We’re beginning Blazer week with a post in the same analysis format we used for the other 29 teams in the league. This is good in the sense that it allows to compare stats to stats and movement to movement. It’s also disingenuous because this review, because of familiarity and audience, cannot rightly be compared to the other 29. People could rightly claim “Why didn’t you give that same level of attention to Cleveland?” The answer is that I don’t know them as well and the audience here wouldn’t have demanded it in any case. So compare apples to apples when it’s possible here and consider the rest “extra”. I did try to write this from as detached a perspective as possible, to make it fit as well as it could with the rest. That’s the best I can do.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Record: 41-41, 3rd Northwest Division, 10th in Western Conference
27th (tie) in the league in scoring (95.4 ppg)
26th in free throw attempts per game
30th in steals
29th in opponent turnovers
8th in opponent scoring (96.3 ppg)
17th in ppg differential (-1.0 ppg)
20th in field goal %
8th in opponent field goal %
7th in three-point %
13th in free throw percentage
18th in assists
21st in blocks
6th in turnovers
Average offensive rebounding team
Poor defensive rebounding team
Significant Additions: Greg Oden (R), Rudy Fernandez (R), Jerryd Bayless (R), Nicolas Batum (R), Ike Diogu
Significant Subtractions: James Jones, Jarrett Jack
Coach: Nate McMillan
PG: Steve Blake, Sergio Rodriguez, Jerryd Bayless
SG: Brandon Roy, Rudy Fernandez
SF: Martell Webster, Travis Outlaw, Nicolas Batum
PF: Lamarcus Aldridge, Channing Frye, Ike Diogu
C: Greg Oden, Joel Przybilla
A quick look down the statistics list show the reality of the 2007-08 Portland Trail Blazers: they were a mix of the ridiculous and the sublime. Critics would do well to note that this was a huge step up from previous years, when they were a mix between the horrific and annoying. Those with rose (garden) colored glasses firmly in place would do well to note that this team still has a lot of ground to make up to join the conference bad boys, let alone the elite.
The number that looks most disturbing, 27th in the league in scoring, actually isn’t. The low total was at least half designed, as the Blazers employed a methodical defense and thus a measured pace. Portland’s offense actually opened up last season, becoming entertaining to the eyes for the first time in recent memory. But no matter how much you open a halfcourt-only game it’s still a halfcourt-only game. For those who say wins would be impossible at that rate, note that the 27th ranking was a tie and the team Portland was tied with was the San Antonio Spurs.
The other bottomed-out stats on the list reflect the style we just mentioned. Portland was last in the league in steals, next-to-the-last in forcing turnovers overall. They didn’t gamble. They opted to stay in front of their men at all costs. That 8th ranking in opposing field goal percentage was their reward. One of the big questions of the 2008-09 season will be whether the Blazers can improve their basement-clearance standing on defensive aggression without sacrificing defensive integrity.
In short, the notable statistics aren’t good, but they’re not crippling either. They indicate what’s holding the Blazers back from being legitimately good, not what’s dooming them.
That’s not to say the Blazers don’t have damning statistics. Three items on this list need immediate addressing if Portland wants to challenge for the playoffs. First, the “poor” designation on defensive rebounds has to go. This, too, is a by-product of being hyper-cautious about leaving open shots but it’s a less palatable one. If you can’t rebound you aren’t really defending effectively. This slows down the pace and contributes to the offensive malaise, perhaps even more than the lack of forced turnovers. The second and third trouble zones are percentage shooting and foul shots drawn. Portland has a reasonable amount of offensive talent. That talent spent much of last year working multiple passes for jump shots. The lower percentage on those shots costs you points. Not drawing fouls costs you more.
The brightest spot last year was the dramatic increase in three-point shooting percentage, generating some of those valuable points back. All four of the Blazers attempting 2.9 three-pointers per game or more last year hit at least 34%. Three of them shot 39% or above. James Jones has departed and he was the unquestioned leader but Steve Blake, Martell Webster, and Brandon Roy remain, joined by Rudy Fernandez who can also shoot. While a steady diet of distance shots will turn out no better than the run-of-the-mill jumpers that hamstrung Portland’s offense last season the spice of three-pointers should open up a steady main-course diet of interior play from Portland’s rejuvenated frontcourt.
And “rejuvenated” is exactly what Blazer fans are hoping their lineup will be. The “Significant Additions” line makes it clear that Portland is assimilating a lot of talent into their already-decent lineup. The caveat there is that almost every name has that dreaded “(R)” following, meaning ups and downs are in the cards. It’s reasonable to expect energy, dedication, and a multi-pronged attack on both ends of the court. It’s probably unreasonable to expect consistency among the newer key players or among the team as a whole. Adjustments will be the order of the season. It’s to the Blazers’ credit that they’re still likely to win a lot of games while adjusting. That can be laid at the feet of Brandon Roy and Lamarcus Aldridge, who have become solid NBA players very young in their careers. Joel Przybilla and Steve Blake will also provide solid role-playing. The rest of the lineup without exception is still finding its way. Nobody else has produced a consistently good, full-potential NBA season yet. Dreams of far-reaching glory will have to wait until some of these players do or until Portland trades for players who have.
Nevertheless it shouldn’t be missed that even decent seasons from newcomers Greg Oden and Rudy Fernandez will alleviate much of what ails Portland. A reasonably-mobile Oden would provide a defensive backstop, allowing the perimeter players to defend more aggressively. He’d also address that defensive rebounding problem. Fernandez can attack with his body and/or the ball and will help provide offensive flexibility while continuing the ball movement upon which the Blazers rely. Punishing rim attacks from rookie Jerryd Bayless would be a huge bonus.
The name of the game for Portland this year is “Hold the line on the things you do well, use your new talent and depth to push forward in the areas you’re weak.” That’s not enough to bring greatness. Your talent has to be good, experienced, and consistent enough to propel your team to top-third finishes in multiple statistical categories to achieve that, especially in the West right now. But holding the form that let them split victories last year while adding a stronger base and a couple new wrinkles in the attack should be enough to let the young Blazers taste the playoffs once again at long last.