The 2012 pre-season campaign has come to a close. You can see a recap of, and boxscore from, Portland's final game against the Utah Jazz by clicking here. Rather than draining the last dregs of the exhibition season by speculating on a game few saw and even fewer will remember, we're going to look at the pre-season as a whole, running down what we've learned from the exhibitions. Feel free to add your own observations in the comments after you've read these.
1. This sure is different! After years of Nate McMillan's system, most of them spent with heavy doses of stars and veteran players in the rotation, there are now Blazers running, bombing, and sometimes having no clue what they're supposed to be doing. Not only are the names on the jersey strange now, the whole thing is strange. However we do know that, at least for now, the Blazers are committed to different. We barely got an inkling of LaMarcus Aldridge in the post this pre-season. Even when the offense broke down, they didn't rely on the iso set...at least not inside. Players making laughable attempts at trying to score while covered on the perimeter, we got. The new default is outside, the new ideals are motion and speed.
2. LaMarcus Aldridge may or may not be ready to deal with the new norm. He certainly appears willing. He's also rushing shots, looking slightly unsure of how plays and moves will develop. The elbow is the new post but we'll have to watch how efficient Aldridge's offense will be. More than anything else, efficiency has been the key to his stardom. He's not a flashy, overwhelming, dominant guy. Rather you know his shot is going in under certain circumstances. Those circumstances have changed.
3. Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews have shown a couple new wrinkles in the face-up game. They've each had one fantastic outing. But they're still a crap-shoot night to night on offense. Neither one has given a sign that they're ready to step up and star.
4. Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews are also two guys who know what they're doing, particularly on defense. That makes them utterly indispensable to the Blazers right now.
5. The biggest change on defense has been big man showing against screens. It's a great example of taking advantage of what your guys do well compared to other bigs: get around the court. However small samples against good screening teams and guards cast ultimate success into doubt. The Blazers have to execute correctly in order to pull off the strategy. That's not happening, nor is it likely to happen soon.
6. Damian Lillard has up nights and down nights as you'd expect, but his down nights are still pretty good...a major positive sign. We still don't know his ceiling, but his floor appears pretty high, at least on offense. That's a good trait when surrounded by mercurial players and fellow youngsters.
7. Portland's center position is in deep trouble. Even a modest version of a pre-injury Joel Przybilla would shine on this team. J.J. Hickson looks uncomfortable in the middle. Meyers Leonard succeeds when nothing gets in the way of his raw ability but he doesn't know how to finish, defend low, screen, and even needs help rebounding. Joel Freeland has a nice all-around defensive game mostly because he knows how to play but he won't turn the trend around, especially on offense. Portland will start each game with the potential win getting sucked into this hole. They'll be scrambling to save it every night.
8. The Blazers have a couple of nice veterans in Jared Jeffries and Ronnie Price. They'll not win games for you but they're one of the few bench players the Blazers will field who won't potentially lose games for them. In normal times you'd shrug but right now these two are pure gold.
9. Victor Claver and Coby Karl both trended positive in the pre-season compared to their starting points. Claver was surprisingly active on defense and aggressive enough on offense. Karl played stretches at point guard and showed aptitude on the offensive end. Both showed passing ability. Neither showed fear. Reality Check: at this point either one would get eaten alive by good NBA starters. Both showed well enough to allow speculation that with continued development (Claver) and experimentation (Karl), bench rotation minutes are not out of reach.
10. Nolan Smith had a disappointing pre-season, easily the worst on the team relative to expectations. Elliot Williams' injury opened up minutes for him at off-guard. Lillard ceded even more at the point. Smith played too fast, looked too lost, defaulted to banzai runs at his own offense, and lost all those minutes.
11. Both Luke Babbitt and Will Barton ended up in the middle ground. Babbitt had a couple of nice offensive runs but continued his pattern of excelling when you count him out then losing it when you start gaining confidence in him. He did show effort and results on the boards, which this team will need. Barton had a couple of raw athletic moments. He'll need to work on his overall game. He's the most likely Blazer to be Boise-bound of all who saw action in the pre-season. That's not a knock on his game. That's what the D-League teams are made for: nurturing guys in whom you hope while allowing them to get a taste of stardom and the court.
12. The Blazers are going to give up an enormous deficit in points in the paint most games. This will probably turn out to be the biggest concern of the season. They'll have to make up for it with three-point shooting. Other areas where the game could tip: turnovers, free throws, fast-break points, rebounding. If the Blazers can stay close in at least three of those areas--they don't have to dominate, just not fall apart--then the distance shooting might have a chance to tell.
13. At different times the media have dubbed heart disease, high blood pressure, and various forms of cancer as "silent killers" since their symptoms are hard to see but end up catastrophic in effect. The silent killer for Portland this year may be screens. The Blazers won't be able to run as much as they'd like. As we've said ad nauseam now, they have trouble with the dribble-drive attack. The only remedy for their halfcourt offense is going to be efficient employment of picks. Several Portland bigs set mediocre screens. The jury's out on how well the guards use them. The Blazers may want to hire Jerry Sloan as a Special Assistant in Charge of Beating Proper Technique into players' heads. If this area is loose the offense is going to fall apart against committed defenses.
Add your own observations below, then bid farewell to the exhibition season. The real games are just around the corner!