There are a lot of “what-if’s” in sports. What if the Red Sox never sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees? What if cocaine had not destroyed the careers of most of the great basketball players the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s? What if Barry Bonds never used steroids? There are three great what-if’s for the Blazers: what if Walton’s feet and knees held up? What if they drafted Jordan instead of Bowie? And what if Brandon Roy and Greg Oden’s knees never betrayed them?**
**The answers: multiple titles for both Walton and Jordan’s Blazer teams, and at least one or two Western Conference Finals appearances for the Roy/Aldridge/Oden squads. Just concede my un-provable hypothetical.
Across the blogosphere Blazer fans want action now. Columns on OregonLive, by Dwight Jaynes on Comcast Sports Northwest, Blazers Edge’s very own Ben Golliver and many fan posts are dedicated to exploring a trade for Steve Nash, Chris Paul, or someone of similar ilk. On the surface this makes sense: the Blazers are a veteran team and have made the playoffs the past three years, losing in the first round all three years. There are two ways to view the Blazers’ finishes the past three years: either a good team ready to make “the leap” to the next level, or a good but not great team needing to add a few more pieces to be a true contender. Apparently Paul Allen and company agree with Dwight and Ben who view the Blazers as the former.
However, the Blazers are not a good team ready to make “the leap” to contender status and no one trade will make them contenders. Instead, they are a good team still two or three pieces away from contending.
The Blazers’ biggest needs are at PG and in the frontcourt. Andre Miller, while a key player the past two seasons (and will be again this year, provided he is not moved via trade on draft night), is 35 and has logged over 1,000 career games including playoffs. He cannot space the floor due to his abysmal shooting, allowing defenses to sag down and double our shooters and LaMarcus Aldridge (look how many crucial playoff minutes he lost to Roy). Rudy and Roy are both capable backup ball handlers and creators, but only for 15-25 minutes a game.
Just a disclaimer: I like Andre Miller as a point guard. He has tremendous passing ability (he is 7th all-time in assists) and possibly the best post-up guard in the league. However, Portland was only 16th in the league in assists (though that does not mean a great deal; the league leaders were Dallas and Houston, they only averaged 2.6 more assists per game). The real problem Miller creates is shooting the ball. The Blazers were 13th in the league in threes per game at 6.3, but were 21th in three percentage at 34.5%. The Blazers were even worse in effective field goal percentage ranking 22thin the league at 48.6.** Having a point guard who can shoot will help space the floor and increase not only our field goal percentage but also our offensive efficiency.
** Effective field goal percentage measures field goal percentage but takes into account the fact three-point field goals are worth more than 2-point field goals.
As for the frontcourt, Aldridge is the only legitimate big man the Blazers have. Oden has “franchise center” potential, but his knees make it unlikely he will ever fulfill his considerable promise (remember, even when Walton won titles with the Celtics it was as a backup). Marcus Camby is 37 and washed up. He is no longer the double-double, shot-blocking force he was in his days with the Knicks, Nuggets and even Clippers. His body has betrayed him the way all giants are betrayed; his massive frame can no longer endure the pounding it could when he was 27. Gerald Wallace is capable of backing up Aldridge, but as the starting SF pulling double duty is unwise over a full season. The playoffs exposed Batum as too small to play down low regularly.
Several key rebounding and block statistics back up how poor the Blazers frontcourt was last year. The Blazers were 21st in the NBA last year in total blocks and were tied for 20th in blk/gm at 4.4. The rebounding numbers were not much better. The one area the Blazers excelled were rebounds on offense. They were 4th in offensive rebounds per game at 12.1, and 3rd in keeping possessions their alive by holding opponents to 29.1 defensive rebounds per game. However, they were 17th in the league in rebounding rate, were out rebounded by -.4 rbd/gm (17th), allowed opponents 10.6 offensive rebounds (11th) and were dead last in defensive rebounds at 27.2/game, allowing opponents to keep possessions alive.
All is not lost, however. The Blazers are set for the foreseeable future at SG, SF and PF. Wesley Matthews was the biggest surprise of last season (and made his 5-year deal look like a steal), Gerald Wallace is a force on both ends of the floor and Aldridge is an All-NBA player. Fernandez and Batum provide positional versatility, shooting, ball handling and defense off the bench (Rudy brings the ball handling and shooting, Batum the defense; between them they can play the 1-3 positions on the floor). Aldridge is clearly an offensive force; he raised his scoring average by a full four points from the 2009-2010 campaign. Using the general model of an 8 or 9-man rotation the Blazers have five solid rotation players already on the roster.** Six if you count Andre Miller (and I do), but unfortunately due mainly to his age but also his poor shooting and the Blazers lack of legitimate post players, it is unlikely he will be around when the Blazers are ready to contend for a championship. Roy’s knees make him too large of a question mark to be counted as a solid role player. When healthy, he is one of the best in the game. His problem is staying healthy.
**The last three franchisees to win championships (Celtics, Mavericks and Lakers) all had 8 or 9-man rotations on their championship teams; “rotation player” being defined as someone who averaged 10+ min in the postseason.
This is not merely a blog post pointing out all of the Blazers’ deficiencies. There are certainly ways to improve this team. As in every sport, it starts with the draft. Reports are the Blazers’ front office has its short list down to 5 players for the 21st pick. One of my favorite games is playing General Manager. If I am Larry Miller, Chad Buchanan, et. al., here are the 5 players I would have my eye on for the 21st pick (this assumes the Blazers do not trade up, as word around the league has them trying to do). Each player was chosen for three reasons: overall skill set (how a player’s skill set fits Blazers’ needs), positional need and potential availability.
- Kenneth Faried, PF, Morehead St. Measurables: 6’8”, 225 lbs., 9’ standing reach, 7’ wingspan. The best rebounder in the country (he averaged 13 a game his sophomore and junior seasons, and 14.5 last season), he has a great motor, is an explosive leaper and great shot blocker (2.3/game last season). He can develop his offensive game with the help of Aldridge and can add bulk in a professional strength program. He comes in immediately as LA’s primary backup, can play the 4 when the Blazers go small and will drastically improve the Blazers’ rebounding and blocking numbers.
- Markieff Morris, PF/C, Kansas. Measurables: 6’9”, 240 lbs., 8’11” stranding reach, 6’11” wingspan. A tenacious defender, he would bring the Blazers toughness, an offensive post presence, would help stretch the floor with his mid-range jumper and three point shooting and is an excellent rebounder and shot blocker. It is unlikely he will be there when the Blazers pick at 21, but if he is the Blazers would face an interesting decision. He could play an undersized center as well if the Blazers need (at the very least he would be a better third big than Chris Johnson).
- Nikola Vucevic, C, USC. Measurables: 6’11¾”, 260 lbs., 9’5” standing reach, 7’5” wingspan. One of the only true centers in the draft, he would bring size, rebounding and scoring to the Blazers’ front line. Also, for those reasons he will likely be gone before the Blazers pick at 21. However, he could start this year alongside LA, allowing Camby to come off the bench due to his advanced age to limit the wear and tear on his body. Possibly the best pic of the three bigs, as he has the best chance to be a long-term starter.
- Norris Cole, PG, Cleveland St. Measurables: 6’2”, 175 lbs., 8’2” standing reach, 6’2” wingspan. A true point guard, Cole would be a creator, bringing passing, floor vision and most importantly excellent long-range shooting to the Blazers. He is also good defensively, averaging 2.2 steals last year. He’s not huge, but then neither is Chris Paul. He is essentially Andre Miller with a deadeye three-point shot. If the Blazers draft him, he could spend the first half of the season learning under Miller, then the Blazers could use Miller’s expiring contract to acquire a frontcourt player at the trade deadline from a team looking for cap relief.
- Darius Morris, PG, Michigan. Measurables: 6’5”, 190 lbs, 8’6” standing reach, 6’8” wingspan. Morris’ best traits are his size (allowing him to overwhelm smaller PG’s defensively) and his floor vision. He’s a decent shooter, however, he still needs to work on being able to go left and on his three point shot. He would give the Blazers one of the biggest backcourts in the NBA (he, Matthews, Rudy and Roy are all 6’5” or 6’6”), and tenacity on the defensive end. The biggest questions for the Blazers are if he can develop his left hand and three point range, given the likelihood of a work stoppage and the stunted time for development.
The Blazers also own the 51st pick in the draft. If the Blazers draft Cole, Darius Morris or Vucevic they should consider using it (or trading up in the second round) to acquire Jordan Williams, PF from Maryland. He is 6’9”, 250 lbs., is an elite rebounder, tough around the basket and is a good finisher. He would give the Blazers size and rebounding behind Aldridge. He is probably the best choice in the second round regardless of who the Blazers draft in the first round, as the past several seasons have shown the Blazers can never have too many big men.
The other possibility for improving the Blazers’ roster is via trade. The most popular ideas being thrown out are trades for Steve Nash, Chris Paul or Tony Parker. Raymond Felton is a distant fourth. Any Chris Paul ideas are idiotic at best. The NBA currently controls New Orleans, they are not going to allow the Hornets to trade the best pure point guard in the NBA who doubles as the only attractive piece to a prospective buyer for players of the Blazers’ bench. Raymond Felton is an available option, but isn’t much better of a three point shooter than Miller. His career one-third mark on threes, while an improvement over Miller, is not what the Blazers are looking for.
Tony Parker is the best option of the four, but not by much. He only has a .315 3-pt average for his career and is wildly inconsistent. There’s no guarantee he is able to space the floor in the way Nash would be able to with his shooting ability.
This ridiculous Steve Nash trade bandwagon deserves its own paragraph. Does the math work? Yes. Has Nash been a great PG over the last several seasons? Absolutely. Should the Blazers trade for him? Absolutely not.
This is for several reasons: first, Nash is 37 with a bad back. Do Blazer fans really trust the Blazer’s training staff with his back? Look at how they have handled Roy and Oden’s knees alone. Second Nash is 37 with a bad back. Any team seriously interested in a 37 year old point guard with a bad back has to fully believe they are only one piece away from a championship. The Blazers are not one piece away. As covered above, they are at least two or three pieces away from contending for a championship. Third, the price to acquire Nash will be much too steep. The Suns are currently in between rebuilding and contending and Nash is the linchpin on which their decision hangs. If they trade him they will be in full rebuilding mode, and are going to want to acquire assets in exchange. To start, a trade would be built on a foundation of Miller (for cap relief) and Batum (for talent), as well as a first-round pick this year or in the future (due to the Gerald Wallace trade and the Stepien Rule, I am not sure if the Blazers are allowed to trade their first round pick this year). Depending on what the Suns think Nash and Batum are worth, they may ask for an additional piece as well, such as Rudy. The Blazers’ deficiencies rebounding and in the frontcourt are too big for Steve Nash alone to overcome. Steve Nash + a depleted bench to give him little to no rest is not a recipe for success. The other factor no one is talking about is the lockout. If next season is lost (which it most likely will be) Nash will be 38 when the season starts. The Blazers are not going to be contending with a 38-year-old PG with a bad back.
The needs are clear: at least one rebounding/shot blocking big man and a point guard who can shoot the ball. If the Blazers come out of Thursday night’s draft without having filled at least one of those two needs this season could end up being a very long one. Miller and Camby are among the oldest players in the NBA and an injection of youth at point guard and in the frontcourt are badly needed. Unfortunately there are no quick fixes in the draft this year and the uncertainty with the labor situation. The Blazers can start to fill some holes, especially with as many elite rebounder in this draft available to them. They don’t have to be All-Stars, they just have to help plug some holes.<!--EndFragment-->