Coaching two of the brighter spots of the 2010-11 campaign. Besides the emergence of Wesley Matthews and the acquisition of Gerald Wallace, what other memories stood out from the season and what course do the Blazers chart from here? Read on!
With the season now in the rear view mirror Ben and I sat down and reflected on its developments, our impressions of how the team was affected by the campaign, and a little bit about where the Blazers go from here.
Dave: 2010-11 is history. What are the most significant and/or interesting developments to come out of the season? What themes shaped the course of the year and perhaps Portland's future?
Ben: The 2010-2011 season will go in the books for four things: The absence of Greg Oden, the disintegration of Brandon Roy, the emergence of an All-Star caliber LaMarcus Aldridge and the acquisition of Gerald Wallace.
Unfortunately, I take those to be two major steps back and two solid, but not necessarily equally major, steps forward. The net result is a minor retreat basketball-wise and a major increase in uncertainty going forward. A foundation that had been carefully and thoughtfully constructed by the previous regime simply hasn't stood the test of time. It's not without hope or the potential to recover, but the future appears tenuous in a way that it didn't two years ago or even last year.
The absence of Oden weighed on everyone in indirect ways. The ability to use his absence as a rallying cry faded as his time away from the court increased. He became, as Yahoo! writer Eric Freeman put it, like something of a ghost. Jeff Pendergraph went down to injury. Joel Przybilla was limited and then traded. A cycle of reserve big men were given chances. Marcus Camby went down with injury. The burden simply became too much. His absence and its repercussions became a distraction, through no fault of his own. Aldridge had to take on double duty, Camby had to play heavy minutes, the Blazers had to use unconventional lineups, and it all added up.
The disintegration of Roy and the emergence of Aldridge were linked in many ways, and have been written about at length. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, the Roy situation is even more depressing than it was when it was playing out. As early as preseason, it was clear something wasn't right. His effort level did not appear to be there, his physical talent had diminished, his consistency wasn't what we had come to expect from him. I will be the first to admit that denial in the media was there in full force, especially early. This is the best basketball player I've seen perform regularly in person in my life. He'd proven so many things so often that the trust level and respect factor couldn't have been higher. To watch the symptoms mount, the public statements accumulate, the pained expressions post-game, the confusion about his own body, the near tears during the announcement to undergo multiple surgeries, the expressed hopelessness at what the surgeries might be able to do for him. That was all tough. All of that made Game 4 that much more special.
Aldridge, on the inverse course, saved the season. His two month run of statistical dominance was eye-popping. A stand out moment was the difference between the first time he scored 40+ and the second time. The first time he was surprised at his ability to do it. The second time he carried himself like he'd done it 100 times before. It was a leap of maturity, savvy, aggressiveness and self-confidence in such a short period of time. He changed more than any other Blazer this season. That's been written a lot of places and is 100% true. He's established in a way that he wasn't ever before. Through a lot of really, really ugly basketball this season he was the single must-watch player. When they talk about drafting for both talent and character, Aldridge is the home run example.
As for Wallace, he's the X-factor, as always, for next season's hopes. He admitted to a bit of a rough transition and disappointment following the trade after Game 6, but said during the exit interviews availability that he's looking forward to moving his family to Portland in July and having a full training camp/preseason to assimilate with the team. There are open questions about how things will shake out with Batum/Aldridge but he drastically increases the hope and excitability factors surrounding this team heading into next season. It will be interesting to see if Nate McMillan comes back with a wider variety of ways to maximize Wallace's effectiveness. Wallace's best days as a Blazers certainly remain ahead of him.
What did I miss? Where do we disagree?
Click through for Dave's response and the rest of the conversation.
Dave: Hard to argue with that. This season was like your doctor told you that you may have cancer and your mom's sick too but as you walk out of the office you get hit on by a hot girl then you win $50K on a scratch lottery ticket. Wait...what? Whiplash! How exactly am I supposed to feel here?
When it all sorts out it ends up to a net negative immediately but, guessing that Aldridge and Wallace will still be good over the next couple of seasons while Roy and Oden may or may not be as badly injured, it yet could turn into a positive. It all depends on the prognosis of two-thirds of Portland's star corps.
Since you have aptly described the chocolate and vanilla flavors of this season's ice cream case, it's left for me to add in the caramel ripple and lemon sorbet. The subtle subtexts of 2010-11 include:
--Wesley Matthews showing promise in his second season with solid defense and distance shooting. He even threw in a couple of straight-line drives as the season drew to a close. He hasn't shown the ball-handling ability to become a create-your-own-shot superstar but he's got plenty of skills and plenty of time to grow into a huge role on this team. Great pick up for the Blazers.
--Nicolas Batum showed flashes of the player insiders and pundits have coveted over the last couple of years. His play bordered on the angelic at times. The coffin corner three, the baseline drive and dunk, the finishes on the break, that astonishing turn-around jumper in the lane...his offense looked more varied and impressive this season. But again, that's just in flashes. He's clearly better--and more worthy of excitement--than any potential-laden supporting player in the current Blazer era: Webster, Outlaw, Bayless, Fernandez, anybody you care to name. But like all of them he'll be judged on what he can bring every night, not on what he brings on certain, cherry-picked outings. And he's not there yet.
--Andre Miller fit in like a glove this year. His sense of timing was impeccable. His shooting percentage rose 15 points though he took fewer shots per game and scored less. His assists were up from 5.4 to 7.0, in part due to him being the author of so many alley-oops. Rebounds stayed good, free throw percentage great, and all the per-minute numbers check out. Last year he'd take over games sporadically. This year he conducted them religiously. He quietly gave this team chances to win, letting the bigger names and young guns wear the crown while he stood behind the throne and directed.
--Rudy Fernandez provided another head-scratching season. For his first two years we praised his distance shooting but said, "If only he could find his place on the floor and especially play a little DEFENSE!" This year his hustle on defense and non-shooting creativity on offense came to the fore. He made progress in the areas people were asking for. But his shot went to hell. He shot a stunning 39.9% from the arc his rookie season, a perfectly acceptable 36.8% clip his sophomore year, but fell to a "not that shameful...if you're a low post power forward" 32.1% mark this season. Taking out Sean Marks and Armon Johnson, five Blazers shot better from the arc this season than did Rudy. As the shooting declines it's getting more difficult to think of reasons he should be on the floor.
--Portland's halfcourt offense developed a few wrinkles, notably the alley-oop and dominant offensive rebounding. They're still plagued by a lack of easy buckets in transition. Jump shooting was a staple in theory, hit and miss in practice. Dealing with screens on defense might as well be String Theory for this club despite the individual defensive talent in the rotation. Inability to win on the road against good teams remains an issue.
Feel free to add in any subtleties I missed, but also let's look at these developments as a whole. Of the four Big Issues you mentioned which will be the most significant going into the future for good or ill? How about among the more subtle developments? Which of these are the biggest deals?
Ben: Of the bigger issues, I think the biggest remains Oden. First, because we have a solid sample size of evidence on the other three: Aldridge will be an All-Star next season, Wallace will be Portland's second or third best player regardless of what happens this summer, and Roy will not be his All-Star self but he won't be a zero factor either. You're getting something from Roy and the fact that he made it through the entire stretch run and playoffs with no swelling or pain is a great sign.
With Oden, though, the spectrum of "What you can get from him" continues to be as wide as his wingspan. That takes on an exponent when you factor in his contract situation.
First, the on-court stuff. It's important to remember that the timeline for his last knee surgery was set at six months. That deadline came and went and, 11 months after the surgery, he underwent the most recent microfracture surgery. The timeline set this time around was roughly 12 months. None of the indications we've received in the first five months following the mirofracture are particularly promising. That's partly due to the fact that heaping expectations upon him doesn't do anyone any good. But it's mostly due to the fact that that's a really, really complex rehabilitation on top of a rehabilitation that was never completed. Given what's happened, rushing things would be catastrophic. For those reasons, I'm personally rather pessimistic about his ability to be an impact-maker on the court next season.
Bigger picture, you'd be OK and patient with zero production next season ... if the contract situation looms huge. Oden is correct to say that he has a ton of leverage here. If he doesn't want to be in Portland long-term, he can accept the qualifying offer, cash paychecks through a full, carefully managed rehabilitation and then have his pick of suitors next summer. If he does want to be in Portland long-term, he can very likely arrange for a lengthy and high-dollar contract extension this summer. Either options comes with a major risk factor for Portland: You either pay to play the odds that he will eventually make it back healthy or you sit on pins and needles throughout next season hoping to convince him to stick around.
Circling back, this is what I mean when I said this is the big picture issue that weighs the heaviest on Portland's future. Best-case: Oden gets through his rehab on schedule, is an impact player next season, becomes an All-Star type player for the Blazers the following season and is locked into a reasonable long-term deal this summer. Worst-case: Oden takes the qualifying offer, takes all of next season to rehabilitate and bounces town as an unrestricted free agent, leaving Portland $8.8 million dollars poorer, with egg on its face and with a 2012-2013 center rotation of Chris Johnson, Jeff Pendergraph and Shavlik Randolph. On paper, both of those pole eventualities are reasonable, and so are 20 or 30 in-between variations along the spectrum.
Still, If I'm Oden's agent I'm angling to get him the biggest possible deal this summer. The "one in hand beats two in the bush" theory. That does favor Portland because of restricted free agency but it will involve a major financial commitment. This team has already made a bunch of committments -- Roy, Aldridge, Wallace, Matthews -- so that commitment comes with a major short-term cost of lost flexibility. In other words, Portland's depth problems are going to continue as long as Oden's rehabilitation lasts.
When we turn to the subtle developments, I look at Matthews and Batum as meeting expectations at the very least. In Matthews' case, exceeding them is more accurate, although there's work to be done in filling out his offensive contributions. As for Fernandez, he has played himself into being an afterthought. I think, then, the Miller question is the biggest; In Miller, you've got questions that affect potential trades, next year's rotation and usage distribution. Big questions in all of those areas, really. The other guys, true to form, have questions that fit their role player status.
Unless there's a draft day trade, I find it very difficult to believe Miller won't be back at the starting point guard spot next season. Your summary of his season was dead on. Andre Miller had a very "Andre Miller" year -- chronically overlooked and underrated, consistently productive, made those around him better, excellent (at times hilarious) veteran leadership and perspective.
A few concerns hang. One, his spot on the bench during the playoffs to make room for Brandon Roy. It felt like one last concession from Nate McMillan that those two could not work together. Miller is a better and more important player right now than Roy but he has trade value. Roy doesn't. The temptation to "make it work" for one more season will be strong. But it will also serve as a limiting factor as we saw against Dallas. That's something to watch.
Second, obviously, is age. There's no question that the 2011 Marcus Camby was not the same player as the 2010 Marcus Camby. They looked the same, talked the same and sometimes produced the same, but the 10-20% slippage in production was a difference-maker. That will happen with Miller, perhaps as soon as next season. Given his role on the team and the lack of depth behind him, his slippage will be felt in a major way.
Dave: I agree that Oden is the biggest potential issue. The only way around that is the realization that he's been zero factor so far and may remain so depending on injuries or contract. The Blazers know they'll be dealing with Roy for good or ill. Roy may not have the potential to change this team dramatically anymore, whereas Oden still does. Still, a non-productive Roy on the court may alter chemistry and game play (read: be a bigger negative issue) more than Oden not taking the floor would.
Happier thoughts now. What was the best single moment of the season? For me it's got to be Batum's alley-oop tip against the Spurs. That moment kind of crystallized some of the themes of the year: perseverance, a little luck, Brandon Roy as decoy and not main guy, Nicolas' development, Miller's passing, motion in the halfcourt offense, and of course riotous fan support. Yours?
Ben: You nailed it. That play was by far the best moment of the season.
The last quarter of Game 4 is right there too. I can't remember the tension level at the Rose Garden being higher. The collective stress level was just agonizing. The late Terry three that could have been a dagger caused so much pain, it was almost a violent act. The lead narrowing, Roy's confidence rising, the banker. That's just a series of events that is be tattooed on everyone's mind to stay. It makes you step back and ask innocent questions again like, "If this isn't his career highlight, how awesome could the future be?"
The late-game moments are always the standouts. Monta Ellis missing a potential game-winner is one that's coming to mind quickly. Aldridge's really personal performances against the Timberwolves were great. Another one that wasn't as dramatic but was great to see -- Wesley Matthews at Rookie/Sophomore team practice, ruminating on what it would mean to be an All-Star someday.
Also, Chris Johnson's first NBA game. Nothing tops the "holy crap, I made it!" expression after that first NBA game. His down-to-earth, easy-going personality made it that much more honest and authentic.
Dave: Johnson is one of the guys people seem to take to naturally. It'll be interesting to see what kind of impact he can make on the team. He makes an impression on the court which is the first step. He's definitely one of the good things to come out of the year, almost hearkening back to a time when "good" was defined with more innocence and fewer expectations. The Blazers don't have the luxury of low expectations anymore, of course. S peaking of...
Although Batum's alley-oop was probably the single high moment of the season, the lasting visual image to me will be Brandon Roy driving the lane and getting his shot snuffed repeatedly as he was trying to acclimate himself early in the year. It encapsulated another wave of realities: Portland's need, the desperate health problems, trying to make it somewhere that wasn't really reachable, trying to hang on to hope and promise that might be slipping away...just a sense of sadness and loss without really knowing what the loss was about exactly or whether you should be feeling it. I mean, every time Brandon drove you wanted it to happen, your heart leaped out of you. But then he'd get in there and get his shot blocked after elevating half an inch off the ground and, just like the ball, you'd come crashing back to earth.
2009-10 was pretty bad just in terms of devastating injuries and the team getting its guts ripped out but 2010-11 may have been a more difficult season, if nothing else because of the false starts and sense of being in perpetual limbo. The season started with Greg Oden and Joel Pryzbilla slated to come back and everyone else on track. Then Przybilla failed to materialize. Then the tragic news about Oden's next microfracture hit. Then Brandon Roy's knee problems were pronounced chronic and his performance tanked. Would Greg ever play? Would Roy be OK? Could Przy contribute at all? The team limped along then Aldridge saved their bacon as the year turned. Then the Wallace trade happened and everyone went bonkers. Then the Miami win came along, the San Antonio win, grabbing the 6th seed when a couple months before not making the post-season seemed a possibility. Finally the Mavericks snapped the team back to reality and now...limbo again.
It feels like an oil slick has spilled over the otherwise pure water which is this franchise and every time you dip a hand in to get a drink you come up with a non-removable film of yuck over the top.
So is there any hope that slick gets skimmed off? In the playoff series recap I said that the team was a 48-win, 6th seed and played like a 48-win, 6th seed. Should that be the expectation going forward? How much hope do you see of this franchise ever shining? Must Blazer fans be content with the Chris Johnson moments or is there more?
Ben: The Dallas series was incredibly predictable. Going forward, the expectations game is much trickier.
We sort of got at this question earlier with the Oden talk, the range of possibilities that exist for his future. The same thing goes for the team as a whole. This group is likely a playoff team next season without any major moves, but barring a big time return to form from either Oden or Roy it's difficult to see them playing far enough above their heads in a playoff series to avoid a repeat of history next season.
Longer-term, the West is wide open as the Memphis Grizzlies just reminded us. Dallas, San Antonio and Los Angeles will be taking a step back in the next two years (although L.A. will always re-tool). The Jazz and Nuggets are less formidable than they've been. Phoenix and Houston are in the rebuilding cycle. Oklahoma City is the one clear emergent power and Portland has never felt a fear factor there.
To merge these two thoughts, I guess I would maintain that expectations should remain high given the eroding competitive landscape. The difficulty of executing a full-scale rebuild and the ages of the West's traditional powers leads me to conclude it's worth hanging around, gelling, growing where possible. Does that mean I would predict a better showing next season unless there's a transformative move made? No. Depth is a big deal, too. There's significant work to be done.
As for being content with Chris Johnson moments, that's one thing that clearly separates Blazers fans from all but a few fanbases. It's sort of a "better to have loved and lost" scenario. Caring deeply enough to understand the beauty of the Chris Johnson moments is so much better and more meaningful an experience than skimming the highlights or only supporting or following a playoff winner.
Of course everyone wants more. But we've learned in the last three years that simply wanting more can't make it happen. That's our burden I guess.
Dave: The big question to me is how much you want and how much you wait. Normally if a team had lost three straight first-round series in similar fashion and for similar reasons-never even seeing a Game 7 at that-you'd start talking about major changes being needed. But this seems like a unique situation. Talent isn't the issue. A huge part of it is health. Waiting it out goes against the NBA playbook, falling strictly in the wishful thinking department. When a team loses like this repeatedly it's NOT getting better. And yet it might and there are legit reasons to think it could. I'll be incredibly curious to see what view management takes.
OK...so barring that transformative move, what exactly DO the Blazers do this summer that makes any difference?
2. Re-sign Oden if you can.
3. Pray some more.
Ben: Well, there's no question that the Blazers burned through a lot of minor assets this season: Bayless, Cunningham, Przybilla's contract, the pick received for Bayless, etc. Re-stocking that cupboard is very important, if not for immediate use then at sometime down the road. I think you've got to make the absolute most out of this draft even if it's a weak crop. Buy picks. Shop Rudy Fernandez hard. Shop Andre Miller hard. Shop Marcus Camby hard. Draft smart.
Still, the Oden plunge will outweigh all of those other considerations together. That's a direction-changing move for the franchise, no matter how it plays out. Assuming the new CBA has a mid-level exception and Paul Allen is still on board with running up a major payroll, using the Mid-Level Exception to target whatever ones and physical four/fives that are out there would make good sense too.
Dave: It's funny, because a couple years ago when the Blazers weren't making those moves the team suffered...no LaFrentz trade, some of the bit players staying too long, couldn't get a Gerald Wallace until too late maybe. Those could have been major mistakes. But now that the moves are made it's a new world. You're no longer looking at revolutionizing the team with hot young prospects. You're searching for the guy at #20 who has a chance to contribute. You're trying to find that Juwan Howard to give you a solid year or two then move on. But you know what? That's more normal than this team has been in a while. All good teams have to do what you describe. Nobody plays 12 guys they hope will be All-Stars someday. They choose a core of 3-4 guys, maybe go 8 deep when they hit full flower, but play around with the other pieces. It'll break Blazers fans hearts because we do tend to get attached to "our guys". It's also not as exciting reading Earl Watson and College Kid #4 on the cast list as it is speculating how good Travis Outlaw could be someday. But this is how the Blazers will have to operate if they're sticking with their big guns, which they're probably forced to do. This may be the first year where the mid-level exception (or its equivalent in the New NBA) will be as crucial as trades or maybe even the draft.
More season-oriented discussion to come. If there's something we missed or you read something you want clarification on, fill us in using the comment section.