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Plays Well With Others

The recent Outlaw topic brought up another side discussion that is worth keeping an eye on as this team continues to evolve.  There’s emphasis on the word team in that last sentence.  For the first time since the walls were torn down to renovate the franchise, we have what I’d call a solid team coming into the season.  Not group of hopefuls, not one or two potential stars with a ton of building yet to do, but a real, live team.  Part of being a team rather than just a developing farm club is playing not only well, but together.  Players will begin to be judged not just on how they excel as individuals, but how they fit in with each other.  In that light we’re going to run down the roster today, seeing who will have the easiest time playing with others and who might be more limited.


NBA basketball provides multiple avenues to team play and fitting into a lineup or rotation.  Consider:


OFFENSE--  The archetype of a “team” guy offensively is somebody with great passing skills who knows how to set others up.  That model is certainly applicable, but there are other approaches to consider.  Some players bend the opponent’s defense through their overwhelming offensive capabilities.  These are the guys defenders have half an eye on at all times.  They mandate near-automatic double teams, thereby freeing up their teammates for easier cuts, drives, and shots.  They could be considered an asset to many lineups even though they’re not in the business of passing the ball.  Some guys also fit into multiple lineups because of a particular skill.  Outside shooting is notable, as it requires defensive attention at all time and makes defenders pay for helping to defend other players.


DEFENSE--  One of the most basic ways to be a great teammate defensively is simply being able to stop your own man.  Dominant defenders who control entire areas of the floor are also a boon to their cohorts.  When you relieve a teammate of the responsibility of watching your back you allow him to concentrate more on his individual assignment and you make his decisions fewer, and thus easier.  Leaky defenders, on the other hand, place burdens on their teammates.  Fewer players can be effective beside them.  Another defensive asset is court awareness plus the speed and willingness to help your teammates out of a jam.


MISCELLANEOUS--  Some players have strong attributes that allow them to fit with multiple lineups.  Being the right size, or even oversized, for your position is one.  Being able to play multiple positions is another.  Few people mind playing with teammates who can rebound on the defensive end, can stand up to opponents nose-to-nose, or who are willing to scrape their knees diving for loose balls.  There’s also something to be said for being able to do your job without having the offense set up for you or the defense set up to cover for you.  Extra bonus points for those who create or cover for others.


With these things in mind we’re going to list the Blazers roughly in order of flexibility in terms of team play.  Note that this is NOT a measure of overall talent!  The “best” players will not necessarily be at the top of the list!  This is simply an attempt to delineate each player’s ability to play with a variety of teammates and in a variety of situations.  There is no argument here that the best or most effective lineup would be the top five players listed.


Brandon Roy:  Brandon Roy’s combination of multi-directional dribbling, shooting, vision, and passing make him fit with any combination you throw out there.  While he’s played primarily shooting guard so far he could have the tools to fill multiple positions.  He requires so much attention that he guarantees somebody on his side is going to be open.  Some might quibble with his need/desire to keep the ball in his hands but you’d have to argue there are few better in the league to possess it.  Also he’s plenty unselfish with it, so there’s no harm there.  He can also rebound and is willing to do what it takes for the team to win.  Part of the reason Coach McMillan finds it so hard to keep Brandon on the bench is that he’s the best fit for nearly every lineup you can draw up.


Steve Blake:  Blake ranks high on this list because he is the ultimate team player.  He knows how to set up an offense.  He knows how and when to pass.  He needs zero shots to be effective but he can hit a shot when he’s open.  He’s an adequate defender, though his body isn’t built for locking people down.  The only blemish on his suitability for any lineup is his relative lack of ability to create his own shot.  In critical situations this allows opponents to pay less attention to him, which makes it harder on his teammates.  Nevertheless Blake is a guy who can be inserted almost anytime, almost anywhere with success.  He’s a good utility player.


Rudy Fernandez:  Naturally the discussion of all rookies is speculative, having not seen them play in the NBA.  However Rudy has assets that will allow him to blend with multiple lineup configurations.  Like Steve Blake he can hit a shot without having to take every one.  Unlike Blake he can also get his own shot when needed.  He is good when taking over a game but is also capable of laying back.  He’s an eager help defender and has the quickness to get to a spot.  He has good height and might turn into a scrappy player as well.  His weaknesses will be point-of-attack defense and rebounding.


Greg Oden:  Oden’s biggest blending asset is going to be his defense.  Simply put, everybody is going to love playing with him because he’ll be a one-man wrecking crew watching their backs.  “Ooops!  I made a mistake and let my guy get by.  Coach is gonna…never mind.  Nice block, Greg!”  Once he gets adjusted to the league the entire paint will be his territory on that end of the court.  He’ll be like a bigger, stronger Tim Duncan from the days of his defensive youth.  If you remember the days when the Spurs had Duncan and Robinson patrolling the middle nobody went in there. This made them (still makes them) one of the best defensive teams in the league no matter who else they suited up.  Blazer teammates will love the “Oden Effect”.  Offense may be another story at first.  Oden has shown some passing ability but that is among the last skills to develop for NBA big men.  It wouldn’t surprise me to see the offense stall after the ball has been entered to Greg while he’s still finding his way.  Even so if he hits his shots (or better yet rams it through on a regular basis) he is going to draw double-teams which will make life easier for his cohorts.  Once he gets rolling nobody is going to want to play without the big man on the court.


Sergio Rodriguez:  Sergio’s love of the pass and his ability to thread it anywhere pulls him fairly far up this list.  His teammates already love playing with him on offense even with limited exposure.  You cannot fall asleep if the ball is in his hands.  His ability to penetrate increases his threat potential.  The holes in his game right now are finishing at the rim, hitting the jumper, and defense.  Those keep him farther down the list than his game style would otherwise merit.  At some point it becomes hard to find a lineup in which he’d be the ideal choice unless you want to forget it and just run.


Lamarcus Aldridge:  Lamarcus’ greatest strength is his variety of offensive skills.  He’s not shy about putting up a shot and is looking to be the endpoint of the offensive plays he’s involved in rather than a conduit.  The thing is, he’s so talented that he will be one of those endpoint players we keep out there.  Everybody else (except Roy) who wants to be the play finisher is going to have to get in line.  Lamarcus is long and has great perimeter defensive skills for his size.  If the Blazer defense is designed for him to help he should be good at it.  Still, he’ll likely be less of a true team guy just because of his disposition. You can’t put him out there without giving him the ball if you want to see his greatest strengths.  Defensive rebounding could also be an issue if he doesn’t have a front-line beast rebounder to protect him.


Joel Przybilla:  Joel’s defense and rebounding are his calling cards.  His ability to block shots cleans up a lot of backcourt mistakes.  He’s capable of getting defensive boards in droves and is clearly the Blazers’ best glass cleaner until Oden takes his title away.  Even more importantly from a team perspective, Joel sets the best picks seen in these parts in ages.  Joel has the minor fault of not always being aggressive and impactful enough.  His major fault is not being a viable offensive threat.  Over the years his minutes have been limited compared to his potential contribution simply because opposing teams don’t need to guard him closely.  In some situations that doesn’t matter as much.  In others it keeps you from playing him.


Channing Frye:  Channing’s mid-range jumper lets you use him out to 20 feet.  He doesn’t have to handle the ball or dominate it to hit his shot.  This makes him fairly versatile on the offensive end.  His rebounding came around towards the end of last season but still needs to be shown consistently.  He’s neither a bruiser nor an interior defender, so he needs to be paired with someone strong in the middle in order to be most effective.


Jerryd Bayless:  Jerryd’s biggest asset in terms of lineup suitability appears to be his hard-nosed play and willingness to do what it takes to win.  In Summer League his stand-still jumper looked spotty until the game was on the line, then he drained a couple of threes like he was making pancakes on Sunday morning.  He is willing to take contact and can stay in front of his man.  How much he can share the ball or be effective without it in his hands remains to be seen.  If his gritty offensive play translates into a willingness to go all-out for loose balls and take no crap from opponents (and if he can pass a little) he could rocket up this chart.


Travis Outlaw:  Travis is another one of those guys who can bend the game with his offensive skills.  He is guaranteed to be able to get a shot up anywhere, anytime on anyone.  Though he has excelled in critical moments he’s still a relative novice to them, but if he continues his crunch-time heroics opponents will be forced to throw double-teams at him, making him even a greater asset.  When he gets an angle for the weak-side or from-the-back block Outlaw can also be a champion at help defense.  His length and leaping ability let him cover space quickly.  He’s still working on his overall game, though, even on offense.  He seldom passes the ball and really needs to dominate with his scoring in order to make the lineup better at this point.


Martell Webster:  Martell’s outside shooting is his ticket to playing time at this point.  We saw last season how James Jones could fit with a variety of lineups because he never missed beyond the arc.  Martell is not that consistent yet but his shooting can still spread the defense.  He added a few thunderous dunks and improved defensive effort to his repertoire last season, which was to the good.  Every skill he develops makes him more useful.  However even with all of that he has a tendency to fade when not give a steady diet of shots.  Plus he’s either going to take those shots or make a bail-out pass.  He’s not skilled at directly making his teammates better.  Unlike Outlaw he needs a fair amount of help himself in the form of screens or set-up passes in order to prosecute his offense.


I have not included Raef LaFrentz, Ike Diogu, or Nicolas Batum on this list.  Raef is a veteran who will give his all no matter where he’s inserted but is unlikely to see non-emergency playing time.  Ike has been injured and there’s no telling how he’ll come back.  His rebounding and physical abilities would be an asset to most lineups.  Nicolas is not going to see the light of day for a while.


Obviously you need a variety of talents and styles to make a team.  You can’t put five pure set-up men out there any more than you could put five ball-dominating scorers.  But all other things being equal (keeping in mind that often they’re not, as a single, overwhelming skill can often trump a variety of lesser skills), the guys at the top of this list are going to give their coaches more options as to when and how to play them.


--Dave (