You’d be hard-pressed to find a Blazer fan who saw this season as a success. A historically inept bench, a record-tying losing streak, and inefficient scoring from top players all culminated in an ultimately disappointing result.
However, even if it ended on a low note, there were a few positives that came out of the year. Damian Lillard should take home the Rookie of the Year trophy by a healthy margin, joining Brandon Roy as the only two Blazers to win the award since Sidney Wicks in 1971-72, which, coincidentally, is the only other time Portland lost 13 games in a row.
Though some may condemn the current losing streak as it is the result of “tanking,” the process in which a team does everything within its power to strategically lose, the end result was actually a positive for Portland.
Due to a trade with the Bobcats for Gerald Wallace in the 2010-11 season, the Blazers owed Charlotte their first-round pick for this upcoming draft. However, a provision in the trade made the pick top-12 protected, i.e. Portland would retain the pick if it were 12th or lower.
As soon as it became clear that the Blazers were headed for the draft lottery, their record got worse and worse, and their draft prospects got better and better. On the last day of the season, Portland was tied with Philadelphia and Toronto in both the wins and losses column, but two wins for the Eastern Conference teams and a Blazers defeat at the hands of the Warriors left Portland in sole possession of the tenth worst record in the NBA.
Basically, between the All-Star Break and the end of the season, the Blazers gave up, started waving a white flag, and began praying that Nerlens Noel’s ACL would heal well.
Nicolas Batum (88), an integral part of the leadership in Portland. (Photo: New York Times)
This year’s draft class has largely been panned by most scouts for lacking in star power, but for a team like Portland, with three or four locker room leaders already a part of the program, it may be the perfect class to help bolster its weak bench and add the player that will help catapult Portland into the 2014 playoffs. Here are some possible routes for the Blazers to take:
PG/SG C.J. McCollum, Lehigh
A small-school senior point guard with unlimited range and the ability to play off the ball, McCollum’s game bears a striking resemblance to Lillard’s, but for the fact that McCollum has an impressive tourney record to back up his stats. You may recognize the name Lehigh from last year’s NCAA tournament, in which the Mountain Hawks joined the exclusive club of 15 seeds to win in the round of 64, beating Duke 75-70. McCollum had 30 points and six assists in that game, and was ready to follow it up with another strong season before breaking his foot in January. Through the first couple months of the season, however, he played well, averaging 23.9 points with strong 50/52/85 (Fg%/3PTFG%/FT%) shooting splits. He could immediately step in and provide bench scoring and three-point shooting to a team that desperately needs it, although scouts question his size and lack of a true position.
C Alex Len, Maryland
Although the Blazers drafted a center, Meyers Leonard, with the 11th pick in last year’s draft, Len would provide a much different presence down low. While Leonard’s game focuses on athleticism, energy, and hustle, Len offers a more skilled and offensively advanced approach to the inside game. In one of the most surprising and dominant performances of the college basketball season, Len came out and demolished vaunted Kentucky center Nerlens Noel in the season opener, racking up 23 points, 12 rebounds, and four blocks while holding Noel to just four points. With a solid post-up game, good passing skills, and a solid jump shot, Len is the Blazers’ best bet if they’re looking for size in the mid-lottery.
SF Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA
Although Muhammad is projected by most experts to be off the board by the time the Blazers’ pick comes around, he, out of all the top picks, seems to be most primed for a draft-day drop. There’s just the right combination of on-the-court attitude and off-the-court issues for NBA teams to want to back off. It happened to Andre Drummond last year, and it looks like it might happen again here. Shabazz started off the year with an impermissible benefits suspension that the NCAA, in a manner only too familiar to college sports fans, mishandled and eventually rescinded. Then the strange news came out recently that Muhammad is, in fact, 20 years old, not 19 as he led everyone to believe. That, combined with UCLA’s relative ineffectiveness in the tournament, spells a long, heartwrenching drop for a player who many believed could be the top pick in the draft at the beginning of the year. He would provide the Blazers with a sweet-shooting backup to Nicolas Batum, who, despite being tenth in the league in three point attempts, is a slightly above-average shooter at best.
SG Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Georgia
An early candidate for highest-riser in the draft, Caldwell-Pope is a dead-eye shooting guard who also plays great defense, à la Brandon Rush of the Golden State Warriors. He has only slightly above average shooting statistics from the shorter college three-point line, but scouts believe his form is strong and that the stats are a result of the large scoring burden he held for the Bulldogs. He is also the only player of ESPN’s top 30 players in the draft without a single game with single-digit points. He needs to work on his ability to create his own shot to be anything more than a role player in the NBA, but his current skill set as an off-ball shooter and lockdown defender could provide the Blazers with a valuable player off the bench.
Of course, on the off chance (1.1 percent, to be exact) that Portland winds up with the top pick after the draft lottery, the choice will come down to either Noel or Kansas shooting guard Ben McClemore. Noel would immediately become the Blazers’ future at center and the low-post defensive stalwart it so desperately desires, while McClemore could step in as the franchise wing and leave open the possibility of trading Wesley Matthews to bolster the bench. Ultimately, Noel would be the better choice, rounding out the team and helping Portland’s starting five become one of the strongest in the NBA. Tune in to the draft lottery on May 21 to see the unveiling of the Blazers’ draft position and the experts’ predictions on the next Blazers’ rookie.