The games won’t start counting until Halloween, but the first week of Portland Trail Blazers training camp offered a grab bag of clues to the upcoming season.
When the Blazers say they can make the playoffs, you believe them — Every team starts the year voicing playoff aspirations. With some, you just snicker and think “good luck with that.”
In the preseason, optimism often overshadows evidence. Last year’s Blazers team had obvious shortcomings on depth and defense. Coach Terry Stotts worked a minor miracle to keep Portland in the playoff hunt until the season’s final month. Those liabilities eventually caught up with the Blazers, and the wheels came off with 13 straight losses to end the season.
The Blazers addressed those shortcomings in the offseason. Depth is no longer an issue with the additions of Mo Williams, Earl Watson and Dorell Wright, proven veterans who will support the young backcourt led by Damian Lillard, who led the team with 38.6 minutes per game as a rookie.
Robin Lopez gives the Blazers a true center. “I want to be someone who makes people think twice about driving to the basket,” Lopez said at media day.
Add a bulked up Meyers Leonard and the lottery-level talent of Thomas Robinson and the Blazers should improve defensively from last year, when they allowed 100.7 points per game.
Sure, the Western Conference is stacked, and every playoff team from last year has the weapons to return. But there’s always a couple underachievers that are replaced in the postseason by teams that raise their game. There’s no reason to believe the Blazers can’t be one of those overachievers.
Blazers fans will love Robin Lopez — Beyond being 7-feet tall (7-foot-3 with his bushy hair), Lopez is the biggest character on the team.
If the NBA does allow nicknames on the back of jerseys, Lopez is considering Screech, Sideshow Rob, RoLo or Big Simba. When asked about his twin brother Brook, an all-star last season who averaged 19.4 points per game with Brooklyn, Robin said Brook scores all those points to compensate for not having Robin’s looks and charm.
The brothers are pitching an animated adventure/comedy and have visited the studios at Disney and Fox, even sitting in during production of “The Simpsons.”
Portland loves characters, and the city has one in Lopez.
Injuries remain a sore spot — OK Blazer fans, you can exhale. LaMarcus Aldridge’s hip injury, suffered Thursday, doesn’t appear serious.
Blazer fans can be forgiven for fearing the worst. No team has been snakebitten injury-wise over the past decade as much as Portland.
The Blazers organization has been proactive, though, in hiring Dr. Christopher Stackpole as their Director of Player Health and Performance. He replaces Jay Jensen, who came under fire toward the end of his 19-year tenure with the team. At age 26, Stackpole is a rising star in the profession. His holistic approach places a premium on injury prevention instead of rehabilitation.
International demands are growing — Nic Batum’s smile said it all. As he showed off his EuroBasket gold medal last week, the forward spoke glowingly of his summer with the French national team.
American players have the Dream Team, but I’m not sure that experience generates the national pride felt by Europeans when they play for their national teams. One only hopes Batum, hobbled by injuries last season, does not hit the wall after his busy summer. But it’s an issue every team now has to deal with.
Behind soccer, basketball is the world’s foremost game.
This season, there will be 12 NBA teams playing outside the U.S. and Canada, the most ever, and the league will play regular-season games in two countries beyond those for the first time.
NBA teams are also arranging preseason games against top European clubs. The basketball world is getting more diverse. Batum, Victor Claver (Spain) and Joel Freeland (England) mean the Blazers are no exception.