The 2013 NBA trade deadline came and went last Thursday. It was a day when a ham sandwich would have dominated the headlines had it gotten traded. Instead, the biggest names to be moved were perennial bench players JJ Redick and Jordan Crawford.
The Portland Trail Blazers made one move; Neil Olshey turned an obscure Greek player and a trade exemption into serviceable but limited backup point guard Eric Maynor. It was a nice move from Olshey – opportunistic, swift, and smart. But in the grand scheme of the Blazers, Eric Maynor doesn't change a thing.
The Blazers tried to move JJ Hickson, and if you believe various reports, Hickson tried to move himself to Brooklyn, but nothing materialized. Portland isn't making the playoffs this year. Try as they might, the Blazers are too young, too inconsistent, and too horrendous off the bench to make a serious playoff push in the competitive Western Conference. The Blazers would have to overtake more talented, experienced, and possibly surging teams in Houston and the LA Lakers to move into a lethal eight seed, where they would have no chance of winning a first round playoff series against San Antonio or Oklahoma City.
Portland won't be in the playoffs this year, but that's not a bad thing – the team is overachieving. If Olshey knew the team would be competitive this year, he would have assembled a less appalling bench. The 2012-2013 Blazers were underestimated, and they’re paying for it. So the question turns to, once again in Rip City, the future. When will this Portland team make the playoffs (we'd assume soon enough), quite possibly the 2013-2014 season, and can the core assembled compete for, and win an NBA Championship?
More pointedly: The Blazers' big three – LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, and Nicholas Batum – are tied up long-term. Now obviously, the Blazers would have to put better players around their stars than they have now, but with a good supporting cast, can these three lead the Blazers to their first championship since 1977?
I say yes. In Aldridge, Lillard and Batum, the Blazers have a trifecta less ballyhooed than the old hope of Aldridge, Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, but a group that's more developed, not injured (knock on wood), and showing signs of greatness.
Lillard, especially, is blazing through the NBA at a fantastic clip. Credit has to go to Olshey and the Blazers scouting and back-room staffs who picked the little point guard out of Weber State at #6 when other people, including myself, thought the club should have gone in a different direction. In fact, Lillard should have been the number one pick.
So far in his rookie year, Lillard is playing almost 40 minutes per game, averaging 18.3 points and 6.5 assists, the best rookie numbers for any active NBA point guard. The only player to top Lillard's points-per-game is Cleveland's Kyrie Irving, at 18.5 PPG, but Irving played on a dreadful Cleveland team who had only him as an option most nights, as compared to Lillard, on a competitive team, with different capable options in the starting lineup.
Not Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook nor John Wall, two top picks and a number four pick, put up the numbers in their rookie year Lillard has so far. He even has, on paper, better numbers than Roy and is a shoe-in for Rookie of the Year.
Lillard also has charisma, focus, a grounded personality, and is a clutch player to boot. His victory in the NBA's Skills Challenge at the All-Star game may have been aesthetic, but it was a clear sign that he is ready to go against the best guards the league has to offer – and win. Lillard is headed for stardom – he's already transformed the Blazers from the mess they were last year to the likable, resilient outfit they are this year.
Thing is, Lillard is only just getting used to the grueling NBA schedule, and figuring out what he can do at the highest level of basketball. The best is still yet to come. In Lillard, the Blazers have a finals-worthy star.
LaMarcus Aldridge isn't a number one option on a team making a finals run, but he is a very nice number two. The big Texan made his second All-Star game in a row this year, and while he may not be the bruising, powerful, inspiring big-man some Blazers fans want him to be, he is one of the best power forwards in the league. Aldridge should be reliably putting up 20 points and eight rebounds for years to come.
Batum is more of a question mark, just as he was when the Blazers invested big money in him during the offseason, and just as he's been his whole career. He's inconsistent and not viewed as a star. However, Batum has dramatically increased his production since he signed his contract – 20.8 PPG this year, almost seven points a game more than a he scored last year. Certainly, as his game fills out, Batum will continue improving.
The Blazers' core is on the up and up – this year is only the beginning. These three players can compete for championships, but they need help around them. If the Blazers didn't have one of the worst benches in NBA history, they'd be a good bet to make the playoffs this year. Olshey is smart, and his core is talented. Once the Blazers figure out their supporting cast, things could get real fun in Portland.
Abe Asher is on Twitter. Follow him at @AbesWorldSports