During this mid-season mini-break I want to look at some of the truisms that have been repeated about the team during the first half of the year. These are the short, pithy sayings that have sprung up out of hope, despair, awe, or disappointment. I'm not saying everybody believes these, or even a majority of people. But they've been repeated enough to take on a life of their own. Some are from the very beginning of the season while others are of more recent vintage, but if you've been paying attention to the conversation surrounding the team this year you've heard them.
We're going to rate each truism on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the absolute, carved-in-stone truth and 1 being completely off-base.
Here we go.
1. Oden is a Bust
We got more of this early in the year than we do now but its shadows are still with us. Your opinion on this is largely a matter of expectations and perspective. For a highly-heralded #1 overall pick, taken in isolation without mitigating factors, you have to look askance at his game and contributions so far. His play can be described raw, tentative, foul-prone, occasionally slow, and frequently lost. However for a guy who spent one year in college, who sat out his first year in the pros with knee surgery, who is still recovering from that surgery, and who is playing against this caliber of competition for the first time in his career he's not looked that bad. He's averaging 8.4 points and 7.0 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks in 22.8 minutes. I'm not a huge proponent of using per-minute stats to extrapolate what a player would look like if you increased his time, but we're not talking some 5-minute-per-game borderline stiff here. Oden is playing real minutes against opposing starters and his playing time is limited more by fouls than any lack of contribution on his part or any shortcomings in his play which are suddenly going to show up more when he's playing longer. Even if he didn't increase his production at all he'd still be a pretty decent player at 40 minutes per game at the rate he's playing now. He's shooting 54% from the field. His offense is not going to get any more raw or awkward than this. He's not going to get any less aggressive on the boards. This is the low point of his production by far and he's still doing OK.
What people miss is that opponents have to react differently when Oden is on the floor than they do with any other center. They're not quailing when we're on defense as much as they eventually will but they know Oden is out there rebounding and they know he's a presence in the paint. They have to commit extra men to deny him the ball or to force it out of his hands when he catches it. Even the threat of that keeps their big defenders home. There's a reason Portland is third in the league at not getting their shots blocked. Only part of it is their offensive skills. The other part is having the opposing starting center occupied. Some of Oden's secondary effects are already in place and they're significant.
I have no quarrel with people who say they expected more from Oden at this point. I think Oden expected more from Oden at this point. It's completely understandable that the "more" isn't happening quite yet but that doesn't obscure the fact that it isn't there most nights. But the word "bust" has an intrinsic, ontological quality to it, implying no change is possible. As we've already seen progress from Oden in a short half-season, that's obviously an inaccurate descriptor. Odds are that within a calendar year the "Oden's a Bust" line will have disappeared entirely and we'll be hearing more and more frequently, "Oden's busting you up."
Truth Scale: 2
2. Travis Outlaw is having a bad season.
Now that Jarrett Jack is gone Outlaw has become the latest target for overstated dissatisfaction among Blazer fans. (They're liking Jack well enough in Indiana, by the way.)
On one side of the ledger you can point to Travis' shooting percentage, free throw percentage, free throws attempted, shots attempted, scoring, and rebounding all being down from last season even though he's playing virtually the same number of minutes. This hasn't been the break-out season that Outlaw fans were hoping for.
On the other hand Travis has been seeing many small-forward minutes. The basic duty of a Blazer small forward, at least the way the players are interpreting the position on the court, is to shoot weak-side threes. Travis worked on that shot this summer and has raised his three-point percentage almost 20 points while attempting 2.5 as many threes as last season (which was already double what he did the season before). He's a more dangerous offensive weapon now than he was last year even though he rarely puts his full repertoire into practice in a single game and thus doesn't threaten the opponent as much as he could.
Defensively Travis is having trouble most games but he's hardly alone among Portland's bench players in that aspect. Again the position change has something to do with it.
The verdict on Travis is that he's still Travis, for good or ill. As we pointed out in the podcast yesterday the issue with Travis is less what he's going to give you and more what you're potentially giving up by not playing someone else in his spot who is more consistent. Right now Portland doesn't really have that other player demanding minutes so Travis is the obvious choice. He still lights up plenty of games and has even won a couple for us. Whether that continues remains to be seen. In any case, even if you bundle all of the good and bad together you still don't come up with a guy who is losing us games or causing major problems. You may have a guy who doesn't win us enough games but that's a different truism...one which can be brought to bear against multiple players.
Truth Scale: 5
(If you want to talk about the other truism surrounding Travis, namely that he's not going to get that much better than he is right now, I'd put the truth scale around 7 for that one.)
3. Our real point guard is sitting on our bench or currently playing off-guard.
Steve Blake has put a big hole in the side of this truism simply by his competent, adaptable play so far this year. He may not be the long-term, iron-clad choice at starting point guard but at the very least he's pointed out a blueprint as to what that player needs: shooting range, defense, the ability to penetrate and pass or score without having to handle the ball every possession. Blake himself does not possess all of these qualities but he clearly embodies them more than any of the current Blazers who would be considered for the position.
After Blake everybody else has serious holes in their game. Sergio Rodriguez has the penetration and passing down but his shooting is nowhere near up to snuff nor are his defense and his ability to finish. Jerryd Bayless has the penetrate and score aspect and is starting to play well defensively but he doesn't have the steady shot either and he hasn't evidenced enough ability to run the offense. Rudy Fernandez is not a natural point guard and doesn't see the court well or finish when he's on the move. His ability to defend quick point guards would also be limited at this point. Brandon Roy simply can't pile that responsibility on top of all he already has and maintain his high production. He excels as a shooting guard who can pick and choose when to take over the ball and the game. He'd not be an ideal point guard, forced to manage the game at all times.
At some later point the question of our reserve guards can be revisited. Perhaps this will come as soon as the end of this season. More likely it'll be another year at least. But for now you have to say that Blake is the best point guard for this team and nobody is even close to supplanting him.
Truth Scale: 3
4. Rudy is God
The pre-season hype surrounding Rudy Fernandez was astonishing. It reached a crescendo in November when Rudy was tearing up the league with his shooting and alley-oop catches from Sergio Rodriguez. At that point there were whispers of Rudy the All-Star and open questions as to whether Rudy could supplant Brandon Roy, at least in certain facets of the game.
Then the league figured out how to guard him.
Fernandez is still a dangerous weapon and a player with a ton of promise. But his greatest strengths--outside shooting and moving without the ball--are being compensated for and he's not pulled enough out of his arsenal to compensate. He's not a legitimate threat off of the dribble, his defense is up and down, and he takes too many chances. None of this is unusual for a rookie. In fact he's a cut above most rookies in the maturity of his game. He's also a valuable member of this roster and deserving of every minute he gets. But he's not the Second Coming....yet. Inspirational and exciting, yes. But the true greatness hasn't arrived yet.
Truth Scale: 4
5. The offense is the key to the Blazers' resurgence
Portland has gained a lot of offensive talent this year, particularly in the backcourt. Brandon Roy is having his best offensive year ever while Lamarcus Aldridge continues his relatively strong production. As a team Portland has tacked 2.6 points onto their scoring average from last season which is a decent-sized jump. Most fan comments revolve around the offense and what we can do better. Nevertheless, offense isn't the sole reason we're winning more games. Major credit goes to our rebounding.
After years in the basement Portland is now among the top three rebounding teams in the league. Playing at a slower pace and valuing possessions as we do, rebounding is a huge key. Offensive rebounding gets us extra shots and scores. Defensive rebounding cuts down opponents' opportunities and allows us to control both ball and pace. Good rebounding keeps us in sub-standard games and allows us to dominate good ones. Without it we're probably 10 games farther back.
Truth Scale: 4
6. Nate is making all kinds of coaching blunders.
The complaints have been legion, particularly after losses. The substitution patterns aren't right. The defensive scheme is ineffective. Somebody else should have been guarding Opposing Player X. Why did Player Y take the critical shot? How many times are the Blazers going to lose because of Issue Z?
Obviously questioning the coach is part of the fun of fandom, but when you step back and look at it Nate has done one heck of a job this year. He's starting two rookies and playing two more in the rotation right now. Those are honest-to-goodness rookies...guys who never played a minute in the NBA until this year. He's played a ton of other guys with less that five years of experience. A fair number of things go wrong technically in a Blazers' game but compared to the number of total things that are happening the percentage is surprisingly small for that young of a team. It isn't like Total Recall where you can plant a chip in someone's head and have them pick up the lesson instantly. Repetition and hard knocks are the key. Usually that comes at a cost for the team. Ours has been surprisingly small. Most of our young guys play far better in far greater minutes than their counterparts on other teams. We don't have a single player who hasn't stepped up at one time or another, all without greatly disrupting the flow of our main guys. Frankly I'm amazed that it works this well. At least some of that is due to coaching.
Right now the Blazers have a 25-17 record for a .595 winning percentage. No matter how I wrap my mind around things, I have a hard time envisioning them winning more than that under any imaginable circumstances. For every game you can point to and say, "We should have won that one" there are two more we easily could have lost. This just isn't a 30-12 team yet. It may not even be a 25-17 team yet, but the coaches have them playing like one.
If Nate really is a horrible coach, it will eventually start showing up in wins and losses. Nobody gets lucky forever. If we're not winning more than 41 a couple years from now there's grist for the mill. But right now the mill door ain't even open.
Truth Scale: 1
7. This team just needs to stand pat at the trading deadline and maybe even this summer.
Making the wrong move can have devastating consequences but so can not making the right move when you have the chance. The Blazers have a couple chances that are not going to be repeated soon: the expiring contract of Raef LaFrentz and, depending on what happens there, some free cap space this summer. This team also has excess players at power forward, point guard, and perhaps small forward depending on how you classify Travis. They have an overabundance of youth and a lack of straight-up defense, intensity, toughness, and experience. They have too many players who excel in certain areas but are limited in others, perhaps also a function of youth. They are on schedule to make the playoffs this year and the timetable calls for them to start competing in those playoffs next year. All of those things point to some kind of move. We're unlikely to see a sweeping roster overhaul. We may not even import a single name that the casual fan would recognize. But at least one important move is going to happen in the next ten months. That move is going to set the tone for our first few years of contention. Only Kevin Pritchard knows what it's going to be but it's going to happen and it needs to happen.
This does not invalidate the fact that Portland has a great roster with which it can prosper right now. But the Blazers have to have an eye on more than right now.
Truth Scale: 3
Go ahead and name and evaluate other truisms if you wish. I guess I didn't really identify any of the ones that ended up high on the truth scale, but maybe that's because those are more self-evident and thus get mentioned less.