Blazer Preview Part Two: 20 Questions

With six players out and seven new ones in the Blazers were the most active team in the league this summer.  Just how far did we go towards addressing our needs?  Below are twenty key areas of concern for the team in both tangible and intangible categories.  (If that seems like a lot, remember as we established yesterday this team was bad at plenty of things.)  Listed after each are ways we got better or worse and how much progress remains.

Size
This has been an issue for the team for years, especially in the backcourt.  Even a cursory look at the roster sheet tells you we've gotten much bigger this summer and eyewitness reports from training camp confirm this.  Jarrett Jack is a legit 6'3"+ and has a body like a brick.  Brandon Roy and Martell Webster are 6'6" and 6'8" respectively.  That's a lot of size in the backcourt.  Small forward size was never an issue.  We've gotten bigger at the backup power forward and center positions with LaFrentz, Magloire, and Aldridge.  In fact the only two undersized players for their position are Juan Dixon (majorly) and Zach Randolph (somewhat).  We're not going to get shot over with the same regularity as in past years and we're less likely to get bodied around the court.  Of all the issues, this is the closest to being completely resolved.

Speed
Our problem last year wasn't just that we were small...we were small and slow.  That's a horrible combination.  It evidenced itself in habitual "tweener" defensive positioning where player after player found themselves standing in no-man's land, unable to move their feet quick enough to stop a drive but also unable to close fast enough to cover a jumper.  Opponents made like Paris Hilton's dog in Petco, taking whatever the heck they wanted.  Many guys also had a hard time getting free on offense.

We clearly lost a quick player in Sebastian Telfair.  Jarrett Jack can't even begin to match his footspeed.  Sergio Rodriguez apparently has some quicks but despite the predictable pre-season hype the jury's still out on how much he'll play.  Brandon Roy is more agile/tricky than speedy.  Martell Webster is not quick and Travis Outlaw is much quicker jumping than he is on his feet.  Magloire gives us a speed increase at center but quickness is more valuable at the big spots when paired with bulk or amazing leaping ability.  That mostly leaves the two main guys, Zach and Darius.  It's hard to tell how much of Zach's slowness last year was effort related and how much was due to his weight and knees.  Reportedly (hold your breath) both of the latter issues are better now so there's some hope Z-Bo might be able to move better.  That would be a huge boost to the team, especially on offense.  Darius' knees remain creaky and if he's not athletic he's not much.  There are too many questions here to consider this even partially resolved.  At this point I'd guess we were still going to be considerably slower than most of our opponents.  We'll have to hope the size makes up for that.

Smarts
Our I.Q. went up several notches the minute we acquired Brandon Roy.  This as much as anything else should secure him a steady diet of minutes throughout the season.  We can also reasonably expect progress from both Jack and Webster.  The ball is still going to run through Zach's and Darius' hands most of the time though, and those two have the power (should they choose to exercise it) to wipe out all of the aforementioned gains.  If they do nothing but hold the ball and shoot it doesn't matter how brilliant the young guys are (or become).  The verdict here is that we're headed in the right direction but it's a coin flip whether we'll see consistent results from it this season.

Scoring
Really this didn't seem like as much of a priority for the Blazers this summer as it could have been.  Raef LaFrentz was the only semi-proven offensive player we acquired.  Roy was a well-rounded pick but is unlikely to be called upon to bear the brunt of the scoring unless major changes are made.  Magloire and Aldridge are more established at rebounding and defense (at least for the rookie).  If the Blazers had wanted instant scoring help they could have gone after Morrison.  I'm glad they didn't as I admire the defensive/rebounding/smarts focus.  It's kind of like drafting solid lineman in football before you get your skill players...usually a winning recipe.  The side effect this year will be we're depending heavily on Zach again.  We'll see how much more he can give.  Eventually he'll need help, but that may have to wait for subsequent drafts or trades.  The scoring outlook this year may not be great.

Rebounding
Of all the things we did poorly, this might have been the worst.  Our impotence on the defensive boards was astonishing.  We're depending on Jamaal Magloire to be instant Viagra.  History tells us that no matter what he produces otherwise he's more than capable of snagging near double-digits.  That alone made him a great acquisition.  There's also some hope of the backcourt defense being better this year (see below) which will leave the big guys in better position to grab boards.  And hey...those taller backcourt guys should be able to help out in this area a little themselves, right?  We can hardly get worse, and I'm crossing my fingers for substantial improvement.

Defense
Sloppy defense almost gave rebounding a run for its money last year.  The worst was the transition defense.  This is largely a product of effort, especially with the guards.  We had certain guys last year that never got back and others that struggled to remember to (because they were young).  Though our overall speed won't be better the effort and brainpower should be.

Backcourt defense in the halfcourt has also been a bugaboo for years on end.  Between Jack and Roy we've got a shot to reverse that trend.  Jarrett wasn't that hot defensively last year but he improved and he's got that nice-sized body to throw around.  Roy already knows how to give effort and move his feet.  I'm not sure you can depend on Dixon, Dickau, Sergio, or Martell, but even two out of six is an improvement.  And you'd be amazed how much a little backcourt responsibility in this area will improve the overall defensive performance.  It'll also keep our big guys out of foul trouble.

Help defense completed the triangle of horrors.  Zach never moved.  Joel moved too much.  Darius only moved one game in four.  The lack of crisp frontcourt rotation led to lots of enemy possessions being easy buckets, a miss followed by an offensive rebound and an easy bucket, or a foul.  If the backcourt improves there will be less need for rotation, but it has to be there when we need it (and every team does).  Again we're depending on the health and reform of Zach and Darius.  Here especially those seem like long odds because neither has ever been consistently good that way.

So overall on defense we've got a "might improve" a "should improve" and an "it's a longshot".  I guess that's marginally positive, but it's far from resolved.

It'll also be interesting to see what schemes Nate puts in.  It was hard at times to tell what we were running last year because things broke down so much, but I suspect with more consistent and smarter personnel he'll try to switch things up more as the year progresses.

Fast Breaks
This was another area where we were embarrassingly bad.  First of all we couldn't get many fast breaks because we didn't get stops or rebounds.  But then even when we did get to run we were either slow down the court or watched the ball get fumbled away by Ruben, Travis, or Darius.  How many rim-shattering dunks do you recall from last season?  Me neither.

Even though better defense and rebounding could potentially lead to more break opportunities, my guess is that with a young team, an inexperienced point guard, and lots of size but not much speed, Nate will want to keep a tighter rein on the offense.  I don't think he'll be turning down wide open opportunities, but he won't want people leaking out instead of securing possession and he won't encourage people to run as much towards the enemy basket as to defend ours.  The bread and butter of this team is going to be pounding it in and working for open jumpers and cuts off of the post or pick and rolls.

Turnovers
We took reasonable care of the ball last year but that's mostly because Steve Blake's amazing proficiency in this area balanced out most of the fumble-fingered set.  Zach, Jamaal, and especially Darius tend to lose the ball quite a bit.  Jack's got pretty good handle and common sense but as one of the only guys on the floor who can pound the rock I expect him to see big-time pressure.  Who knows how he'll react.  There may be a steep learning curve.  Roy can dribble and pass great for an off-guard but we don't know if he's a legit NBA point guard either.  I expect Sergio Rodriguez to have a considerable adjustment period (and to cause Nate a few headaches in the meantime).  That's a lot of uncertainty at the ball-handling positions and a fair amount of certain bloopers at the ball-receiving positions.  This might get worse before it gets better.

Forcing Turnovers
Like transition offense, this just may not be our game.  We harassed precious few people last year and two of our biggest gadflies, Telfair and Blake, are history.  Roy may be able to fill the gap a little...we'll see.  Overall though we're not going to be a poke-and-run squad.  We'll be a "stay in front of your man, get a hand in his face, then box out" squad.  If we want to pressure more we have a long way to go and we'll probably need a new crop of players.

Passing
We had some guys who could whip it around last year, but even when they were willing people didn't move enough to make it practical.  Sergio can reportedly pass with the best of them.  Last we saw of Jarrett he needed a little more work on those skills.  Roy will dish it, but again it remains to be seen if he's point guard or off guard quality in this area.  Outside of those three we are really, really hurting.  LaFrentz passes OK for a big man.  That's about all you can say.  Dixon and Webster don't pass often or well.  Miles and Outlaw are more likely to throw it away.  Magloire and Zach have mostly been black holes.  If Przybilla has the ball he'd better be dunking.  Again with a young point guard this could be a major area of concern.

Perimeter Shooting
Between Webster joining the team and Zach and Darius honing their 16-footers we actually got better at this last year than we had been in the past.  All three are still with the team and still capable.  In addition Jack showed a developing mid-range jumper as the year went by and apparently he's been working on his shot over the summer.  Roy had a decent jumper also.  For the first time in any number of years you might be able to say the team has enough respectable shooters to do well.

Overall Field Goal %
Darius Miles and Jarrett Jack are the only consistent shooters with a decent percentage left over from last year's team.  One would hope that Martell's percentage would improve with experience and you know B-Roy is smart enough to take good shots.  Dixon isn't bad for a guard, Magloire is so-so for a big guy, and Przybilla won't get enough shots to matter.  Neither Raef nor Outlaw will light it up with the kind of shots they take.  Those are the sure things.  The pivot point, as with so many other things, will be Zach Randolph.  He has not shot well since he became the primary option.  His woes increased last year as he moved towards the perimeter.  If he gets down close to the basket and learns to distinguish a good shot from a heave he'll affect the whole team's shooting to the positive.  If not he'll be a severe detriment since most possessions will run through his hands.

Youth
One of the stark realities we had to face last year was that we were just too young to win consistently.  We got even younger this year.  The stat may be misleading in a way, however, since some of the adjustment came from ditching old players for guys nearer their prime.  Those guys should be able to play more minutes and thus keep the younger guys to spot duty as they learn.  Nevertheless, the team is pinning great hopes on three first or second year players, all of whom look to get a large slice of playing time.  That means more learning on the job.

Leadership
The problem last year was simple:  there was none.  Our most talented guys were injured and running through practices at half speed if at all.  Our most charismatic guys were babies.  Our hardest working guys were too inexperienced, either to the league or to the team, to make a difference.  This year between Przybilla's contract, Jack's primacy at his position, Martell's growth and scoring potential, and Roy's credibility we may see a change.  And that's not even counting the usual pre-season reformation claims from the stars.  But even if the latter don't pan out, I think by the end of the year you'll have seen three or four solid players overtake the problem children in terms of team leadership and locker room presence.  After all the guys who are too lazy to step up and lead by example are probably also too lazy to fight the guys who do.  We've got positive momentum in this area.

Toughness
I wouldn't say there was a lot of quit in last year's squad, but there wasn't a lot of grit either.  We were more likely to be passive than passionate.  The young guys played their hearts out most nights but the older guys seemed to go through the motions once we started getting walloped.  And for a team that lost as often and as embarrassingly as we did, you sure didn't see a lot of chippiness, yelling, or fights with the opposition.  (A few Joel stare-downs aside.)  Przybilla will get in there and bang, squawk, and throw down when needed.  Who else will?  We definitely need more of this both physically and mentally and I'm not sure where we're going to get it.

Coaching Communication
For all the good vibes surrounding Nate, it's apparent he had trouble getting through to a few people last year.  Reports from training camp have him more relaxed, confident, and in control of himself and the team this year.  But then what can you really believe about training camp?  Nevertheless he's still the only member of this organization even close to National Team quality and that gives him some credibility.  In addition I believe him when he says he's not taking guff off people this year because unless the guff comes from Jarrett Jack (highly unlikely) there are people on the bench ready and willing to take the troublemaker's minutes.  We haven't heard one "Sarge" reference or complaint from the players yet either, just a lot of talk about wanting to hop on board with the plan.  We absolutely acquired and re-signed some guys who will stick with that also.  I would bet this runs to the positive this year.

Effort
Outside of Ruben Patterson's spastic dives, Steve Blake's and Viktor Khryapa's gritty determination, and an occasional Juan Dixon circus drive or Zach Randolph offensive rebound we didn't see a ton of concerted, coordinated effort last year.  There were simply too many people learning the ropes to allow too much scrappiness.  The play would have already passed before guys figured out they missed it.  Contributing to this on defense were Przybilla's injuries and foul troubles.  Contributing on offense was Zach's unwillingness/inability to pass the ball to cutters and shooters.  Both of those have got to change this year.  The fact that the first three guys listed in this paragraph are no longer with the team is a red flag.  Who's going to be the floor-diving, body-sacrificing, always-on-the-move superhero?  I don't see a ton of candidates.  In fact I don't see a ton of candidates to even take a charge.  Maybe Jack.  Certainly Joel will do his part.  Who else will step up?

Salary Cap
Long story short:  We're $20 million over the cap this year.  If we don't re-sign Magloire we'll be right at the cap next year.  We might have a window in 2008-09 depending on who we acquire or keep.  In other words this is bad and is only getting marginally better.

Management
Between the lack of moves, conflicting reports, and the general malaise hanging over the franchise, the "Three Amigos" often gave off an impression more akin to the Three Stooges last year.  I guess John Nash failed to put up the impenetrable defense because he's gone.  There's still some confusion at least on the public's part as to who is in charge of what, and I don't think anybody's really comfortable with the rumors that the Magloire deal was really a "Patterson trade" as opposed to a "Pritchard move".  We've seen enough conflicting, directionless tomfoolery for a while, thanks.  However reports are coming down that the chain of command is finally being settled.  The moves this summer have certainly seemed unidirectional and towards a clear purpose.  This says nothing of having the wackiest owner in sports this side of Dallas (take your pick between Cuban and Jones really), but you can't have everything.  My guess is that things will settle down and the front office will be properly invisible for most of the year.

Public Relations
This is more of an organizational than a team issue but it's been such a big issue I felt it deserved mention.  On the plus side the team has a heart-warming story in Przybilla and a lot of young guys that people are falling in love with left and right.  The aura surrounding the team's future is more optimistic than we've seen in years despite the rampant losing in the present.  Bursting the bubble are the repeated Zach Randolph incidents, made worse by his central status and his unbreakable "Yours 'til Niagra Falls" contract.  The kids will be able to do a ton of good if they're allowed the spotlight, but they won't get it if Zach keeps up his antics.  18 and 8 plus quiet would probably pass muster right now.  18 and 8 plus negative headlines is going to drag the team down.  Your guess is as good as mine which is more likely.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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