Let's All Take a Deep Breath

There's no question that last night's loss to the Lakers was difficult to watch, but in reading the comments here and elsewhere (at Dwight Jaynes's site especially), I think many fans are seriously over-reacting to it.  Let's not lose sight of the fact that this was a road game against the red-hot (and rested) defending champions on the second night of a back-to-back.  On top of that, the Blazers still have no depth in the front-court (without Greg or Joel), and the Laker front-court duo of Gasol and Odom is absolutely destroying the league right now.  Both are playing the best ball of their careers and shooting the ball at unsustainable levels.   

So the fact that this was a blowout should surprise no one.  

But let's take stock of where the team is at this point.  First, the good news.  The Blazer starting unit is looking strong.  Going into last night's game, all five Blazer starters had a PER above 18.  That was not true of any other team in the league.  LaMarcus Aldridge and Nic Batum, in particular, have played some of the best basketball of their careers over the first few games of this season.  They've both had off games too, but overall their performance has been solid and they've both shown a promising expansion in their skill sets, with Nic showing more offensive versatility and LaMarcus showing some added aggression and physicality on both ends of the floor.  Andre Miller and Marcus Camby are both contributing and do not appear to have suffered any drop off in their skills.  

Brandon Roy is the primary source of concern in the starting lineup.  His PER, while comfortably above league average, is actually the lowest of the Blazer starters.  His game has been more perimeter oriented and his shot is just not falling at a high percentage.  What I sense from Roy is a hesitance.  I just don't think he fully trusts his body to do many of the things he's done in the past.  It reminds me of the way he played last season when he was trying to come back from that nagging hamstring injury and was clearly concerned about re-aggravating it.  I think that as the season wears on, though, he'll loosen up and find his groove again.  He may not ever be as athletic as he was a few years ago, but he's a crafty player and will adjust.  He'll find a way to be efficient and effective offensively.

My primary concern at this point is not Roy, but the Blazer bench.  The depth we once had just isn't there anymore.  At this point, the primary bench contributors are Wesley Matthews, Dante Cunningham, and Rudy Fernandez (when healthy).  Of those players, Rudy strikes me as the only one really capable of providing an offensive boost, and he is notoriously inconsistent.  I think Wesley Matthews has the skills to be a quality rotation player in the NBA, but he is in over his head at this point and being asked to do too much.  He tries very hard, but he is not a playmaker.  He does not strike me as someone who is capable of consistently generating his own shot or creating shots for others.  Put another way, he is not great at improvising offensively.  When forced to do so, he makes bad decisions, taking low percentage shots or making bad passes.  

Indeed, there's really no bench player at the moment who is capable of generating his own shot consistently or functioning as a half-court playmaker.  Armon Johnson is a good ball handler and has shown decent playmaking skills in transition situations, but I've yet to see him create good shots for himself or others in the half-court set.  To the contrary, he tends to be turnover prone in the half-court. 

What the Blazers need is someone on the bench who can function as a playmaker, someone who -- like Miller -- can make good interior passes to cutting bigs and wings for easy baskets.  This will be particularly important once Greg Oden returns to the lineup.  Virtually all of the Blazer bigs and wings (with the exception of Joel) are excellent finishers around the rim and more than capable of converting on alley-oops.  Most of the Blazers' easy buckets this season have come on alley-oop feeds, mostly from Andre Miller (though a surprising number from Camby as well).

If Armon continues to struggle in half-court sets, it might be time to give Patty Mills a little run and see if he can do it better.  In the Summer League, Patty made a number of good interior passes in half-court sets.   

I also think Luke Babbitt needs to see more minutes.  I realize he's raw and likely a defensive liability at this point, but he has the potential to provide some much needed offense and shooting on the second unit.  And he needs the experience.  I'd like to see him given some real game minutes and the encouragement to look to score.  The Blazers do not really have a true stretch big (i.e. a 4 or 5 who is a three point threat). If Babbitt can become that guy, it will open up lots of room on the offensive end for guys like Matthews or Armon to slash to the hoop.  

Overall, though, the Blazers aren't in bad shape.  If Roy starts to play a little more like Roy, the Blazer starting unit will be among the very best in the league.  We've already seen this unit's ability to kick into a higher gear in crunch time situations.  The key to the Blazers success this year will be finding a way to maximize the contributions of the bench players and prevent the dropoff that occurs when the starters sit (and thereby allow the starts to rest more).  Our bench is young and untested.  If they can find their roles, get comfortable with them, and start playing with some confidence, this team will be very good.

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