Honoring Mike Brown with some Blazer Observations

In honor of Mike Brown's firing today here are five Blazer observations on the early season, one for each of the games Coach Brown lasted with the Lakers.

1. Damian Lillard is better than anyone hoped. Damian Lillard has played 5 games in his NBA career, and has been compared to Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, LeBron James, and the best point guards in the game today. He stole a lot of Athony Davis' preseason Rookie of the Year hype, and is now the ROY favorite (just compare Lillard's and Davis' stat lines; Davis has also been sidelined by a concussion and has only played in two games). He has also single-handedly inspired a mea culpa from one writer through four games. If he can keep this up (and history tells us four-year seniors do much better in the NBA than the one-and-done's their rookie seasons), Neil Olshey will have found his Brandon Roy replacement.

2. Nic Batum is suffering from "Joe Johnson-itis". Yesterday the Blazers posted on their Facebook page a link to a youtube video of a fabulous piece of PR by Nicolas Batum. It's just him basically talking about loving Portland, wanting to be in Portland and play for the Blazers. What was interesting, to me, about this was not the video itself. Though it is a nice video and is worth watching. The most interesting thing was the fan reaction. There were three, and only three, reactions to this video: 1) The Cheerleaders. These were the fans who were supportive of Batum. Basically the, "We love you Nic! Go Blazers!" reactions. 2) The Cynics. These were the fans drinking the Haterade. These comments were of the, "That's not what he said this summer" and, "I wonder how much money it took for him to change his tune" variety. 3) The Hater Haters. These were the Blazer fans who were bashing the cynics for bashing Batum.

My point here is not that one of these reactions is more morally valid than the others. As fans, we invest our time, money and most of all our emotions with the team. I will say that I certainly understand all three reactions, and they are each perfectly valid. However, as a consequence of his, um, let's say rocky, contract negotiations with Portland/Minnesota he now suffers from what Bill Simmons calls "Joe Johnson-itis" (scroll down about three-quarters of the way down the page). Batum's contract, while not egregious, still overpays him. As such, it sets up much larger expectations for him from fans. He needs more nights like his night against the Clippers (23 pts., 9 rbd., 5 ast., great defense on Chris Paul in the second half) on a much more consistent basis to win back over the segment of the fans who don't believe he's worth the 4-years, $46 mil the Blazers are paying him. He needs to step up and be a consistent third banana to Aldridge and Lillard. Can he do it? I believe so. He's only going to turn 24 this December, so he has plenty of time to grow. Which brings me to my next observation:

3. We have already seen more offensive creativity in five games under Terry Stotts than in five years under Nate McMillan. Just watching Blazer games this season the Blazers have had better ball movement, players in better spots for open looks, and a generally better offense than in the last few years. It all comes down to point guard play. Lillard, through five games, is better than any point guard the Blazers had during McMillan's tenure, and arguably since Clyde the Glide. (Overreaction through five games? You betcha!!! But so was firing Mike Brown, and that's what we're honoring today.) Yes, things stalled yesterday against the Clippers, and they have a long way to go defensively. Players will find their roles and get more comfortable in them, and this includes Batum.

4/5. Stotts has a big man problem, and a serious bench problem. The Blazer have two problems that are intertwined. Stott's bench is terrible (averaging an NBA worst 12.8 pts/gm) and it's due in no small part to the big man rotation. Stotts has five front court players on the roster (Aldridge, JJ Hickson, Meyers Leonard, Joel Freeland, and Jared Jeffries), but only one true center (Leonard). However, Leonard is too raw to start (yes, yes, he has great +/- numbers, but that isn't the best indicator of his true performance on the court; he is also the most-whistled Blazer thus far, and starting won't solve that problem), and Hickson is just not good enough defensively to be starting. I have three humble solutions to this problem:

  1. Move Hickson to the bench. Hickson shouldn't be the Blazers starting center because he is undersized and can't play defense. Making him and Leonard the primary bigs off the bench would provide some scoring punch off the bench. Replace Hickson with Jeffries or Freeland (who would both struggle, but neither are doing much good off the bench right now, either).
  2. Trade for Anderson Varejao. This team is bleeding rebounds, and is not a good rebounding team at all. Hickson is the only player on the team who has a rebounding % of 15%. Because of trade restrictions I haven't been able to fully play with the Trade Machine yet, but I believe a trade of Hickson and Babbitt straight up for Varejao works under the cap (after Dec. 15), and if the Blazers threw in a second rounder they could probably get it done. "But wait, Kyle," you might ask. "If the Blazers are a terrible rebounding team, why trade away the team's best rebounder?" Because it solves the big-man rotation dilemma. The Blazers aren't championship contenders this year, so it's ok to sacrifice some this year for long-term growth. A starting front court of Aldridge and Varejao gives the Blazers someone to rebound an protect the rim, while allowing Leonard to continue to come off the bench and develop. Verajao would also be able to tutor Leonard in the finer points of big man NBA defense. Plus, his contract is only partially guaranteed for the 2014-2015 season, making it effectively an expiring contract next year.
  3. Send Wil Barton to the D-League. "How does sending Barton to the D-League help the Blazers' bench when the backup guards are so gawd-awful?" you may ask. Trick suggestion, it doesn't. But Barton has appeared in four games this year, logging 20 minutes total. If he's not going to play now, the Blazers ought to send him to the D-Leauge to develop, get stronger, and become a better shooter and scorer. That way if something happens at the trade deadline or sooner, he could be available to come back and hopefully contribute in a meaningful way.
The bottom line is the Blazers' ceiling this year is probably the 8th seed in the West. They have too many holes (no backup guards, terrible rebounding, no one to really protect the rim yet, and an inconsistnet offense as the team grows into the new system) to be really good. But they have some great building blocks (Aldridge, Lillard, Leonard has shown promise, Batum looks more aggressive, and Matthews is playing his usual above-average defense and shooting it well this season) to build on for next year. But I'm excited to be watching the Blazers again, something I definitely couldn't say last year.
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