There is, of course, more than one path to an NBA championship. Several well thought out posts in recent weeks have explored some of them. While I appreciate the effort that has gone in to writing those posts most of them have left me unsatisfied. I think there are a couple of reasons for this.
Those reasons may be idiosyncratic to me, I understand, but here they are: 1) I want to see this team win a championship, I don’t want to see some future team made up of a bunch of guys I don’t know or care about win a championship because we blew up this team to get them. 2) I think Kevin Pritchard was serious last year when he said our championship window is in three or four years.
With those caveats in mind there is a path for the championship which I call “the path of least resistance”. Here’s how it works.
2009/2010, whether we like it or not, is another year for growth and development. It should be an exciting year with great play on the court and high expectations which are largely met. The Blazers goal should be to win a first-round playoff series and at a minimum be competitive in the second round. They should at least match their 54 win total of this year. They may not exceed it because in some areas they may take a step back.
Brandon Roy: I’ll start by stating the obvious, Roy is good enough to get the Blazers there. It would be nice if there were enough scoring options so that Roy’s minutes could be managed a little more closely in the interests of having enough gas in the tank for a playoff run and career longevity.
LaMarcus Aldridge: There are arguably better power forwards in the NBA. Not many, but a few. But the fact is, he is also good enough. Plenty of teams have won NBA titles without the talent the Blazers have at this position. The team could upgrade, but when you factor in the age and potential it’s hard to imagine any upgrade that is a net long-term gain when you figure what we would have to give up to get it. So we stand pat.
Rudy Fernandez: Whether or not you think you think he’s reached his potential he brings one absolutely essential ingredient to the Blazers and that is his off the ball movement. When he got here he was virtually the only Blazer outside of one notable quarter by Martel Webster two years ago who exploited the ability to get open by constant off the ball movement. By the end of this year, during that notable 12 game run to finish the season, that kind of movement and energy had become a signature of the Blazers offense. Even if he shows no more growth as a player his contribution to the team culture, and his willingness to step up in the big game, and the spark his three-point shooting provides is enough to keep him here through the window.
Joel Przybilla: Because of his age and injury history the team may not be able to count on Joel to be around and contributing during the whole period when it’s making its run. But his rebounding and defense whether on the first or second unit is essential for the foreseeable future.
To me, these four guys are the guys that are “good enough.” These are the guys that really don’t have to get any better and that we're not likely to upgrade without incurring an unreasonable cost. Not to say that they won’t get better, but for them, upside is frosting on the cake.
So how does the team get better?
Point guard: the path of least resistance for improving at point guard is for Bayless to reach his potential. Whether you think he’s a pure point guard, a shooting guard in a point guard’s body, an undersized shooting guard or lacks the court vision to become a first-rate point guard the fact remains that Bayless can bring two things to the table that the Blazers desperately need: perimeter on the ball defense, and a guy who can get to the hoop and finish. There are three things standing in the way of Bayless becoming the point guard that the Blazers need to get to the next level. 1) court vision, 2) a jump shot 3) Sergio Rodriguez.
The only thing that will tell us if Bayless has or can develop the court vision necessary to being an NBA point guard is for him to play in the NBA. The obstacle here is minutes.
His jump shot can be worked on. He doesn’t have to become a marksman, just good enough so that defenders can’t play off him at midrange and clog the lane.
I’m not heavily invested in the Bayless versus Sergio debate. Each have their own strengths and weaknesses, each can be a contributor for an NBA team. The question is which strengths are more important to the Blazers? Even though Sergio was the clear winner of the backup point guard battle this year I think that Nate has answered this question. For Nate, Sergio’s strengths as a creator and distributor did not offset his inability to defend, finish up the rim and shoot a consistent jumper.
We have a choice here. We can develop Sergio or we can develop Bayless, we don’t get to do both. Based on upside and team need I think it’s time for Sergio to go and wish him well. Neither Blake nor Bayless have injury issues.
The path of least resistance is to suck it up, make Bayless the backup point, resolve to endure the inevitable cringeworthy moments and move Sergio when the right deal comes along.
Small forward: if Martel Webster and Nicolas Batum reach their potential this team is good to go. What are the obstacles? Webster’s foot and Batum’s offense. When Webster comes back there’s going to be a minutes crunch at small forward among Outlaw, Webster and Batum. What the team gets from Outlaw is a player who is athletic enough to create his own shot and provide 14 points worth of offensive spark from the bench. If Webster and Batum can replace what Outlaw brings and add defense, consistency and an ability to see the court and pass, then Outlaw becomes redundant. I like Outlaw, I’m not an Outlaw basher. But IF Webster and Batum reach their potential, he’s just not needed. The obstacles here are Batum’s minutes, Webster’s foot and Webter’s year off. Batum wil need minutes and additional responsibilities to if he is to grow, especially on offense. It’s hard to see that happening with the minutes being split three ways. I feel very concerned about Webster’s foot. I do not think it’s a foregone conclusion that he will completely heal and return to his old form. He’s also missed a full year of NBA competition. A few games in summer league will not be enough to make up for that setback. Therefore I think that while Outlaw should be traded, he should not be traded till mid year after Webster has proven to be on the way back and injury free.
The path of least resistance here is to hold Batum’s role as is for the first half of the season and split the backup SF minutes between Webster and Outlaw until the trade deadline.
Center: If Greg Oden reaches his potential, this team is unstoppable. What are the obstacles? The biggest obstacle facing Greg Oden is Greg Oden. Will he remain injury free? Will he develop better footwork, a little jump hook and regain his athleticism? I don’t know, but the team is committed, he’s not going anywhere and there’s nothing to be done about it except wait and see.
The path of least resistance is to enjoy the ride.
Backup power forward: use Sergio, draft picks, the trade exception, the cap space to bring in a guy. There’s lots of guys. Joel Freeland maybe.
The path of least resistance here is to let Pritchard find a role player. He can do that.
That’s it. No more is needed. The window will open in 2010. Oh, Channing will leave, Blake at some point will be replaced, Shavlik and Ruffin will be empty roster slots for a couple of rookies, stuff will happen. It will be fun.