Part of the discussion in the "Optipessirealism" post yesterday centered around what questions must this year’s Blazer squad face. We’re still in a preliminary stage and I’m sure we’ll visit this topic again on the eve of the season, but from the mid-summer vantage point these easily come to mind:
1. How healthy will Greg Oden be and how will that affect his progress?
This is by far the #1 issue facing the Blazers this year, to the point that it weighs more than all of the others combined. Oden, a veritable force of nature basketball-wise, will affect the style of play and fortunes of this team more than any other newcomer or any improvement made by incumbent players. This is also an issue that’s impossible to forecast. You know it’s going to be a bumpier road than it would have been without the surgery. The question is, how bumpy? It’s a far different team with Greg Oden playing 30 minutes per night than with him on the bench or in street clothes.
2. How will Oden’s presence plus the addition of more offensive-minded players affect Lamarcus Aldridge’s game?
Lamarcus had a good second season. His future looks amazing. But he’s also the most likely of our Big Three to lose his way this year. Last year he had free rein in the frontcourt, being far and away the #1 option and having the entire court to work with. At times he was the #1 scoring option for the entire team. It won’t be quite the same this year. In theory Oden should occupy opposing defenders, allowing Lamarcus to work one-on-one all night long. In theory Lamarcus should be able to get that mid-range face-up shot he likes. In theory Oden’s rebounding should free Lamarcus to run and jam, which he couldn’t even begin to do last year. The two showed a little bit of passing chemistry when they played together briefly in the 2007 Summer League, so there's hope there. But they also spent a long time feeling each other out and the team offense bogged down into post isolation plays for one or the other. It’s entirely possible that the adjustment could be rocky. Hopefully we’ll lean a ton on Lamarcus offensively anyway and it will pan out, but the issue is open.
3. Will Bayless and Fernandez develop quickly enough to provide scoring pop off the bench?
For all of
4. Who handles the ball and starts the offense?
Steve Blake and Brandon Roy split this duty last year. But now you throw Bayless into the mix, plus you want to get minutes for Rudy, which means finding different spots for
5. Will the backcourt defense be good enough to keep Oden out of foul trouble?
Two of the hardest things to learn for a defensive center are timing and the sense of which shots to block and which to let go. Greg Oden will take a while to develop that. In the meantime we can’t let opposing guards drive down Broadway all night or he’ll have four fouls in the first half of every game. This has been a chronic problem for the Blazers in recent years, ameliorated last year only by our stubborn refusal to get up on our men, thereby forfeiting any chance of forcing turnovers or tempo. Perhaps we’ll grind it out on defense again, but it would be nice to be more aggressive. The pressure is squarely on the guards there. They have to move their feet with alacrity.
6. How will Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster develop, if at all?
Both small forwards showed signs of growth last year. But neither is the player he needs to be yet. We’re leaning heavily on future potential with each. Yet for the team and for these two players the future is approaching like a freight train. This is still a gamble. At least one of them needs to seize the bull by the horns and take the step into reliability this season.
7. How do Channing Frye and Joel Przybilla adjust to their roles?
It’s easy to forget in the light of his recent success, but Joel’s career with the Blazers has been up and down. The ups are cool, but the downs are really low. Joel will begin the transition from being the anchor at the center position to a 12-18 minute a game guy this season, with possibly fewer minutes in seasons to come. How he makes that transition will be critical to his future here. Channing Frye, though a radically different player, is in a similar situation. Lest we forget, he struggled to find his way until exploding the last few weeks of the season…not coincidentally when he was given starter's minutes. He had one double-digit rebounding effort all year until April, when he had three. He had 14 double-figure scoring games in the first 72 games, then rattled off five in a row when his minutes ranged from 29-38 per game. Barring an injury to one of the starters there’s no way he gets anywhere close to that kind of playing time this year. He may not even reach the 17.2 minutes per game he got last year. Can he produce in short stints? We might not need our frontcourt back-ups to be all-world but we can’t afford to have them no-show either.
8. Can the Blazers get some easy buckets and top 100 per game?
There has been no greater lack in the past few years than the paucity of gift-wrapped deuces for the Blazers. No matter how skilled and focused you are, without a little running and some easy hoops you’re eternally in a dogfight. The Blazers played well in the vast majority of their games last year but they never seemed to pull away from an opponent or secure the win until the last minutes. This is exactly why. We don’t have to turn the game into a track meet, but somebody’s got to rebound and somebody’s got to get out and we need 4-6 more unopposed points per game to get the number of victories we’ll need to in order to make the playoffs.
9. Will the team have enough outside shooting?
Brandon Roy is a decent three-point shooter when he takes them but you don’t want him taking a steady diet of those shots. With James Jones gone the burden of hitting deep falls squarely on the shoulders of Martell Webster and Steve Blake, with an assist from Rudy Fernandez if he can make an impact. Both Webster and Blake are capable but both are in the starting five and each faces the prospect of having minutes eaten by rising players behind them. Will those two be enough? Will we get any deep shooting off the bench? You may say (quite correctly) that one of the problems with the offense last season was that we took too many jumpers. This is certainly true, but in order for us to counter that with drives and/or effective post-ups there has to be room. With Oden in the middle more than ever teams will be sagging down on us. The only way to keep them honest and to free up the lane for the likes of
10. What roster moves get made during the next fiscal year?
This team is growing closer to its final form, but it’s not there yet. These players can’t all be kept together forever. Talent will have to be consolidated somewhere. It’s likely we’ll see a move made before next June, perhaps another to follow after the season calendar turns, either via signing or trade. When those moves are made, who will depart and how will the newcomer(s) fit in?
Confidence is high going into the year to be sure. Blazer fans are right to point to the amazing possibilities in our near future. But as you can see there are plenty of issues to be resolved as well. Much of this next season will be spent discovering answers to questions like these, which will in turn determine where we go from there.