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Jury still out on depth of Blazer talent

Addition of NBA veterans to roster could push younger players to excel


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Second-year point guard Damian Lillard, being introduced at Sundays Fan Fest, has the support around him for an even better season than in 2012-13, when he was the unanimous choice for NBA rookie of the year.I sought out Doc Rivers for a review of the Trail Blazers after the Clippers' 89-81 Monday preseason victory over Portland, knowing full well the new Los Angeles coach's critique would lean on the side of charitable.

"They're going to be good," Rivers offered. "(Damian) Lillard is going to take another step forward. As good as he was his rookie year, he has learned stuff that will make him better."

In their initial performance under Rivers, the Clippers — whom I have picked to win the NBA Western Conference championship — looked rock-solid defensively, holding the Blazers (sans LaMarcus Aldridge, Mo Williams and Dorell Wright) — to .359 shooting.

"Terry (Stotts) runs unbelievable stuff, some of the best stuff in the league," Rivers said. "I love playing them the first game. I thought it would be great for our defense. They make you work.

"Our defense was terrific. If you can do that against that group, you can play defense against anybody."

Well, I'm not sure about that.

But Stotts' group, with all the horsepower available, could be formidable at the offensive end. Offensively, Aldridge and Lillard rank with the best players in the NBA at their position. Nicolas Batum has the potential to be one of the premier small forwards in the league. Then there are Williams and Wright off the bench. Both will be counted upon to provide offense, especially because rookie guard C.J. McCollum is out for at least the first three months with a broken foot.

The defensive end will be bolstered by center Robin Lopez, who had eight points (3 for 9 shooting) and 10 rebounds in his Portland preseason debut. Rivers compares Lopez's value to Aldridge as "very similar" to Kendrick Perkins' value to Kevin Garnett when they were teammates playing for Rivers in Boston.

"It's really important for LaMarcus to have a protector," Rivers said. "Putting Lopez behind him is going to make (Aldridge) have a chance for the best year of his career."

Lopez hustles. He is all about team. His career rebounding numbers — 8.0 per 36 minutes — are the same as those of his twin brother, Brook of the Brooklyn Nets, who made his first All-Star Game appearance last season. Robin doesn't have much offensive game, but he is willing to do the dirty work that helps produce victories.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Nicolas Batum, talking to a fan at halftime of Sundays Fan Fest, returns to a Trail Blazers frontcourt that is expected to benefit from the addition of Robin Lopez and Thomas Robinson."That's Robin," Aldridge said. "He's a guy who is going to clog the paint, block shots, not demand touches, not cry if he doesn't get the ball. He does those things a big guy should do."

A big guy alongside an All-Star power forward, at least, who does demand touches and deserves plenty of them.

For sure, Lopez will do what he can to help make the Blazers a cohesive defensive unit. And Lopez and Thomas Robinson — the second-year power forward being given an opportunity to show Sacramento and Houston made a mistake in letting him go — get after offensive rebounds with a vengeance.

"That's easy points for me," Lopez said. "Thomas feels the same way. You have to be really gritty. Everything's not going to work out the way it's planned. You have to make it work through effort."

Lillard is going to be a key piece of the Blazers' bid to climb into playoff contention. As good as he was a year ago — unanimous Rookie of the Year, setting an NBA rookie record for 3-pointers in a season, becoming the first rookie to lead the league in minutes played since Elvin Hayes in 1968-69 — the 6-3 point guard can be better with more veteran help around him.

"Just going in, it feels different," Lillard said. "Last year, I was a lot more anxious … nervous, I guess. I'm just as excited as I was last year, but we have a lot more depth this year. I'm excited to get out there with our new players and see what we can put on the floor."

Lillard will have Williams and Earl Watson — who boast 22 years of NBA experience between them — to bounce things off of.

"They help with a lot of small stuff," Lillard said. "I have Earl and Mo in my ear after every other play, telling me things there was nobody here to tell me last season. We have a lot of young players who can learn from the players they brought in."

The 6-10, 240-pound Robinson, who bombed as a rookie after being taken by Sacramento with the fifth pick of the 2012 draft out of Kansas, looked terrific in Sunday's Fan Fest scrimmage, making five jump shots, chasing down boards and loose balls and earning the game's MVP trophy. He looked mostly lost a night later against the Clippers' Blake Griffin, making 1 of 5 shots and committing as many turnovers (five) as points scored.

Aldridge thinks Robinson, only 22, will be on the plus side most nights once the games start to count.

"JJ (Hickson) was good, but I don't think we've ever had an energy player like Thomas coming off the bench," Aldridge said. "I can't think of any guy being that physical, active, running the floor, blocking shots, that sort of thing."

Both Lopez and Robinson, Lillard said, "are unselfish players. You see T-Rob playing physical, besting people on the boards, running the court … everybody isn't willing to do those things. To have two guys in the rotation who will do that, that's already making us a better team than we were a year ago."

There's no question the Blazers will be that. How much better remains to be seen. Lopez and Williams seem sure to provide plenty of help. Robinson and volume 3-point shooter Wright must give quality minutes, too, if Portland's bench is going to be as solid as general manager Neil Olshey and Coach Stotts think it is.

"Just because we have a lot of talent doesn't make us a good team," Stotts said this week. "You have to go out and do it."

I'm not even sure the Blazers have a lot of talent. They have more than they did a year ago, though. They'll have a chance to thrust themselves into the playoff race in the West. But as the coach says, they'll have to go out and do it.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers