A catch-all finale to our season preview, including an analysis of the depth chart and how it's changed from last year, overarching storylines to keep an eye on throughout the year, and general keys to success.
I have as much trouble reading Nate as anyone and on a young (and presumably mostly losing) team positions can change from game to game. Nevertheless this is my best guess at how the depth chart will look for the early part of the season. Things may very well look different than this on opening night. (Ime Udoka, for instance, will probably start higher up the depth chart than I'm going to list him.) I'm shooting for a balance between the latest info and how things are likely to shake out. I'm factoring in injuries, assuming that Martell's isn't chronic and that Darius' is. Multiple position players are listed multiple times.
PG: Jarrett Jack, Dan Dickau, Brandon Roy, Sergio Rodriguez
SG: Brandon Roy, Juan Dixon, Martell Webster
SF: Travis Outlaw, Martell Webster, Ime Udoka, Darius Miles
PF: Zach Randolph, Raef LaFrentz, Jamaal Magloire, Travis Outlaw, Lamarcus Aldridge
C: Joel Przybilla, Jamaal Magloire, Raef LaFrentz
Have we improved or regressed from last season?
PG: A lot will depend on how much and how well Brandon Roy plays at this position. If you assume "not very" as the answer to either of those questions then it's evident that we're less talented and less deep than we were last year. Jarrett Jack is a commonality, but it's hard to argue that Dickau and Rodriguez are an upgrade from Telfair and Blake. This may hobble us as the season goes along.
SG: This is the most obvious upgrade, since there's little doubt that Roy will contribute and the other two players remain the same. Even if Dixon is traded the rotation is still pretty solid here, though it remains to be seen if Jack and Webster can play together in the backcourt.
SF: With the injury to Miles and the uncertainty surrounding Webster's status and ability to play the position, you have to say we took a step back here, though hopefully a small one that will disappear over time. Better backcourt defense may allow Martell to get away with playing long minutes and his shooting will help open the floor for Roy's drives and Randolph's post moves. If Martell remains injured, though, we get really thin really quick.
PF: We went from having one semi-viable power forward to quite a few decent possibilities. Only Randolph can be confused with an NBA-level starter but that was true last year also and the bench got a lot stronger over the summer.
C: With Joel back in the fold the question becomes, "Are Magloire and LaFrentz better than an injured Theo Ratliff?" Since the word "injured" is in there you have to say yes, but they haven't shown a ton yet to inspire long-term confidence. On paper we may not be that much deeper but for practical purposes (considering how much Theo ended up contributing) we are. Magloire's rebounding will tell the tale.
On paper, then, we took one decent step forward (SG), one marginal one (PF bench), and one probable one (C) along with a probable step back (SF, at least in the short term) and a decent-sized step back (PG). In theory it looks like a net gain overall, but the point guard position is pretty important considering the makeup of our team and the kind of offense we'll be running. That position not panning out could make things very difficult for everyone else. We can hope for that slight overall improvement, but we need to be crossing our fingers.
Storylines to Watch This Season:
Which youngsters will develop and how much?
In the end this is probably the only storyline that matters. Jarrett Jack is the main guy to focus on. If he doesn't pan out we have to start over at that position. Brandon Roy comes a close second. Martell also must develop into a dependable option if we're looking to be good any time soon. Aldridge would be a bonus but he's not at the same level of necessity as the other three at this point. I don't expect we'll win with these guys this year but we'll want to know by the end of the season whether we can count on them or not.
Are the vets going to sink or swim?
Zach and Travis have the most to prove here. Travis needs to show whether (and in what style of game) he can really play. Zach will show whether he's so good we don't dare trade him, just good enough to where we can trade him, or no good altogether. Darius will also have to answer the injury question. We'd need him to make any noise but noise-making isn't on the agenda this year anyway, so his recovery is less crucial than the efforts of the first two.
Can Joel stay out of foul trouble and remain on the court?
If you want to talk straight wins and losses, this may be among the biggest issues of the season. With him playing long minutes we have an acceptable defensive core (combined with the guards). Without him we're hurting.
How much effort will he show? It may not be crucial to our on-court performance as much as to where, and for whom, we can trade him.
Will Nate remain sane?
This will be his second season of near-constant losing. He won't be able to juggle the lineup much early in the season because of injuries and hopefully he won't want to late in the season because we'll have seen some guys step up. That means he'll have to find ways to make do with (read: encourage and bring the best out in) the top 7-8 guys he's got rather than searching for new combinations or a way out. How much this wears on him and his relationship with the staff, players, and media is anyone's guess.
Remember two names.
If and when we start losing in droves and looking a little weak, remember these two names: Steve Blake and Viktor Khryapa. We gave up both in the off-season when we didn't strictly have to. They were both solid, team-oriented, Nate-friendly guys who just happened to play at the positions where we are now the thinnest (or at least most random). Perhaps neither would figure big in any eventual playoff run, but for those hoping that we top 35 wins both would have helped this season.
General Keys: (Or how to know we're doing what we're supposed to do.)
We are almost certainly going to play a possession game this year. It's the anti-Phoenix system where winning depends on milking maximum value out of every trip down the court, even if that means being deliberate. We'll try to maximize our strengths by making it a game of size and skill as opposed to speed, raw athleticism, toughness, or grind-it-out defense. We'll want to control the tempo, make correct (nearing flawless) decisions, and execute in the halfcourt. There are several keys to winning:
One of the surest ways to lose is to allow the opponent extra possessions. Since you're not running (and rushing the halfcourt offense leads to sloppy play) it's hard to balance those extra possessions out by creating more of your own. Therefore we've got to grab a high percentage of their misses.
2. Limiting Turnovers
This is another way to avoid giving up extra possessions. Besides that, with fewer trips down the court you must get a shot up on nearly every one.
3. Moving and setting hard, fast, and efficient picks
You have to get open somehow. If everybody stands still you'll never be able to make clean passes and the defense will react to whatever you do off the dribble. You'll start missing a ton of shots, getting no offensive rebounds, and the other team will simply outscore you. The average fan tuning in somewhere in the middle of a game should be able to tell within one minute how it's going even if they don't look at the score. Motion on offense means we're creating chances. Guys standing around means we've probably already lost.
4. Hitting free throws
This is another way to maximize your scoring on fewer possessions. Free points are a godsend.
5. Keeping people out of the lane on defense
Much like motion on offense, this should be your 60-second defensive key to determine how the team is faring. If you see enemies shooting consistently from the paint, let alone getting to the rim, it's going to be a long night. You shouldn't see guys having to rotate and cover for the backcourt players as much this year either. Any flat-footed guard will be the bane of our existence. If you look at Joel's stats and he has more blocks than rebounds you can almost guarantee we're toast.
6. Passionate, energetic transition defense
This is true for all the same reasons as #5. The only thing worse than an opponent getting to the rim would be an opponent getting to the rim quickly. It's going to be a general rule all season: we cannot make up for dunks. They will be the difference between a two point loss (or, basketball gods willing, win) and a twenty point loss.
As always, feel free to disagree or bring up anything I've missed. One day to go until the big time.