The foundation is set. LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews will return next season as key pieces toward the future of the Trail Blazers.
Rookies Meyers Leonard, Will Barton, Victor Claver and Joel Freeland will be back, too, unless they are included in a deal that will “move the needle,” as general manager Neil Olshey likes to say.
A week after the regular-season finale, Terry Stotts is already looking forward to his second season as Portland’s head coach. The first year was both gratifying and frustrating, split into halves that began in surprisingly successful fashion and ending with a 13-game losing streak that matched a franchise record for futility.
“The first 50 games was very enjoyable,” Stotts says. “They were … I’m trying to think of the right words … there was a lot of hope and promise. We were laying the groundwork for what we want to be not only this year but in the future.
“The first half was defined by (winning) all the close games. The second half of the season, we didn’t win the close games. You want to be realistic. You hate having a 13-game losing streak, but when you take in the context of injuries and schedule and playing young players, it’s a little more understandable. On the whole, it does give me a lot of hope and promise for next season.”
Into the All-Star break, Stotts played his starters long minutes and his rookies — other than Lillard — sparingly. Aldridge, Lillard, Batum and Matthews all ranked among the top 12 in the NBA in minutes played.
When the Blazers finally fell out of the playoff race the last month of the season, that changed. Aldridge, Batum and Matthews were hit with injuries. Stotts used Leonard, Barton and Claver for major minutes the rest of the way.
“When it got to that point, I didn’t have a problem with it,” Stotts says. “The problem I had was, we were in the middle of a playoff race for five months and people wanted to throw in the towel and play the young guys in January. I didn’t think that was the right time.
“Once it got to the point where playoffs were not an issue, well, it was part of the plan this season to get young players time. When that time was appropriate, I didn’t have any problem at all. It was frustrating not to win, but being able to get the rookies experience was a good thing for our team.”
Stotts still bristles at the notion that the starters were overworked, and the wear and tear contributed to the late-season injuries.
“Those guys weren’t playing any more minutes than Kevin Durant or LeBron James or a host of other players throughout the league,” the Blazer mentor says. “The only difference with our team was it was four guys instead of one or two. But playing 37, 38 minutes is not a lot, especially for young players. I don’t think there was a correlation between (the heavy minutes and injuries).”
There are many issues that Olshey and Stotts must address for next season. Defense is foremost. The Blazers finished among the NBA’s bottom five in defensive efficiency, blocked shots, opponents’ field-goal percentage and opponents’ point in the paint.
“It’s going to be a major focus,” Stotts says. “One of our problems, we got off to a poor start defensively. Then we had a nice stretch defensively over the next 15 to 20 games. The second half, it waned.
“There will be some roster changes that will address some of that. As a coaching staff, we’ll change some of our schemes and the emphasis to the way we approach defense.”
Stotts contends that, according to statistical metrics, Portland’s three best defenders were veterans Jared Jeffries, Sasha Pavlovic and Ronnie Price, the latter waived at midseason when Eric Maynor was brought aboard. Stotts was forced to go with the players who provided more offense. Defense suffered.
“One of our problems defensively was inconsistency,” he says. “Over the course of a game, or a week or two, the inconsistency affects your total numbers.”
Though Stotts emphasized a faster tempo offensively than his predecessor, Nate McMillan, the Blazers finished in a tie for 25th in the NBA in fast-break points.
“You need to get stops and rebounds to be a better running team,” Stotts says. “Still, our wings could have run better. We didn’t pass the ball ahead as much as we should have.
“The other part is, you can push it up and not necessarily score early. We did that a lot when I was coaching in Dallas — push it up, move the ball two or three times and get a basket. But I would like to play a faster pace. Maybe that was one of the downfalls of playing starters the longer minutes. They weren’t as fresh to run the whole game.”
Portland was a good 3-point shooting team, making 152 more treys than its opponent. But foes made 367 more 2-point baskets than the Blazers, who were fourth in the NBA in opponents’ 3-point percentage but 29th in opponents’ field-goal percentage.
“Maybe we need to rethink our defensive philosophy a little bit,” Stotts concedes, “but we were proud we were able to defend the 3-point line so well. Offensively with the 3, it was a mixed bag. Wes, Damian and Nic shot a lot of them and shot relatively well. Luke (Babbitt) was below average for him, and the rest of the guys were poor. I’d like to continue to shoot 3’s, but we need to do it at a higher percentage.”
Aldridge, who averaged 21 points, was a focus of the offense, “and that won’t change,” Stotts says. “He was effective on the block and on pick-and-rolls, and that made (teammates) better.
“But the NBA game has evolved. Of the league’s top 15 scorers, only three were perimeter players. So a lot of the scoring comes from the perimeter or on penetration. We have the players to get that done.”
Stotts was sensitive to criticism of his bench, which finished last in the NBA in scoring at 18.5 points (Indiana and the Lakers were next-worst at 26.1) and last in point differential at minus-17.7 (the Pacers were next-worst at minus-8.4).
“We managed it well,” he says. “We led the league in starters’ scoring. The bottom line is, we were 12th in the league in scoring. I’d rather be 12th than be lower than that and not get a lot of points off the bench.
“One thing that bothered me was equating points with our bench playing well. I thought there were many nights when the bench played well but didn’t score a lot of points.”
During exit interviews, Stotts gave Aldridge, Lillard, Batum and Matthews areas in their game they could improve at both ends of the floor.
“None of them were happy with the way the second half of the season went, but you could make the case that all four had career years,” Stotts says. “But they all have ways to improve for next season.”
The 7-1 Leonard averaged 5.5 points and 3.7 rebounds while shooting .545 from the field and .809 from the foul line.
“It was an up-and-down year for Meyers,” Stotts says. “Injuries held him back a couple of times when he was getting on a roll. He grew more comfortable with his offense, with being prepared to shoot and his positioning around the basket. Defense is the biggest area he needs to improve.
“We want him to play a lot of basketball this summer, to have time on the floor against NBA players to work on quickness and speed and reaction to the game.”
Barton showed flashes during long minutes the last three weeks of the season, especially at the offensive end. Against Dallas on April 7, he was sensational, collecting 22 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and three steals.
“Will took advantage of his quality minutes,” Stotts says. “He tightened up his game a little bit. You don’t want to rein him in too much, because (athleticism and an open-court game) is one of his strengths, but decision-making will be something for him to improve.”
Stotts also liked some of what he saw from the 6-9 Claver, who started 16 games and has good athleticism and instincts for a player his size.
“He shot better the second half of the season, but not as well as he can,” Stotts says. “The ball comes off his hands well. Balance, footwork and shot selection are important for him. I like his demeanor on the court. He sees the game well, makes plays other guys don’t make.”
Stotts says he expects all the rookies, along with Batum, to be in Portland in the early summer to work with the training staff and play pickup games at the training facility. All of Stotts’ five assistant coaches will return. After some down time, they’ll convene for player evaluation and then draft workouts in June.
Then it will be on to Las Vegas Summer League and, before you know it, training camp to prepare for the 2013-14 season.
“We got a lot done this season,” Stotts says, “but we’re just getting started. We have an awful lot of work to do.”