Damian Lillard has high hopes for the Portland Trail Blazers, as he should. Last year, he said he wanted to lead the Blazers back to the playoffs despite losing four starters, and he did it. This past offseason, they retained all their key free agents and added Evan Turner for some extra playmaking. Since their important players are all young, they should keep getting better, decreasing the chance that Portland becomes yet another example of a team that regresses after a surprisingly successful season.
Lillard's expectations, though, are even greater than you might anticipate. In an interview with ESPN's J.A. Adande, the guard said that he's thinking about playing in late May and possibly even June.
"This year I want to get to the Western Conference finals and give ourselves a chance to get to the [NBA] Finals," Lillard said. "I think it's possible."
Few people are predicting this type of success for the (relatively) young Blazers. They won 44 games last year, and most observers thought they'd bow out in the first round of the playoffs before the Los Angeles Clippers lost both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to injuries. Portland played the Golden State Warriors tough in the second round, though, and Lillard wants to build on that.
Vegas set the Blazers' over/under at 45.5 wins, and none of CBS Sports' writers predicted that they'd beat that number. After the Warriors, the elite Western Conference teams appear to be the San Antonio Spurs and Clippers, with some of us arguing that the Utah Jazz, Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets could be up there, too. Why not Portland?
The simple answer is defense. Last season, the Blazers were tied for 20th in defensive rating. While they improved throughout the season on that end and looked particularly strong in January and February, there is a lot of room for improvement. A lot of it starts with Lillard and his backcourt mate, C.J. McCollum, who are a terrifying tandem on offense but lack size and looked as helpless as any duo trying to stick with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
There are few doubts about Portland's ability to put the ball in the basket, but if it is going to reach Lillard's lofty goal, then the Blazers need to become an above-average defensive team. The good news: Lillard himself acknowledged this recently, saying that minimizing mistakes on defense is "the difference between a great team and a good team," via The Oregonian's Mike Richman. Now it's time for the Blazers to show they are indeed capable of being great.