(SportsNetwork.com) - For the last few years, mediocre teams all around the league have chosen the route of tanking, rather than building on their current foundations.
Apparently Neil Olshey didn't get the memo.
The Portland Trail Blazers General Manager took over a franchise riddled with injuries after the 2010 season and could have thrown in the towel. Greg Oden and Brandon Roy, once thought to be franchise cornerstones, both suffered multiple knee injuries which would derail their careers in Portland.
But Olshey stayed the course, opting to hold onto highly-touted young forwards LeMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum, and is hoping that tanking isn't the only way to turn around a struggling franchise.
"This is still a process, but everything we did this offseason was with one goal in mind. We're going to continue to develop our young guys, it's just not going to come at the expense of winning games," Olshey proclaimed at Portland's media day. "I think we're talented enough (to make the playoffs)."
Portland has drafted well around its all-star Aldridge, who has averaged 18.3 points and 7.8 rebounds in seven years with the Blazers, and fortified its bench via free agency. Now Portland, which finished last in the NBA with 18.5 bench points per game last season, 5.6 points worse than 29th-ranked Indiana Pacers, has a deep, talented roster with a good mix of youthful exuberance and veteran leadership.
Perhaps more important than Aldridge to the success of Rip City is the reigning Rookie of the Year, Damian Lillard. The Weber State product and sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft made an immediate impact with his new club, tallying 23 points and 11 assists in a season-opening win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Lillard led all rookies with 19.0 points and 6.5 assists per game, and has no plans of slowing down.
"I think I can do a better job of making the people around me better,"Lillard told the Oregonian. "I want to make the playoffs, I want to make the all-star team."
Lillard, the fourth ever unanimous Rookie of the Year, broke a rookie record with 185 3-pointers and led the league with 3,167 minutes played.
Joining Lillard in the upgraded Blazers' backcourt is rookie C.J. McCollum. Drafted 10th out of Lehigh this past June, the talented young combo guard was expected to step in as the team's sixth man. Unfortunately, McCollum recently underwent surgery after fracturing his left foot -- the same injury that ended his senior season at Lehigh just six games in -- and will miss an undisclosed amount of time.
If McCollum misses an extended period of time, veteran Mo Williams will be called on to spell Lillard and play with him in smaller lineups. Capable of creating or running off the ball, Williams' skill set makes him an invaluable member of Portland's revamped second unit, especially with McCollum on the pine.
Portland also made deals to solidify its frontcourt in the form of Robin Lopez, Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson.
Lopez, acquired in a three-team deal from the New Orleans Pelicans, started all 82 games last season after four years with the Suns and is known for his energy and interior defense.
Robinson, drafted fifth by the Kings in 2012, failed to find consistent playing time with Sacramento and Houston last season, but should thrive in a reserve role playing behind Aldridge.
Wright's outside shooting ability and defensive versatility gives coach Terry Stotts another weapon he was sorely lacking a season ago.
2012-13 Results: 33-49, 4th in Northwest, Missed Playoffs
ADDITIONS: G Earl Watson, G C.J. McCollum, G Mo Williams, G Allen Crabbe, F Dorell Wright, F Thomas Robinson, C Robin Lopez
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- Damian Lillard SG- Wesley Matthews SF- Nicolas Batum PF- LaMarcus Aldridge C- Robin Lopez
KEY RESERVES: G C.J. McCollum, G Mo Williams, G Will Barton, F Dorell Wright, F Thomas Robinson, F Victor Claver, C Meyers Leonard
FRONTCOURT: Undersized center J.J. Hickson left for Denver in free agency, but Portland replaced him with a more traditional big man in Lopez. Aldridge, a perennial 20-point scorer, likes to operate at the high-post. Lopez averaged 2.8 offensive rebounds per game last season -- tied with his brother, Brook, and three others for 15th best in the league -- and should improve on that total with Portland.
Batum might be the X-factor for the Blazers. Fresh off a career year in 2012-13 (14.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 4.9 apg) and Eurobasket Championship playing for his native France this summer, the versatile wing demonstrated that he can play well with or without the ball in his hands.
BACKCOURT: Lillard is the cog that makes this machine go. His ability to operate in pick & roll and create for himself both from the outside and at the rim makes him a dynamic talent. Lillard played a lot of minutes last season, and should benefit from an improved bench and more rest.
Fifth-year shooting guard Wes Matthews returns to start next to Lillard. Matthews, originally an undrafted free agent with the Jazz out of Marquette, made a name for himself as a hard-nosed defender and spot-up shooter who excels in transition.
BENCH: Gone are the days of Luke Babbitt and Nolan Smith. Portland lost a ton of production when it went to its bench a season ago, but a handful of under- the-radar offseason acquisitions should make this year's unit much more effective.
McCollum, when healthy, and Williams will take turns handling and playing off the ball, while Earl Watson should provide a steady veteran presence when called upon. Rookie sharpshooter Allen Crabbe's minutes will depend on how well he performs on the defensive end, whereas second-year Will Barton must prove he can make shots in order to earn playing time.
Wright and Victor Claver bring terrific size (6'9) to the small forward spot, which gives coach Stotts a lot of options with his lineups.
Second-year center Meyers Leonard, a raw athlete picked 11th overall out of Illinois, will be tasked with manning the middle for Portland's reserve unit next to Robinson, who hopes to have found a home with the Blazers.
COACHING: Stotts has gone 148-217 in five seasons as NBA head coach, making just one playoff appearance in 2005-06 with the Bucks. Now expectations are high for Portland and Stotts must deliver a playoff berth, or more, if he expects to be employed past this season.
The Blazers were not a good defensive unit last season, giving up 100.7 points per game on 47.4 percent shooting, second worst in the league behind the Bobcats. If Portland expects a significant increase in wins from last season, it must improve on the defensive end of the floor.
"For us to do what we want to do this year, we have to improve defensively," said Stotts during the Blazers' media day. "We're going to change some of our schemes, we're going to change out emphasis, our mentality about it."
OUTLOOK: The Blazers aren't OKC, or the Clippers or Spurs. But the Western Conference is more open than its been in recent years. Perennial playoff teams like Denver, Dallas and the Lakers are not as strong as they've been, leaving the door open for a relative newcomer like Portland to sneak into a seventh or eighth seed.
If the Blazers manage to integrate their bench successfully and find ways to get late stops, they should be one of the most exciting teams in the league and back in the postseason for the first time since Roy retired.