Two key areas are in need of revamping if the Portland Trail Blazers want improve upon last season’s lackluster 33 win performance.
Portland must improve their depth … everywhere. The Blazers had the least used bench in the association, featuring a group that played a little over 13 minutes per game and shot an abhorrent .39% from the field. The Blazers have a starting lineup easily talented enough to be top eight in the Western Conference, but until they flesh out their second unit, they are destined for an annual date with Dan Gilbert at the NBA Draft Lottery.
Just as important, the Blazers must improve their defensive efficiency. The NBA has transformed into a league where the ability to stop your opponent is the most important determinant for success in the postseason. This year's final four (Miami, San Antonio, Memphis and Indiana) featured the three most defensively efficient teams during the regular season. Miami who finished 7th, has arguably the best perimeter defender in the league in LeBron James. Conversely, the Blazers finished 26th in defensive efficiency, allowing an average of 106.9 points per 100 possessions (via ESPN Stats & Info).
The quickest way to improve team defense is with an enforcer in the paint, as conference finalists Marc Gasol and Roy Hibbert exemplified so perfectly. Of those likely available for Portland at #10, the top ranked defensive minded center is Steven Adams out of Pittsburgh (#12 in Chad Ford’s most recent mock), a New Zealand native who just completed his first year of college basketball. Adams has all the physical tools to be a defensive stopper in the NBA with a pterodactyl-esque 7’ 5’’ wingspan and a relentless motor you’d expect from a 19-year-old Kiwi. He’s completely raw offensively, but the Blazers are not looking for a big scorer at center, as they already have LaMarcus Aldridge giving them over 20 points per game. No one has soared up the draft charts quite so dramatically in the last few weeks, with ESPN now reporting that multiple GM’s are projecting Adams to be as good as top prospects Nerlens Noel and Alex Len in just a few years.
If the Blazers elect to take the best player available however, Adams might not be at the top of their board. Taking the best available player is not always the smartest move as former Minnesota Timberwolves GM David Kahn will tell you. Basketball is a game where teams with the right pieces win championships and drafting four point guards is probably not a recipe for success. Because of their complete lack of bench production, picking the best player regardless of position probably makes sense for Portland.
The top prospects du jour for Portland are PG C.J. McCullom from little ole’ Lehigh and PF/C Cody Zeller out of the powerhouse that is Indiana. Interestingly, both of these prospects are frequently compared to the two Blazers current stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard.
The McCullom and Lillard comparisons are obvious as both are electric shoot first point guards from mid-major institutions. McCullom differs from Lillard in that he has a knack for crashing the boards (averaging over 7 rebounds his sophomore year) and is an excellent penetrator with the ability to finish around the rim. McCullom would be drafted as a backup point guard, to spell minutes for Lillard and occasionally play alongside him for stretches. This would allow Lillard to play off the ball and come off screens as a shooter. As long as Lillard is on the team, McCullom will likely be coming off the pine, unless the Blazers foresee a miniscule starting backcourt in their future. Blazers management is surely privy to the universal failure of this strategy (Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars the lone exception) and it’s quite likely that McCullom will be brought in for depth purposes, something Portland can surely use.
When it comes to Zeller, the Blazers should be slightly more skeptical. I see Zeller as a poor man’s LaMarcus Aldridge. Although he’s often listed as a center, Zeller has the skill set of a power forward who despite a deft touch around the rim, will avoid the paint if possible due to a lack of toughness. The toughness issue is even more apparent on the defensive end, where Zeller often struggles despite his high effort. In college, Zeller consistently allowed opposing centers to get deep position in the post, a weakness that will be a serious issue when facing human bowling balls like Zach Randolph. If they expect to pair him upfront at center with Aldridge, their D will probably be even more inefficient than last season.
If Portland drafts Zeller with plans to make him a future replacement for Aldridge, they better be sure of his upside, as picking him makes it much more conceivable that Aldridge will walk in 2015. Maybe the Blazers want that, and depending on the team's performance this year, it might be the right move. But even in a best case scenario, Zeller will be a replacement that cannot help the team defensively, something the Blazers should be trying to avoid at all costs.
Jake Montero is on Twitter. Follow him at @dadudedatdodat