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Checking Up

Before we exit the break I thought it might be interesting to look back at a post from the start of the season entitled What Really Matters.  We took a look at things that would be important as the season progresses.  Such as...

First and foremost this season is about establishing Lamarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy as bona fide scorers and fledgling stars.  Obviously those two get a lot of credit in our circle but we have to remember that every NBA team has promising, young players.  Right now in the national consciousness Lamarcus and Brandon are more or less two more in the crowd.  This year needs to be about getting them the ball in positions where they can make things happen.  They need to start getting the respect of the referees.  They need to learn how to deal with defensive pressure and double teams.  I'm not as concerned about stellar point totals but if we reach the end of the year and either or both have horrible shooting percentages, huge numbers of turnovers, or maybe worst of all low free throw attempts then we've not gotten the best and brightest out of them or our season.  These are the only two guys who will play this year who are guaranteed to be with us long-term (barring a LeBron trade or something crazy).  They matter the most.

Grade So Far:  B+

I would give this an overwhelming "A" had I mentioned just Brandon alone.  He has asserted himself in the eyes of every soul who bothered to watch.  Pick almost any game this year (with the exception of about a 10-day mini-slump) and you will find Brandon as the focal point...sometimes obviously, sometimes more subtly, but always there.  You could not ask for a smoother, quicker progression into stardom.  Admittedly Lamarcus suffers far more in comparison than in absolute terms.  It's nearly inconceivable that Brandon could have done this much, this quickly.  To expect that of two players on the same team would entail Jabba-the-Hutt-level gluttony.  However even considered in isolation Lamarcus has drifted a little more this season that I would have liked to have seen.  His back-to-the-basket game has been inconsistent.  His scoring, while fairly constant, has seldom been decisive.  His rebounding has been spotty.  His impact has been good (no complaints!) but not great yet.  All of this will come, to be sure, but one wonders if he'll struggle once again to find his place next season when Greg Oden will be assimilated into the offense.  (I imagine Oden's arrival will do nothing but help Lamarcus defensively.)

This season is also about developing offensive and defensive continuity as a team.  We have a radically different lineup than we did last year.  Our entire style of play is changing.  We also have an extremely young team.  The first few months of the year we are likely to look disjointed.  That doesn't matter.  What we look like in March and April matters.  We will transform again when Oden returns next year but the groundwork for that return is laid now.

Grade So Far:  A

We are WAY farther along in this area than I thought we'd be.  Even when we were losing early on in the season we were still looking more coordinated on offense than we had in years.  The play during December and most of January was flat-out inspired.  And who can argue with a defense that's holding opponents to such a low percentage, especially when you figure not many guys on our team are natural defenders?   Our defense works to the extent it does because we work as a team.  The results are not as good yet as they will be but the foundation is definitely there.  The words "Blazer Basketball" are starting to take meaning again.

This will be one of our last years to really get good looks at guys without having more than pride on the line.  One of the major themes of the year will be sorting out the point guard jumble, the small forward position, and the future of Channing Frye.  Outlaw, Webster, and Jack all look poised to deliver.  We just don't know what (or how consistently) they will deliver yet.  Heck, we're not even sure of their positions.  We absolutely need to know more by the end of this year because we're going to have to make decisions soon...not only about whether to spend money keeping them but about our weaknesses as a team and how to fill them.  This is put up or shut up time for Travis and a solid chance for Martell and Jarrett to impress.

Grade So Far:  C-

The shining star here so far has been Travis who, if not exactly producing consistently, has at least shown enough to make all of the drooling we've done over him seem worthwhile.  His developing jump shot and fourth-quarter heroics have earned him more leeway and more years to show what he's got.

After that, though, it gets really spotty.  I'm not sure we know who Martell Webster is yet and the picture is not getting any clearer as time goes by.  Jarrett Jack is producing in some areas, struggling in others.  Sergio Rodriguez remains a non-factor and there's no telling when, if, or how that will end.  Channing Frye has had some great moments and also displayed some serious weaknesses.  I think we have a decent idea what he can give.  We just have to decide if we're going to play the kind of game where his contributions are imperative.

Since even Travis is having ups and downs and the rest are head-scratchers I don't think you can give the team credit for great progress in this area.

More philosophically this team needs to gain some confidence that it can win.  We've been through horrible years of losing and picked up a lot of bad habits.  We aren't likely to end up with a winning record overall but we desperately need a taste of victory for reinforcement.  Along with that taste for winning will come a distaste for losing, which is equally important.  Perhaps the worst habit we've picked up is shrugging our shoulders and giving up when things go south.  There were people on this team who just...didn'  We need more fight than that.  How we respond to going down 10 or 15 may be as important as our number of victories.  We need to see the team continue to stick with the game plan of unselfishness, moving feet, and hustling no matter what the situation.

Grade So Far:  A

I know the last couple of weeks we've had efforts that people have characterized as poor or dispirited, but I don't think it's fair to impugn the entire season for a few fatigue-induced outings.  We have shown our mettle over and over again, absorbing that winning experience and distaste for losing.  We've not given up.  We've seldom shrugged shoulders.  We've been consistently unselfish and most often in motion.  We could use a couple more hustle players but you can't have everything.

For fans:  I think it's important that we enjoy this season.  Even being a passionate fan I'll admit it's been hard to really let loose and enjoy the team without reservation for a long while now.  There was always another shoe to drop.  The shoes are all on the floor now.  There's no reason not to have a ball this year.  We shouldn't be getting too caught up in high expectations or rewards at this point.  It would be a shame if we anticipated too much, too soon and let the team possibly falling short dim our perception of them or the year.  This is going to be an absolute blast.  Even more so if you take, say, a five-year view of the situation.   Do not miss the fact that this is the first year we can realistically claim starting the season that we are on an upswing as a franchise. The little things that go right this year are going to blossom into big things eventually.  Although there will always be things to analyze and criticize--and we will do both--I see no reason to get down on (or about) a team this young with this many promising players who are also trying to do things the right way.  As long as they keep working at getting better this season is a complete freebie for this team and for its fans.  Enjoy every minute of it before the expectations start getting more serious and we all start scooting way farther towards the edges of our seats.

Grade So Far:  B

I just asserted in someone's diary that it was somewhat disingenuous to judge an entire fanbase based on a small, though often vocal, percentage of it.  So we won't.  I think most Blazer fans are enjoying this season, accepting it for what it is, and getting very excited about the prospect of an incredibly bright future.  The next 30 games are important for the same reason the last 52 were, as stepping stones to eventual greatness.  Signs of that greatness come early to flower are a welcome bonus, but the deeper signs of evolution remain the primary focus of the year.  If there are occasional impatient choruses of "trade this" or "fire that" or "what the heck is wrong with the other" they are, if not infrequent, at least probably confined to a relatively limited segment of the population.  This season is a blast and should be enjoyed and marveled at, even as we continue to edge farther and farther off of those seats.

--Dave (