After last night's embarrasing performance (combined with a relatively lackluster preseason), I can sense that Blazer fans are starting to panic a little bit. There's no question that the Blazers are not playing anywhere near the level of the their peer teams right now (LA, SA, Den, Utah). It's always hard to know how much to read into a team's preseason performance, but this year that task is particularly hard due to a veritable "perfect storm" of distractions. Consider this:
- All of the games have been refereed by replacement refs who call the game very differently than the players are used to.
- The primary guy orchestrating the offense (Andre Miller) is new to the team and new to McMillan's system
- Another major rotation player (Martel Webster) hasn't played competively in well over a year.
- There have been a ton of small injuries that have kept the Blazers from playing in consistent lineups
- McMillan's decision not to name the starters and to experiment with lineups has also kept the team from playing a consistent rotation.
- Two other major rotation players (Batum, Fernandez) have been playing Euro-ball all summer with different teammates, different rules, and different roles.
- The Blazers are still a very young team and have traditionally taken a while to find their stride.
All of these factors, when combined, make it very near impossible to tell how the Blazers will actually play once their lineup is set and they are playing real games with real refs. They could be bad. They could be great. We just don't know.
My hunch is that the Blazers will start off slow--as they usually do--but find their groove as the season progresses. What will be interesting to see, though, is how the rotation solidifies as the season progresses. Barring injuries, there aren't going to be nearly enough minutes for all of these guys and so some of them are going to get relogated to spot duty.
Though no one seems to be saying this, I think the guy that should be the most worried right now about his long term playing time is Martell Webster. So far, at least, he's not really bringing anything to the table (offensively or defensively) that someone else can't provide better. Batum will likely start and get at least half of the SF minutes. And in order to get Rudy more playing time, I suspect we'll see a fair amount of the three guard lineup where Roy plays the 3, especially in the 4th quarter. That doesn't leave much time for Webster. Moreover, it wouldn't surprise me if Nate gives Howard some of the PF minutes and lets Outlaw play some SF minutes, where he's clearly more comfortable. That leaves Martell as the odd man out.
One other thing I'll say: *if* the Blazers preseason struggles carry into the regular season (at least significantly so), I think Nate McMillan will soon find himself on the hot seat. Though, he's done a great job building this young team and making them competitive, I get the sense that, among those who follow basketball the closest, there's a nagging belief that McMillan doesn't get the most out of the talent he has, that he doesn't coach to his players strengths. The Blazers are one of the youngest, fastest, most athletic teams in the league and yet they get precious few easy transition buckets. They are also one of the tallest and longest teams in the league, yet they can't seem to play pick-and-roll defense or get their hands in passing lanes. At some point, if the Blazers don't improve in these areas, all the fingers are going to be pointing at McMillan.
I'm still optimistic, though, that this team will begin to click again soon like they were toward the end of last season. If they can consistently play at that level, the doubters and worriers will shut up, at least until the playoffs.