Top Bloggers: Eric Griffith On The Trail Blazers

Anyone can have a blog about an NBA team, but some set themselves apart from the rest with the dedication and valuable insight they bring to their craft. We’ll be sharing some knowledge from these dialed-in writers on Hoops Rumors in a new feature called Top Bloggers. As with The Beat, our ongoing series of interviews with NBA beat writers, it’s part of an effort to bring Hoops Rumors readers ever closer to the pulse of the teams they follow. Last time, we spoke with William Lou of the score and Raptors Republic. Click here to see the entire Top Bloggers series.

Next up is Eric Griffith of SB Nation’s Blazer’s Edge. You can follow Eric on Twitter at @DeeringTornado and click here to check out his stories. You can also follow Blazer’s Edge at @blazersedge.

Hoops Rumors: How surprised were you that LaMarcus Aldridge went from pledging a long-term commitment a year before free agency, to reiterating that pledge before the start of last season, to bolting for the Spurs when he finally did hit the open market?

Eric Griffith: I was pretty surprised by Aldridge’s decision. From a financial perspective, it made a ton of sense for him to sign a one-year contract with Portland and then hit the market the following season. By signing a long-term deal with the Spurs this offseason he left literally tens of millions of dollars on the table. I thought the money alone would be enough of an incentive to stick it out for one more year with the Blazers.

In January, Aldridge also elected to play through a thumb injury rather than have surgery and miss several weeks during a crucial part of the season. To most Blazers fans that decision implied that Aldridge truly believed the Blazers had a shot at contending. For a player that rarely interacts publicly with the fans and is visibly uncomfortable in front of a mic and camera, that decision spoke volumes about his confidence in the team. Going into the offseason, I hoped that his belief in Portland as a championship caliber team had not wavered after an early playoff exit and that Neil Olshey could keep the team together for one more season. Unfortunately, Aldridge apparently decided that the aging Spurs are THAT much better than an intact Portland team. I’ll admit I was a bit surprised by that as well.

Hoops Rumors: Few teams can lose a star and have another, younger star lock in for a five-year extension the very same summer. How quickly do you think the Blazers can rebuild around Damian Lillard and become a surefire playoff team?

Eric Griffith: As of right now, the Blazers have one proven NBA starter and a team full of reserves. For Portland to become a consistent playoff threat they will need some of those reserve-level players to develop into quality NBA starters. The most likely candidates are Noah Vonleh, C.J. McCollum, and Meyers Leonard. Portland’s playoff chances will get a huge shot in the arm if one or two of those players can show consistent development this season.

The Blazers will also need at least one more All-Star to pair with Lillard, preferably at one of the wing positions. Unfortunately, there are few max-level free agents available next summer and the Blazers do not have the assets to complete a trade for a superstar, so they will likely have to rely on the draft to get that superstar.

As for when Portland will be a surefire playoff team, I think it’s virtually impossible to accurately predict right now. Too much of their future will be determined by player development this season and lottery luck over the summer. If they do get a “hit” on some of their young talent and do get a high lottery pick, then the Blazers could be a consistent playoff threat by 2018. But if all goes awry, they could easily be pressing the reset button again in a couple of seasons. (Griffith went into further detail on this topic here and here).

Hoops Rumors: Which of the moves the Blazers made this summer, aside from the Lillard extension, will help the team the most? 

Eric Griffith: Both Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis have shown potential to become quality big men and they both will get plenty of chances to prove themselves this season. Both players also pair well with the perimeter game of Leonard. Either Plumlee or Davis could turn out to be the most helpful addition to the team for this season.

For the long term, many Blazers fans are salivating over Vonleh. He appears to have the potential to develop into an All-Star and is a good bet to at least become a solid rotation player. Olshey acquired Vonleh for Nicolas Batum, who was likely to leave in free agency after this season anyway, so anything Vonleh can give the Blazers can be considered a bonus.

A sneaky choice for the most helpful move might be trading a top-55 protected second round pick for Moe Harkless. The rumors coming out of training camp are that Harkless has been wowing his teammates with his athleticism and that his three-point shot has returned.

Hoops Rumors: How would the Blazers be different, both for this season and the future, if the Thunder hadn’t matched the Enes Kanter offer sheet?

Eric Griffith: It would have been interesting to see how Leonard would have been affected by Kanter’s presence. With the current roster, Leonard will, by necessity, be the primary scoring option from the power forward/center positions. Kanter presumably would have taken some of those shots from the low post instead of Leonard shooting from the perimeter. Leonard also fits well with the complementary skill sets of Davis and Plumlee, but defense would have been an issue if Leonard and Kanter had been paired together.

To me, the Kanter offer sheet (and the Greg Monroe one before it) is interesting because it implies that the Blazers are not content with their current power forwards and centers even though the 4/5 spots are the deepest and most complete on the roster. It’s easy to imagine the Leonard/Vonleh/Davis/Plumlee rotation becoming very effective in a year or two but, apparently, Olshey thinks that lineup still needs more tinkering.

Hoops Rumors: What are reasonable expectations for the Blazers this season? Is a playoff spot truly attainable?

Eric Griffith: The Blazers lost five of their top six players and struck out on their top two free agent choices. It’s tough to imagine any team making the playoffs after that kind of offseason, and the Blazers are no exception. Also, as mentioned above, they have only one established NBA starter. It’s going to be tough for them to win games, especially early in the season.

Looking at the Western Conference standings, it’s hard to pick out a team that is definitely worse than the Blazers. As of now, it seems like they’ll be in the conference basement with the Lakers, Nuggets, and possibly Timberwolves. So a reasonable expectation for Portland this season is probably a 13th-place finish in the conference. Over the last six seasons the 13th-place team in the west has averaged 27.7 wins, suggesting that a win total in the high 20s is a fair prediction.

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