Last season went about as well as the Portland Trail Blazers organization and fans could have hoped. The team immediately outperformed preseason expectations with a 17-3 (and then 31-9) start to put itself in excellent position to grab a postseason berth. A rough March kept them from nabbing homecourt advantage in the first round, but a thrilling six-game victory over the Houston Rockets — capped by Damian Lillard's series-ending buzzer-beater — ensured that the Blazers could look at 2013-14 as a massive success. Over the course of a few months, a team thought to be in rebuilding mode became able to entertain challenging for a conference title. [ Yahoo Sports Fantasy Basketball: Sign up and join a league today! ] This is absolutely a good position for the franchise, but it also presents new challenges as head coach Terry Stotts and his players attempt to build on the gains of last season. The Blazers added several players who should improve a previously thin bench, but they remain heavily dependent on their starting five. Plenty of teams find themselves in the same situation, but few contenders take it to the same extreme as the Blazers. They will go as far as Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Robin Lopez take them. Those players are very good, to be fair. Lillard is coming into his own as a star, Matthews is one of the best two-way shooting guards in the league, Batum is effectively the same thing as a small forward, Aldridge was the best player on either team in the Rockets series, and Lopez defends well enough to allow his frontcourt mate to focus on his scoring. In fact, they were one of the best five-man lineups in the league (especially when adjusted for total minutes played). Even if the Blazers are especially dependent on this group, they at least know where to turn when needed. Stotts doesn't have to think especially hard in crunch time. It remains to be seen if that reliance on a handful of players gets Portland in trouble due to injury or any other prolonged absence. Though I'm sure they'll take their chances after finding such fine form a year ago. 2013-14 season in 140 characters or less: Ahead of schedule, then a reality check, then ahead of schedule again. Did the summer help at all? Yes, because the Blazers added several veterans who should bring some stability to what was one of the league's worst benches. Steve Blake should serve as a capable backup for Lillard and even team with him in some cases, while center Chris Kaman can provide an offensive threat that Lopez mostly lacks. Portland could have used a pick in June's draft to add some wild cards into the mix, but the summer could lead to gains for shooting guard Will Barton (one of the team's few bright spots in the Spurs series) and C.J. McCollum, whose rookie season was derailed by injury. Go-to offseason acquisition: Kaman did not prove to be an especially good replacement for Dwight Howard with the Los Angeles Lakers last season, playing in just 39 games with an average of just 18.9 minutes per contest. He was quite effective when he did play, though averaging 10.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. Those are numbers that the Blazers would welcome, particularly given their reliance on Aldridge for post scoring. If Kaman can stay healthy — a tall order, given that he hasn't played 70 games since 2009-10 — he could reshape Portland's scoring options. Glaring weakness: If for some reason you just jumped to this section, here's some news for you — Portland had a really bad bench in 2013-14. It should be a little better this season due to the additions of Blake and Kaman and the presumed improvement of Barton and others, but the Blazers are at considerable risk of an injury to one of their starters turning the season into a trying one.
The Scoop:"I'm anxious to see how they do complement each other," Stotts said. "Steve is a very good defender, I don't think we lose anything playing two those guys defensively. Offensively, Steve is good at pushing the ball with the pass with the dribble ... I think it will help Dame move without the ball." Mo Williams averaged under 25 minutes as a reserve guard in Portland last season, a number Blake would be lucky to reach with C.J. McCollum and Will Barton also angling for increased playing time.
Steve Blake is coming back to the Trail Blazers. Blake has had two previous stints with the Blazers, most recently from 2007-2010, becoming a fan favorite before going on to play for the Lakers, Clippers and Golden State Warriors. Last season he averaged 6.9 points and 5.6 assists, splitting the season between the Lakers and Warriors. I love it here.'' The Trail Blazers can use the 6-foot-3 Blake to help back up All-Star guard Damian Lillard.
A look around the league and the Web that covers it. It's also important to note that the rotation order and starting nods aren't always listed in order of importance. That's for you, dear reader, to figure out.
C : Miami Herald . Dan Le Batard on the hammer that LeBron James possesses, and how he's wielding it: "A sports King has never received quite this kind of sport-hijacking genuflecting. […] Player's league. Player's power. And he’s using it like we have never, ever seen."
PF : The Wall Street Journal . Ben Cohen reviews search engine analytics to discover that "the public interest in James, the best basketball player of his time, is highest at the times when he isn't actually playing basketball."
SF : Deadspin . A 2011 magazine feature on LeBron, allegedly snuffed out by his Nike representatives, that details both the unreality associated with seeing LeBron move in the world at that stage of his life and how little can get done when "total access" turns out to be a myth.
SG : Celtics Hub . Tom Westerholm takes a look at the tape on Tyler Zeller to see what kind of player the Boston Celtics have in the 7-footer, whom the Cleveland Cavaliers gave up in Wednesday's cap-space-creating three-way deal : "Zeller might be okay. He might even be kind of good." Bring up those playoff tickets, Celtics fans!
PG : RealGM . Danny Leroux invokes "the law of small numbers" to suggest that the Golden State Warriors might have missed a very rare and near-priceless opportunity when they reportedly balked at including Klay Thompson in a rumored trade package for Kevin Love.
6th : How U . The great @j_069 takes us inside the huddle of new Cleveland Cavaliers head coach David Blatt — well, the huddles he ran with the Russian men's national basketball team and Maccabi Tel Aviv, at least. He's going to be fun when wired up for sound.
7th : The Triangle . Zach Lowe on what Carmelo Anthony's reported decision to accept a five-year maximum contract to stay in Manhattan means for the New York Knicks' chances of building a championship contender in the next handful of years: "There’s no great option here, which is kind of the point."
8th : Blazersedge . Dane Carbaugh checks out the recent-past backup point guard market to determine whether the Portland Trail Blazers' bi-annual exception addition of Steve Blake represents a decent deal.
9th : The Brooklyn Game . Based on final 2013-14 payroll and luxury tax numbers, Devin Kharpertian looks at which teams spent the most and least per win last season. You will never guess which team paid the most by looking at the name of his blog.
10th : ShamSports . Mark Deeks updates us on the complete history of luxury tax payments in the NBA. The Brooklyn Nets had a record $90.6 million tax bill for last season and still haven't paid half as much as the New York Knicks have since the tax was instituted. GET YOUR DISAPPOINTMENT UP, BROOKLYN.
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