Several of the things Casey and Gavin mentioned in yesterday's podcast got my mind thinking towards the upcoming season and its focus. One of the exciting things about riding along with a developing team is that the goals change from year to year. What has changed this year?
The obvious goal is the one which has always been foremost, at least as far as lip-service take you: win. Since this is the first year we can say going into the season that we have a definitive chance to achieve that, we also have to tack on the obvious goal of making the playoffs. We've said both enough this summer. What else is there?
First of all we need to put to rest one of the former goals: player development. This is not to suggest that our players won't develop. We have three important rookies coming in and we're still toddlers in this league measured by overall age. Players had better develop! But aiming to be a legitimate playoff team means letting go of the urge to play a guy to see what he's got or give him on-the-job training. Coach McMillan has never publicly subscribed to that theory anyway, but with the young and under-developed teams he's had to deal with that impulse couldn't help but be a part of the package. Not any more. At this point you play the guy who gives you the best chance of getting the "W", period. Blowouts aside, if a rising player wants to see the court he has to prove (or at least strongly hint) that he brings more to the table than the guy you have penciled in for those minutes.
One of the goals you will see Portland pursuing is nailing down a rotation. We have multiple players who have played (or could play) multiple positions. Lamarcus Aldridge and Channing Frye have been forwards and centers. Travis Outlaw has swung between the forward positions and Martell Webster between the small forward and shooting guard. Jerryd Bayless may play both backcourt positions. Rudy has to fit in somewhere. That means Roy may have to play at alternate positions as well. Flexibility and versatility are wonderful. But that's too many potential combinations at too many positions and not enough reliablity. You have to establish your base and then work on options. This is not to say the team should become predictable or that you'll never see wrinkles. But we need to figure out who can play where, who plays best in what combinations, and against what kind of opponents each combination can be most effective. My guess is you'll see the first part of the season spent doing just that with the hopes of settling into our best formation(s) in time to make a great run for the post-season. Eventually Portland is going to become the type of team that makes other teams react to (and deal with) them instead of shifting to react to others. Knowing your players and rotations intimately is the first step in that process.
Note that despite appearances there is no real conflict between establishing a rotation and not using court time to develop players. The latter means taking players who might not be talented or experienced enough to play otherwise and putting them out there so they can learn. The former means taking players you know are talented and experienced enough to play and finding out how to best bring out those talents. Travis Outlaw can play. Which kind of forward is he and in what situations does he play his best, individually and with the team? That's different than saying, "Why don't we see if Nicolas Batum can play?"
Another strong goal will be to develop our game and situational awareness. The Blazers did a good job of hanging with teams last season, but they went on multiple, long, up-and-down stretches during most of their games. They'd jump out ahead and then the opponent would come back. Portland would then fall behind and then they'd catch up. It would be a coin toss at the end for the victory. If you were looking at, say, a distance runner with that pattern you'd say, "This person has a lot of talent, but they need a stronger game plan and race awareness." So, too, the Blazers.
This is not to disparage the coaching staff, their planning, or the team's preparation. It's nearly impossible for a young team to react to game situations the way a veteran team does no matter how well (or poorly) that young team is coached. As I said in the podcast proper, the Blazers had a decent Plan A most games last year, but when that didn't work they were only able to execute a solid Plan B half the time. The early part of the season will be spent re-establishing Plan A with the new talent thrown in and adjusted for. The luxury of depth should allow work on Plan B and maybe C as the year progresses.
In other words instead of riding a roller coaster up and down all game and depending on emotion to carry you through, you adjust to the other team's run before you lose the lead, then accelerate through again and coast to an easy win. Eventually we won't have to wait for halftime, or even a timeout, to see the team compensate. When that happens more often the Blazers will shape the game instead of being shaped by it.
A third important goal will be increased offensive production. Obviously you can't isolate that entirely from the defense. Mike Rice mentioned several times last season that a more aggressive, gambling defense would probably lead to more points. But even if Portland plays a basic, percentage defense most of the time, the personnel on the squad this year should allow more offensive options than the mid-range jumper. We have a post presence this year and at least three sharpshooters. With the team's willingness to pass mixing up the offense shouldn't be a great stretch and should yield better results.
This is not a comprehensive list by far. Feel free to add the priorities you perceive in the comments.