Damian Lillard has a lofty goal for the Portland Trail Blazers this season.
“This year I want to get to the Western Conference finals and give ourselves a chance to get to the (NBA) Finals,” Lillard told ESPN last week. “I think it’s possible.”
Lillard is right to set a high standard for this year’s team.
He is among the Western Conference’s elite players after averaging 25.1 points and 6.8 assists last season. He has a backcourt partner in C.J. McCollum who averaged 20.8 points, giving the Blazers a one-two punch few teams have.
But whether the Blazers reach their conference finals won’t be determined by Lillard and McCollum alone.
Evan Turner will play a role. So will Maurice Harkless … and Allen Crabbe … and Meyers Leonard.
The list goes on and on because few NBA teams both utilize and rely on the depth of its roster like the Blazers.
Thanks to coach Terry Stotts’ diverse array of rotations, 10 Blazers players logged 1,100 or more minutes last season.
Only five other teams had so many players log that many minutes. Four of those 10 Portland players started 10 or fewer games, meaning the minutes didn’t come from injuries to starters. Rather, it was the whole roster playing its part.
And several players thrived under that approach. Lillard and McCollumn had their best years scoring-wise, but so did Crabbe (10.3 points per game), Al-Farouq Aminu (10.2 points) and Mason Plumlee (9.1 points).
To that core you add Evan Turner, a do-everything guy who was beloved in the Boston Celtics locker room.
“He was a heck of a player for us,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said after Turner signed a four-year, $70 million deal with Portland. “He made huge plays at the end of games. He made big shots.”
The Blazers also signed Festus Elizi as a free agent from Golden State. But the center has yet to play after having offseason knee surgery.
Meyers Leonard, himself recovering from sholder surgery late last season, easing back into action after signing a four-year deal in the offseason.
Until Leonard is fully healthy, it appears Ed Davis and Noah Vonleh will be the main frontcourt backups for Plumlee. Both logged substancial minutes last season. Both show that even when injuries hit Portland, Stotts has myriad options that don’t involve rookies our journeymen signed from the D-League.
Having those options is vital to any team going through the grind of the 82-game NBA season. It may be even more important to Portland this year.
The Blazers have two brutal stretches. From Dec. 5-20, Portland will play nine games, eight of which are on the road. From March 6-19, Portland will play nine games with seven on the road.
Last season, the the Blazers were a surprise team because they were stronger as a whole than their individual parts would let on.
To stay among the Western Conference’s top teams, Portland will once again have to go deep down its bench.
Micah Rice is Sports Editor at The Columbian. Reach him at 360-735-4548, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @col_mrice.