PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - The Portland Trail Blazers now have a real center and some much-needed depth.
With those two deficiencies addressed in the offseason, the Blazers see no reason they can't contend in the NBA's power-packed Western Conference.
"Look, the West is incredibly deep, incredibly talented. A lot of the teams returning to the playoffs probably feel like they have a seed locked up. But we're going to do everything in our power to get back in," general manager Neil Olshey said. "I think we're talented enough, the way our core four players played last year, supported by the new additions, they're going to give us a great chance."
The core includes two-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, Rookie of the Year point guard Damian Lillard, forward Nicolas Batum and shooting guard Wesley Matthews.
New to the starting lineup is 7-foot-center Robin Lopez, whom the Blazers acquired in a three-team trade with New Orleans and Sacramento. The Blazers lacked a real center last season, instead using forward J.J. Hickson up front with Aldridge and Batum. As a result, Portland never had a big shot-blocking presence on the defensive end.
Lopez averaged 11.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.56 blocked shots in 82 starts last season with New Orleans. He'll take over the starting job while the Blazers continue to develop second-year center Meyers Leonard.
"I just want a big to play with," Aldridge said when fall camp opened. "I feel like I can go to the next level playing alongside him because he's going to block shots. If he doesn't block it, I can come block it."
Portland added depth with the addition of veteran free agent guards Mo Williams and Earl Watson, who both played last season with the Utah Jazz.
The Blazers also signed free agent Dorell Wright, a nine-year NBA veteran who was a spark off the bench for the Philadelphia 76ers last season, and Portland traded for promising second-year forward Thomas Robinson, the fifth overall pick in last year's draft.
In the June draft, the Blazers picked up C.J. McCollum of Lehigh with the 10th overall pick and got Allen Crabbe, the 31st pick out of California, via a draft-night trade.
The Blazers ended last season with a 13-game slide to finish 33-49 and out of the playoffs for the second straight season. Portland was still in the playoff picture after the All-Star break but then injuries struck down the stretch and there simply wasn't the depth to overcome them.
Here are five things to look for from the Portland Trail Blazers this season:
DEFENSE RULES: Second-year coach Terry Stotts' priority this season is improving a defense that often seemed to disappear last season, especially on pick-and-rolls. Portland's opponents averaged more than 100 points per game, and overall the team's defense was ranked 26th in the league. "That's going to be the No. 1 priority," Stotts said. "For us to do what we want to do this year, we have to improve defensively. We're going to change some of our schemes, we're going to change our emphasis, our mentality about it. Our offense is going to get better but for us to do what we want to do this year, there's no question we have to make large, long strides with our defense."
BATUM'S INSPIRATION: Nicolas Batum is sort of an enigma every season, but this season he comes in armed with a bit of offseason bling: The gold medal that the French national team won for the European championship. Batum led France with 17 points in an 80-66 victory over Lithuania in the final. Batum was so proud of the medal he showed it off at media day: "It might be the biggest memory of my basketball career right now. When you win this type of tournament or title, especially for your country, it's been huge."
RESTING DAME: With the addition of Williams and Watson, the Blazers might be able to give Lillard a break this season. Last season he led the entire league in minutes with 3,167. He averaged a rookie-leading 19 points and 6.5 assists and he broke the rookie record for 3-pointers with 185. "The pressure will be taken off of him, because he has the support of Mo Williams, CJ McCollum and Earl Watson, where he can then spend more time focused on the defensive end of the floor and doing the other things he needs to do to get to an All-Star level," Olshey said.
MCCOLLUM SETBACK: McCollum will have to wait to get his rookie season going. The guard, who was expected to help back up Matthews, underwent a non-surgical procedure to stimulate bone growth on his fractured left foot. There is no timetable yet for his return, but he'll be reevaluated in about five weeks. McCollum suffered a similar injury to his left foot his senior year at Lehigh and missed the final two months of the season.
WILL HE OR WON'T HE? When asked what he worked on over the summer, Aldridge surprisingly said he shot 3-pointers. He's definitely not known for the long ball: He made just 2 of 14 shots from beyond the arc last season, and for his career he's just 21 for 101. Here's where Aldridge says he can help this year: "There's so many options. Trail 3s, pick-and-roll, in certain plays coach puts me in that corner. I'm not going to force it, everyone knows that I don't want to shoot 3s, but if I'm open I'm going to shoot it."