

Get a load of this "Wait! What?" statistic: Pavlovic appeared in 39 games — the same as Ronnie Price, who was waived midway through the season. Injuries marred this introductory season with the Blazers and with his best days peaking on Dec. 10, Pavlovic closed out the year scrapping for minutes amid the young players.

Nolan Smith

Stats: 2.8 ppg, 0.9 apg, season-high 13 points

Midterm grade: D

Final grade: F

According to Trail Blazer general manager Neil Olshey, Smith needs new scenery. Such a nice way of saying: "Get lost!"

This summer will be pivotal for Smith, the former first-round selection from Duke, as he looks for a new job with another team. Although his work ethic should never be questioned, he has been just another 'Smith' and that's not enough to impress NBA teams.

Possibly, Smith just needs the chance — over two years in Portland, he only appeared in 84 games.

This summer in Durham, N.C., Smith said that he will work out with rising superstar and friend Kyrie Irving.

Head coach Terry Stotts

Season: 33-49

Final grade: B-

Given a limited toolbox, Stotts built a framework for success month by month. On Halloween night, Stotts coached the Blazers to a season-opening win over the Los Angeles Lakers. In December, the Blazers had fans buzzing from a season-high five-game winning streak. By January, they entered the race for the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference as Stotts navigated Portland through 10 consecutive rocky games decided by six points or less, an NBA record. Then, a February slump, followed by a March regression and finally a complete breakdown in April.

The gloss of the season turned to grit as the Blazers lost 13 consecutive games, which tied the longest losing streak in franchise history. Only the 1971-1972 Blazers — the second year as a franchise — had lost as many as this team. So, in effect, Stotts had comparable talent to work with as an expansion team.

Still, Stotts got creative with the roster he inherited. He tried to hide the incredibly gaping holes with the lack of depth by keeping his starters on the floor. He kept Aldridge happy by feeding him the ball, which led to another All-Star appearance. And he gave ample opportunities to the rookies to aid their development.

Although his win-loss record took some body blows by the end of the season, Stotts still received high marks from his players as well as his general manager and owner. Paul Allen described Stotts' brand of basketball as "refreshing, unselfish," and his system allowed Batum, Matthews and Lillard to have the best season of any trio of Blazer 3-point shooters.

Change certainly must be made for the Blazers to be successful next season, but nothing should change at the top. A steadfast and patient leader as well as a bright offensive mind, Stotts was the right choice for this green roster. Yes, the defense needs to be remodeled but just imagine what Stotts could do with some new tools.