What Has Changed, What Hasn't

As the Blazers’ Season Preview continues we’re taking a look at what has changed and what remains the same as the team enters the season.  We’re looking beyond just names here.  The regular season is almost upon us.  It’s time to stop relying on saying, “We got Greg Oden, Rudy Fernandez, etc., etc.” as if they were trading cards.  It’s time to go beyond name dropping and look at what this really means, or doesn’t.

 

For those who missed the additions/subtractions list from the last preview post, here it is:

 

Additions:  Greg Oden (R), Rudy Fernandez (R), Jerryd Bayless (R), Nicolas Batum (R), Ike Diogu

 

Subtractions:  James Jones, Jarrett Jack, Josh McRoberts, Von Wafer

 

The biggest changes are these:

 

Interior Presence

 

The Blazers played remarkably well last season with a potpourri of big men.  Joel Przybilla was the titular center but played only 24 minutes per game.  Lamarcus Aldridge and Channing Frye filled in most of the remainder.  Joel anchored the Blazer defense but was a frequent target for charity from opposing defenders who left him open in the seams.  He couldn’t convert the opportunities he had into consistent buckets and eventually the team left him out of the offense except in the most obvious circumstances.  Aldridge and Frye were bona fide offensive weapons (Aldridge being the second-leading scorer) but both made a living on the perimeter as much as, if not more than, the post.  On defense they had trouble containing and pushing opposing big men.  The result was a jump-shooting attack on offense, the need for frequent help on defense, and generally sub-standard rebounding all the way around.  The team was aching for a true post presence, a space-filler in the paint on offense and defense alike.

 

Welcome Greg Oden.  He is nowhere near his full potential as an NBA player, but he absolutely fills space in the interior on both ends of the court. 

 

Scoring will be the least of his contributions this year, but even his presence and the threat of 62 monster dunks raining down on opponents’ heads will make them pay attention to the key when the Blazers have the ball.  Most teams will not be able to stop him with one player.  The resulting double teams (at least!) will open up the perimeter game for the rest of the Blazers.  Those mid-range jumpers that used to be contested will now come freely.  The loss of James Jones’ three-point shooting will be offset by the remaining shooters having time to get set before they fire.  The inside-out attack will become a staple of the Portland offense and you’ll see more dunks and more open shots because of it.  Oden’s offensive rebounds are frosting on the cake.  Dunk-filled frosting.

 

Defensively Oden has the strength and size to body up to any big man in the league.  He’ll not have the knowledge and skill to contend with the huge superstars in his first season, but you’re not going to have to help him with constant double teams most nights.  That’s going to leave the rest of the Blazer defenders free to concentrate on their own men and perhaps play tighter and more aggressively themselves.  With everybody in position and Oden at least neutralizing one of the opposing big men rebounds should be easier to come by.

 

Multiple-Tool Attackers

 

For years Portland has labored under a handicap:  many of its most skilled players specialized in their fields and were unable to contribute unless set up specifically to play to their strengths.  You can go back as far as Sebastian Telfair (who needed the ball in his hands, a green light, and nobody in the way to be effective) and Zach Randolph (who needed the ball in his hands, a light than didn’t have a red setting, and who cares who was in the way to be effective).  You could run the offense for one or the other, but not both.  James Jones was a brilliant shooter who transformed this team from the three-point arc but he didn’t drive.  Martell Webster was a great shooter and could hit off the pick but never had much of a handle or the ability to create his own shot.  Steve Blake was a floor general who couldn’t score effectively.  Sergio Rodriguez was a fantastic assist man who couldn’t hit a shot or finish in the lane.  All were good players in one dimension but lacked others.

 

The Blazers have seen development on all fronts this year.  New players Rudy Fernandez and Jerryd Bayless both have multiple tools.  Given time they’ll be threats inside and out, off the drive or set shot, left clean or fouled, with or without the ball.  Also some of the aforementioned players have stepped up their games.  Martell Webster has started to develop a nose for the rim and some defensive intensity.  Steve Blake has become a reliable catch-and-shoot player.  Sergio Rodriguez is looking more aggressive.  Among the guys who are likely to see decent minutes only Joel Przybilla and Travis Outlaw look like they might remain completely specialized players--Joel as a defensive center and Travis as a jump-shooting one-on-one scorer.

 

The Blazers are already seeing changes on the offensive end.  They have more dunks in a handful of pre-season games than they had in a month last year.  Passes that floated around the perimeter in seasons past are now zipping towards the bucket and resulting in easy baskets or fouls.  We’ve seen more alley-oops in the halfcourt to Rudy Fernandez than the entire team garnered last year.  (Whether or not Rudy has an impressive statistical season he’s already showing signs of being an offensive catalyst for the entire roster.)  All of a sudden all of that unselfishness and movement has a purpose because the defense can’t just key on certain players in certain spots.  Almost everybody is dangerous almost everywhere they go.

 

Best of all for the Blazers, the stalwarts of this movement remain their two best players, Brandon Roy and Lamarcus Aldridge.  They were the bellwethers for this multi-pronged attack.  Both should flourish now that the supporting cast can live up to the stars they surround.

 

Focus

 

The Blazers have always given lip service to winning, but the means and results were ambiguous at best.  Players may have said their goal was the playoffs, but most knew it was beyond reach unless the team caught a lucky set of circumstances.  The actual goals were “Try to get better and win as many as you can.”  This year the target is clearly painted, the focus tight, and the goal within reach without the aid of fortune.  This is the first year Portland has had a fighting chance.  This is going to add even more accountability to an already-accountable locker room.  They not only know who they have to beat, but why.  They aren’t just wandering hungry, the table is in sight.  It’s going to be a fight, but don’t underestimate the transformation that happens when guys understand that they can win that fight for the first time.

 

Experience

 

The value of experience is always denied by those who don’t yet have it.  (This is also true of fans of those who don’t yet have it.)  But it does make a difference.  The heart of the Blazer lineup knows what it’s like to win and to lose games they should have won.  They are familiar with the schedule and its rigors.  They’ve seen the refs, the opponents, fantastic statistical outings and horrible let-downs.  Brandon Roy, Steve Blake, Lamarcus Aldridge…these guys aren’t going to fall apart or let their teammates fall apart.  Rudy Fernandez could well fit into this category too.  Even Martell Webster looks ready to assume a steady position and demeanor.  The experience level is not high yet, but compared to past Blazer teams it’s practically through the roof.

 

A Near-Complete Roster

 

Long story short, Portland has entered the past few seasons with no more than half a team.  Some years 50% of Portland’s roster couldn’t have succeeded in this league elsewhere because of talent or age or demeanor.  Remember 2005-06 with an end-of-his-rope Ruben Patterson, Viktor Khryapa, a hobbled Theo Ratliff, Brian Skinner, Charles Smith, an all-but-retired Voshon Lenard, Sergei Monia, and Ha Seung-Jin?  This year you have to dig 12 or 13 deep before you wonder if a guy can contribute anything.  That doesn’t mean 12 or 13 players will excel here.  It does mean this team is pretty close to being finished.  If there are moves to be made they will be specific, for a purpose, and probably to acquire players who can help immediately--a Shane Battier at small forward or a veteran point guard, for instance.  The puzzle isn’t together yet, but the Blazers are starting to look for the missing pieces instead of wondering how to get a straight edge started.  This is also a first in recent memory.

 

Despite all this, some things haven’t changed, for better or worse.  These include:

 

Two Central Players

 

Despite all the roster acquisitions this team still belongs to, and rests on the shoulders of, Brandon Roy and Lamarcus Aldridge.  Greg Oden will join them after a year but for now these are the guys who will carry us to the promised land or not.  Portland will depend on them to be consistently good and to bail out everyone else on off nights.

 

Shaky Perimeter Defense

 

The Blazers still bear the burden of covering for their guards, and perhaps some of their small forwards, on the defensive end.  Steve Blake is adequate most nights but his body isn’t built for great defense.  Roy is usually adequate too.  Martell might be adequate.  Bayless should become good if he plays enough to learn his way around.  Nicolas Batum is fast but needs experience and maybe some bulk.  Sergio has a long way to go.  Rudy needs experience as well.  Travis is Travis.  It’s not an airtight crew no matter who you throw out there.  This is going to put pressure on the interior guys, mandate fierce rotations and gimmicks against the better teams, and force the Blazers to make more of those damned-if-you-do-or-don’t choices like the ones last year that led to great percentage defense but an utter lack of turnovers and conversions.  Shoring up even one of those three smaller positions, whether through a trade or development of someone already on the roster, would be a huge step.  Shoring up two positions would be ideal.  That may happen, but probably not for a while.

 

Adjustments, Learning Curves, and Inconsistency

 

The Blazers are more settled than they’ve been since the heyday of Rasheed Wallace.  The Blazers are still a ways from being completely settled.  When you think about it, this is the third straight year with major changes to the roster and playing style.  First we had the Zach Randolph offense, then Brandon and Lamarcus came along and prospered after Zach was jettisoned last year, and now Greg Oden is coming on board and will change things again.  These changes are for the good, but they’re still changes.  There will be stretches where the Blazers look like world-beaters only to fall on their collective faces a night later.  They’ll have to adjust frequently, sometimes night to night.  Sometimes those adjustments won’t work and the players won’t know how to cope.  It’ll be at least another year before the players know what to expect of each other, which means at least another year before we know definitively what to expect of them.  Anyone who doubts this need only answer one question:  How different will the opening night rotation look from what we penciled in during the summer months?  Here’s another:  How different will the February rotation look from opening night?  The Blazers still can’t pin down the exact positions, talents, or production levels of many of their players, which is the flip side of saying they can’t precisely rely on many of their players yet.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does put perspective on how big of a jump the team can reasonably be expected to make this season.  The cake has been in the oven for a while and it’s rising now, but the crust isn’t golden yet and that toothpick is still coming out goopy.  Whatever happens this season it’ll be another interesting, and somewhat unpredictable, ride.

 

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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