The Trail Blazers Have To Prove It

Lots of buzz about last night's moves is traveling the interwebs today.  I'd like to address a couple issues that I'm seeing brought up repeatedly.

Regarding the optimism surrounding Nolan Smith, he may well be the guy.  Seeing him play in the league is the only way to tell for sure.  But there's plenty of reason to demand that he produce on the floor before being designated as the answer even in a low-level reserve role.  There's also plenty of reason to roll your eyes at this pick.  I've taken the liberty of tracking Portland's first-round acquisitions--drafted organically or acquired in a draft-day move--since 2004, the first year the Blazers had a lottery selection.  Here is the list:

2004

  • Sebastian Telfair  PG  not with team, still in league, low-level journeyman
  • Viktor Khryapa  SF  out of league
  • Sergei Monia  SF  out of league

2005

  • Martell Webster  SF  not with team, still in league, journeyman
  • Jarrett Jack  PG, not with team, still in league, journeyman

2006

  • LaMarcus Aldridge  PF  still with team, near All-Star
  • Brandon Roy  SG  still with team, All-NBA but chronically injured
  • Sergio Rodriguez  PG  out of league
  • Joel Freeland  PF  has not come to league

2007

  • Greg Oden  C  still with team, chronically injured
  • Petteri Koponen  PG  not with team, has not come to league

2008

  • Jerryd Bayless PG  not with team, still in league, modest production, possibly developing
  • Nicolas Batum  SF  still with team, modest production, possibly developing
  • Rudy Fernandez  SG  not with team, still in league, very modest production

2009

  • Victor Klaver  F  has not come to league

2010

  • Luke Babbitt  F  barely played rookie season
  • Elliot Williams  PG  injured and has not played

Since 2004  11 of Portland's 17 first-round acquisitions have not panned out, either having not come to the league yet or not making an impact while in Portland.  (Come to think of it, not making an impact much of anywhere.)  Of the remaining 6:

  • 2 are last year's rookies who have barely played and probably should be included in the non-impact category, bringing the total to 13 of 17.
  • 2 are Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, dealing with massive injury issues
  • 1 is Nicolas Batum, a partial success story
  • 1 is LaMarcus Aldridge, a full success story

Between 2004 and 2010 the Blazers burned 6 first-round opportunities on point guards, comprising more than a third of their overall first-round picks.  Of those 6, only Elliot Williams remains with the team.  The acquisition of Nolan Smith and Raymond Felton may indicate what the Blazers think of Williams' chances to make an impact.  Right now you'd have to say 6 of 6 have busted.   This certainly colors the Smith pick.  Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me 6 times and I'm going to wait and see on the 7th.

Even leaving aside the injury problems (which may or may not have been foreseeable) and the point-guard fetish,  the overall draft record doesn't engender much hope.  Every year has brought the same song and dance we hear this year.  "We got better.  These are the guys."  Meanwhile 13 of 17 guys and every point guard the team has brought in have disappointed.  The Blazers can count exactly 1 inarguable triumph amongst in those 17 draft picks.  No team in any league can prosper with that kind of track record.  This is a grim story and this year's draft did nothing to reverse that trend.

Second, regarding the Felton trade.  You already have Jason Quick of The Oregonian proclaiming that the team got better with this move and Joe Freeman leading his story with:

The Trail Blazers seemingly never-ending search for a long-term answer at point guard has finally come to an end.     

There's no doubt these perceptions are accurate from the Trail Blazers' point of view.  It's what they believe and love everyone else to believe too.  Some counter-points:

  • The Blazers need shooting but the guy can't shoot all that well, looking good only in comparison to Miller who was awful.
  • The guy excels at pick and roll and running, neither of which are major parts of Portland's arsenal.
  • The Blazers don't even have a big guy who sets picks, let alone prospers rolling off of them.
  • He's not an appreciably better defender than Andre Miller was and Miller wasn't that good.
  • Felton has been at best an average point guard everywhere he's been with the exception of a 54-game tour in Mike D'Antoni's stat-inflating system.
  • His offense is in no-man's-land.  He needs to score to be effective but he's not a good enough scorer to carry a team.  Neither is he a catch-and-shoot, off-ball guy.  He needs the ball in his hands.  In the absence of a second backcourt scorer he's not enough.  With a dominant backcourt scorer he's too much.
  • The point guard of the future who's going to make this team so much better has one year remaining on his contract, meaning he's in position to extort the team into paying prime money for an average-level player simply because they have no alternatives.  Or he could just leave.  Either way, they're going to get a lockout-shortened season of play out of him and that's the only surety about this "future".

I'm not saying that Felton can't work out here.  Again, maybe he is the guy.  But a ton of things have to be shown before that proclamation can be made.  There are just as many reasons to think it won't happen as to think it will.  This doesn't look like a brilliant move.  It doesn't smell like a brilliant move.  There's no reason to proclaim it a brilliant move until it's demonstrated to be.

These moves do not herald the beginning of a new era.  This is a shot--probably a long shot--at trying to correct the old one.  The problem is, neither one of these moves has the kind of gravity to do it.  Smith probably doesn't have the tools.  Felton hasn't revolutionized any of the teams he's been with so far.  The same worries and issues the Blazers had before the draft yesterday they still have today.  Not much has changed except the names on the jerseys and another first-round pick spent rolling the dice on a point guard, making 7 of the last 18 if you're counting.  If the Blazers want us to buy in to the idea that they're really getting better we need to see it on the court from these players.  These moves have to work in order for them to be justified.  Otherwise Blazer fans can prepare themselves for another season on the same treadmill:  lots of effort, no forward progress.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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