The Season: Portland Trailblazers

New Faces: Cliff Alexander (R), Pat Connaughton (R), Ed Davis, Maurice Harkless, Gerald Henderson, Mason Plumlee, Phil Pressey, Noah Vonleh,

2014-15 Regular Season Record: 51-31

2014-15 Regular Season Achievements: 1st: Free-Throw Percentage, Defensive Rebounding. 2nd: Total Rebounds. 5th: 2-Point Percentage (Defense). 6th: 3-Point Percentage (Defense). 8th: 3-Point Percentage. 9th: Points, Offensive Rating. 10th: Defensive Rating. 11th: Points (Defense), 2-Point Percentage. 12th: Pace, Assists.

Leading Scorer: LaMarcus Aldridge, 23.4

Leading Rebounder: LaMarcus Aldridge, 10.2

Get ready for the Damien Lillard show this October. Not only is he a unique young star, but Portland has absolutely nobody else to lean on. The offseason for the Portland Trail Blazers consisted of losing their entire starting lineup besides Lillard, which was the start to an immense rebuilding project. Disappointed Blazers fans saw LaMarcus Aldridge (23.4 ppg), Wesley Matthews (15.9 ppg), Arron Afflalo (10.6 ppg), and Robin Lopez (9.6 ppg) take their talents elsewhere in free agency, and saw Nicolas Batum (9.6 ppg) traded to the Charlotte Hornets. In 2014-15, these five players accounted for 67.4% of Portland’s points per game, which will not be easy to replace.

Portland reacted by implementing a youth movement, and obtaining several young talented prospects. In return for Batum, Portland received Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh. Henderson (27 years-old) can bring solid athleticism and scoring, while Vonleh (20 years-old) will bring size, length, and massive potential.

Vonleh was the 9th overall pick in the 2014 draft and has an extremely high ceiloing. At the 2015 Summer League, Vonleh dominated by putting up 17.3 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. Batum, who Vonleh is replacing, had his worse scoring season since his rookie year. He shot just 40% from the field.

Other intriguing new faces include Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Mason Plumlee, Maurice Harkless, and 2015 second-round pick Pat Connaughton. Aminu is the best bet to replace Wesley Matthews as Portland’s premier wing defender, and at just 25 years-old there is room for improvement. Playing for Dallas in the 2015 playoffs, Aminu averaged 2 steals and 1.6 blocks per game, showing that he has the potential to be an elite defender. He also shot 64% from three-point range in Dallas’ short playoff stint, proving that he can become a productive 3-and-D asset.

By unloading all of their core contracts, the Blazers could have a vast amount of money to play with in next summer’s free agency. Outside of Lillard, no other player on Portland’s roster will garner a very lucrative pay check for the next couple years. This will give GM Neil Olshey the opportunity to pursue a big-name free agent in 2016 such as Kevin Durant, Al Horford, or DeMar DeRozan. If Portland can lock up a key free agent next summer or if some of their young prospects prosper, the rebuilding process could be over sooner than later.

Portland currently ranks as the fourth youngest team in the NBA, averaging out at 24.6 years-old. This shows how seriously the rebuilding process is being taken, as the team is looking to build a young supporting cast around Damien Lillard. The two-time all-star has shown that he is capable of leading a team, and that he can be clutch when it matters. But can he do it without any other established ballers around him? The answer to this question will tell us whether the Blazers can put together a decent season in 2015-16.

For his entire career, Lillard has had the blessing of playing alongside LaMarcus Aldridge. In fact, Lillard has never led his team in scoring, because that title has always belonged to the sweet-shooting big man. Defenses were forced to key on Aldridge during his years with Portland, which opened up the floor for Lillard and allowed him to attack the lane. LaMarcus took a large chunk of the offensive burden off of Lillard, a luxury that the budding point guard will be without this year. Thus, Lillard will have to almost singlehandedly carry Portland’s offense this season.

If he puts in the work, Lillard has the opportunity to make an extraordinary individual jump this season. He ranked 21st in the league in usage rate last season, but we should expect that to jump into the top 10. In games without Aldridge, Lillard has averaged a 29.3% usage rate, which would have been good for 12th in the league last year. After accounting for the losses of Matthews, Batum, Lopez, and Afflalo, that rate will rise even further. Considering Portland’s projected starting lineup consists of Lillard, Henderson, Aminu, Davis, and Meyers Leonard, the squad will seemingly live and die by Damien. This could be a great thing or a dangerous thing. But considering that Portland did not make it out of the first round of the playoffs last year (with Aldridge and several other weapons), signs point to some struggles in 2015-16.

Lillard will undeniably have a hard time leading this inexperienced roster to the playoffs, especially in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. Regardless, that is not the goal that GM Neil Olshey had in mind for the upcoming season. The Blazers have their minds set on the future, which actually looks quite bright. Every player on the roster has undisputable potential and room to grow (with the exception of Chris Kaman), so Portland could become a playoff team within the next few years. But one thing is for sure: Blazers fans may be in for a long season compared to what they are accustomed to.

Projected Record: 24-58

photo via llananba