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.