The 2014 NBA draft is over. Sixty young men had their lives forever altered with the fulfillment of a lifelong dream: playing professional basketball. For the Portland Trail Blazers, it was a muted day with nothing happening to alter their roster. They were one of five NBA teams with no active draft picks this year, and did not make any moves on draft day.
As great as it would have been to get the Greek Freak’s older brother, this draft should be considered a success in the eyes of Blazers fans. It demonstrated the patient approach general manager Neil Olshey and coach Terry Stotts are taking. Too often NBA teams obsess over improving their team as quickly as possible. One only has to remember the early-2000s Blazers to find a prime example of a team sacrificing their future by trying to win right away. Then General Manager Bob Whitset, infamously known as “Trader Bob,” swapped future All-Star Jermaine O’Neal and Blazers community hero Brian Grant for aging Dale Davis and broken down Shawn Kemp. The move came following a trip to the Western Conference Finals, a playoff position the Blazers have not seen since. This team must learn from past mistakes, recognize the talent they have and identify where they need to improve. One last word on the Greek Freak family: I am holding onto hope that the Blazers can still get one of the Antetokounmpo brothers. A third younger brother named Kostas is currently playing professional ball in Greece and should be in the draft in a few years.
But getting back to the Blazers, this team could have tried to make a move on draft day, but it is unlikely they could find a player who fits their current need: bolstering the bench. For two years now the Blazers’ glaring weakness has been the bench. Coach Stotts has a brilliant offensive system for the starters, but watching the second unit try to operate the flow can be painful to watch. With no guarantee of Mo Williams leading the bench, this team must focus on developing the guys they have and possibly finding a trade situation to improve the squad.
Last summer, Olshey made his first great move as GM by acquiring Robin Lopez as part of a three-team trade. Center was the team’s need, and that is what he found. Now we must wait and see if Olshey can do it two summers in a row. The need is clear, but how Olshey will improve the bench and who he might bring in are questions yet to be answered.
The 2014 Las Vegas Summer League is the next big event in the NBA offseason. The Blazers’ first game will be against New York on July 12. Expect all the young bench players to get playing time in Vegas. Several undrafted or D-League players will also join the Blazers summer team in hopes of finding a roster spot. Michigan State’s starting point guard Keith Appling headlines this group. He averaged 11 points, 4.5 assists and three rebounds in his senior year. The NBA has had some successful undrafted players through the years, including Avery Johnson, Raja Bell, Jose Calderon, John Starks, Bruce Bowen, Ben Wallace and the Blazers’ own Wes Matthews. Finding these diamonds in the rough is probably more luck than science (the same could be said for the draft itself), but fans can still hope a guy like Appling defies the odds and makes this team.
Last year at this time the expectations for Rip City—both in town and around the league—were low. The Blazers would be lucky to be in the hunt for the eighth seed, everyone said. How things change in a year. The Blazers blew away the assumptions and won a playoff series. Anything less in 2014-15 season will be considered a disappointment.
The San Antonio Spurs, considered a model franchise not only in basketball but all pro sports, just won their fourth title with the same core of players (Tim Duncan won a fifth his rookie year, but with a completely different cast). Aldridge is no Duncan, but in Aldridge the Blazers have their best chance for a franchise player. Damian Lillard is comparable to a young Tony Parker. Portland has the main pieces for a championship team; now they should follow San Antonio’s lead on building a team around those players. It’s easy to say “be like the Spurs,” but if it were easy to accomplish, every team would be a dynasty.
With the draft over and nothing from it, Blazermania will have one eye on the young players at summer league, hoping they are improving, and the other on the GM’s office. Olshey and Stotts have gained the city’s confidence, so no move on draft day should be part of the larger plan. I expect at least one serious acquisition before training camp kicks off; the need is too great and Blazers management knows it. Hopefully it will be a great summer to be a Blazer.