In less than a week the 2011-12 NBA season will be upon us. It's high time for a look at the Blazers, their strengths and weaknesses, and their prospects for the upcoming year. We start today with a peek at the revamped Portland backcourt, featuring brand new players in two of the top three guard slots.
Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford, and Wesley Matthews will eat up the lion's share of the guard minutes for Portland this year. It's an interesting mix.
Crawford is an offensive dynamo. Felton also likes to score but has 2-3 times more assists in his arsenal than does Crawford. Both are similar in that they like the ball in their hands and aren't bashful about shooting it. Neither one has a bankable long jumper but either will shoot it, occasionally getting red hot. They're best off the dribble, creating for himself in Crawford's case or looking for the pass then pulling up if necessary in Felton's. Neither has enough defense to compensate if they're not producing. Each is used to playing big minutes and each took a step backwards in that department last year. Their per-minute production suffered significantly as a result. Neither plays well when denied minutes or possessions. Both are angling for a new contract this year. This amounts to a high fireworks potential. The only question will be whether these guys will explode all over Portland's opponents, leaving the enemy licking multiple burn wounds, or whether they'll end up frustrated, leaving a trail of gunpowder all over Portland's court just waiting for a match.
One thing's for sure. Remember that Portland backcourt with Andre Miller reluctantly scoring and Wesley Matthews semi-reluctantly taking the ball, both deferring to Brandon Roy whenever he was in the vicinity? That's done. These guys are going to give lip service to LaMarcus Aldridge as the head of the team but when the chips are down they're going to value their own impact. They'll give up the ball to the forwards but they'll take it themselves too. "Reluctance" is not going to be in the vocabulary.
One of the big questions for 2011-12 will be where all this leaves Matthews. He showed he could score 20 last year. Heck, he showed he could score 30 from time to time. But he needs to be set up. Unlike Crawford and Felton he's not good off the dribble and lacks the flair (maybe bull-headedness) to demand and convert his own possessions. At the same time he's probably the best hope for the future in Portland's backcourt. He can play two ways. He can hit from deep. If you could cross those two attributes plus Matthews' youth with Crawford's savoir faire you'd have a perpetual All-Star. One wonders, however, if Matthews will become the shrinking violet next to the blazing twin suns of his backcourt teammates. The Blazers need a Jedi in the making, not a perpetual moisture farmer no matter how diligent and earnest the lad may be. Felton's and Crawford's contributions costing Matthews the chance to grow would be counterproductive for the Blazers. Nothing will stop that except Matthews himself expanding his game and confidence, meriting the ball so obviously that his teammates can't help but find him. That'd be a change in both demeanor and visible result. This will be a test for the young shooting guard.
Behind these three players Portland fields a hodgepodge of youngsters. Elliot Williams is reportedly a dazzling athlete but hasn't seen a minute of court time since Portland drafted him due to injury. Armon Johnson is also incredibly athletic for a point guard but his floor time has shown that he may not actually be a point guard. New draftee Nolan Smith rounds out the group. He's the only guy with a definitive position, as he's a bona fide point. But his promise lies in brains and steadiness more than physical skill...the inverse of the other two. It's unlikely that any of these players will evidence a complete enough game this season to make a difference or earn more than spot backup minutes. They'll be more curiosity than contributor. But there's room for any of them to make an impact as they jostle for position on the taxiway.
Going beyond the characteristics of the players themselves, do we even know what kind of system the Blazers will run this year? In past years the aim has been clear: get the ball down the court and into the hands of Brandon Roy and/or LaMarcus Aldridge. Place-keepers and defenders around those two stars were satisfactory, if not desirable. Felton and Crawford are neither place-keepers nor defenders. The Blazers probably don't want Matthews to keep his place as much as expand his territory. Putting these new guards into the old box is a recipe for frustration all the way around. But how much do you change your M.O. based on guys you're not sure will be around or be able to carry the burden? Every guard on the roster has something to prove this season. The system has to allow for that while at the same time compensating for it, not letting the team's fate depend on anyone but its best players...both of whom happen to be forwards at this time. This, too, will be a fascinating riddle to watch unfold as the season progresses.
Combined Portland's guards make a reasonably deep but also mercurial group. The steadiest among them, Matthews, is also the player most apt to get shoved aside. The most proven among them, Felton and Crawford, are also the biggest unknowns in terms of fit and contribution. They have talent but they'll also have to develop chemistry and rhythm fairly quickly to survive this shortened season. Talent not maximized doesn't count as talent. The Blazers need all three playing near their peak on a consistent basis to succeed. If the ascension of one means another recedes the Blazers will be in trouble.
Any synchronization woes should be camouflaged early as almost every opponent will play in ragged fashion while finding their sea legs after this unusual start. The amount of powder in your keg may well tell the difference in these early games. But in the long run you still wonder whether Portland is fielding three guys in the backcourt you feel confident will take shots but zero guys you'd trust to carry your team to victory with the game on the line. There's no true superstar here...probably not even a star. It's a good backcourt but not a steady one, packed with players who could make a difference but won't always, each of them lacking critical facets to their game. They'll generate plenty of excitement. How many wins will follow on its heels though?
Share your thoughts on Portland's guard corps below. How do you see them fitting together and affecting the game? Do the Blazers need to change their operating procedure to accommodate this new crew or is it still Aldridge first and everybody else playing off of him? If it's the latter, can these guards succeed in that system? Weigh in below.