Six Blazers Questions: Will defensive focus pay off?

That is one of several questions Blazers face heading into season

By Erik Gundersen, Columbian Trail Blazers writer

Published:

 

1. Can the Blazers have a defense that is at least average?

For the Trail Blazers to return to the postseason, this is the question that needs to be answered with a yes.

As has been stated many times, the Blazers were awful last season on the defensive end. The biggest problem was giving up the second-most field goal attempts within five feet of the basket.

Players and coaches have a preached that defending is a team endeavor. They have gone to a more conservative pick-and-roll defense.

Last year's league average in points given up per 100 possessions was 103.1 according to Hoopdata.com. The Trail Blazers gave up 106.9 per 100 possessions last year.

The acquisitions of Mo Williams and Dorell Wright add depth to what was a historically bad bench behind a solid starting lineup.

It is on defense, the thing that the Blazers have worked on the most in training camp, that will likely determine whether they will watch the playoffs on television come late April.

2. Is this the year that Nicolas Batum makes "the leap?"

photoNicolas Batum shoots over Golden State's Andrew Bogut during a preseason game Oct. 24. After years of promise, will this be the season Batum ascends to an elite level?

(/)

Although it's Batum's sixth year in the league, he is only 24 years old. The biggest area where Batum can grow is in his consistency on both ends.

During the first half of last year, he was proving to be worth every penny of the four-year $46 million deal he signed in the summer of 2012.

From opening night until Feb. 1, Batum averaged 16 points, six rebounds and 4.8 assists per game. However, his right wrist started to give him trouble and from Feb. 1 on, Batum's scoring average dropped to 11 points per game and he took three fewer field goal attempts and one fewer three-point attempt per game. He also averaged one fewer rebound per game.

The wrist injury received much of the blame, but injury or not, it's consistency that the Blazers need from Batum. With Wright in the fold, one would assume Batum won't have another year in the top-five in the league in minutes per game.

Batum says that he "needs to be the guy that can affect the game on offense and defense."

He was a borderline All-Star and for the first part of the season and it was easy to argue that only Kevin Durant was a better small forward in the Western Conference. With players around the conference improving and Batum's second-half struggles last season, the conversation doesn't seem so clear anymore.

A consistent wire-to-wire season from Batum could put that pecking order back into focus again.

3. How will the McCollum-Lillard pairing work?

Despite the fact that C.J. McCollum broke his foot in training camp and is still recovering, this is a question that could illuminate the future for the Blazers backcourt.

The obvious question that has to be answered first is when will we see the Lillard-McCollumn backcourt take the floor? That is still working itself out.

But when McCollum does come back after undergoing the non-operative ultrasound procedure on his foot and the subsequent rehabilitation, it will be interesting to see how the pairing of Lillard and McCollum will work.

Both guards are adept at running the pick and roll and defenses have to respect them for their three-point shooting. Defensively is likely where the biggest sticking point will be.

Both guards are almost identical in build, with Lillard listed at 6-foot-3, 195 pounds and McCollum listed at 6-foot-3, 197 pounds. If they can mesh together well, it could be the starting backcourt for years to come in Portland and could push Wesley Matthews into a sixth man role.

4. Which young player will step up to get bench minutes?

Portland added depth on its bench with Williams and Wright, but which one of the younger perimeter players can find his way into Stotts' rotation?

Will Barton was such a liability shooting that, last year, Kobe Bryant literally ignored him to double-team Lillard.

Victor Claver was better from deep, but not good, shooting 28.7 percent.

Rookie Allen Crabbe was an excellent three-point shooter his freshman and sophomore years at Cal. He had a slightly down year from deep his junior year, shooting 34.8 percent.

When asked about what the young players need to do to see the floor, Stotts did not focus on shooting as much as making basketball plays and contributing on defense. He said that before his illness, Crabbe was one of the team's better defenders in training camp.

5. How much will Meyers Leonard grow defensively?

Although the young player on the Blazer bench with the most buzz surrounding him this season has been the newly acquired Thomas Robinson, Meyers Leonard's growth on the defensive end will have more impact on Portland's future.

Leonard said at the end of last season he wanted to "be that guy" and be the rim protecting force the Blazers needed. Leonard, though, will start the season as No. 3 on the depth chart at center. With the Blazers trading for Robin Lopez, who is only on contract through next season, the opportunity is still there to eventually take over.

Leonard showed he could run the floor in transition, finish at the rim, work as a moving part in Stotts' flow offense and has talked about making three-pointers a staple of his offensive game.

Another area the 7-foot-1 Leonard could improve is rebounding, where he averaged 7.6 per 36 minutes. Also, Portland's rebound rate, the amount of available rebounds grabbed by a team, plummeted with Leonard on the court. They went from just below average levels when he was on the bench to a rate that would have ranked second-to-last in the league last year when he was on the court.

Portland's defensive rating, points given up per 100 possessions, was 1.7 points worse with Leonard on the court last year.

How much growth we see this season from him on that end from defending the post to communicating on defense, contesting shots at the rim and grabbing more rebounds could give us and the Blazers a better idea of what his ceiling might actually be.

6. Will LaMarcus Aldridge be in Portland at the start of the 2014-15 season?

While Neil Olshey's "Oh dear god," response was meant to get rid of speculation, the noise regarding LaMarcus Aldridge possibly being dealt will only get louder if this Blazers team doesn't meet expectations.

Aldridge has been diplomatic throughout the process, commending the moves made by Olshey to appease him by giving Portland a competitive roster in a tough Western Conference.

Olshey told ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz that the Blazers will know whether they've "hit the fork in the road" after the 2013-14 season. With just a little reading between the lines, one can deduce that Aldridge, with only one season left under contract after this one, won't be with the Blazers if they have to change tracks.

The answer to this final question will be determined by how the team does this season.

If things go awry, Aldridge may be on his way out of Portland searching for the wins and postseason success seemed just around the corner as recently as 2009.If it seems Portland will be a long shot to make the playoffs closer to the trade deadline, noise surrounding him will almost certainly reach deafening levels.