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The Season's Eve Blazers Preview

Well my friends, here we are.  It's the eve of the 2009-10 regular season.  I've got a bag of freezer-cured chocolate mint patties on one side of the keyboard, a Diet Mountain Dew on the other, and it's time to roll out the season preview.  This would be the last possible moment to collect your thoughts and assess the Blazers' progress before our theories are tested for real.

The preview is assembled after the jump...all nine pages of it.  Enjoy!

We're going to break the preview into categories to make things easier.  We'll start with a look back at the statistical measures of 2008-09, run through the changes and updates, and finish with a look at the upcoming year.

Note that these statistical totals come from different sources, some of which add the playoffs into their totals and some of which don't.  The numbers are comparable and the ranks, as far as I know, are unchanged either way.  No need to sweat a few tenths.

The Offense

Statistical Category

Statistical Output

Rank in NBA

POINTS PER GAME

99.4

14th

PACE

86.8

30th

FIELD GOALS MADE/GAME

36.6

15th

FIELD GOALS ATT/GAME

78.9

23rd

FIELD GOAL PERCENTAGE

46.5%

8th

3-POINTERS MADE/GAME

7.1

8th

3-POINTERS ATT/GAME

18.6

13th

3-POINT PERCENTAGE

38.3%

3rd

3-POINT RATE

.236

13th

FREE THROWS MADE/GAME

18.3

22nd

FREE THROWS ATT/GAME

23.9

18th

FREE THROW PERCENTAGE

76.5%

17th

FREE THROW RATE

.234

14th

EFFECTIVE FIELD GOAL %

51.1%

8th

FAST BREAK POINTS/GAME

9.0

29th

POINTS IN PAINT/GAME

38.3

18th

ASSISTS

19.9

23rd

TURNOVERS

12.0

5th

TURNOVER PERCENTAGE

12.5%

7th

OFFENSIVE EFFICIENCY

113.9

1st

Offensive Analysis

The stat board confirms what most observers heralded about the Blazers offense in the 2008-09 season.  They were a strong, even cold-blooded halfcourt offensive machine.  They shot well from the field, with excellence from the three-point arc.  They generated few possessions but made the most of each one.  They finished 8th in field goal percentage, 3rd in three-point percentage, and were 8th overall in effective field goal percentage.  They limited turnovers and found themselves on top of the league in offensive efficiency, estimated points per 100 possessions.

The cost of that efficiency was a strict cap on the number of possessions generated.  The Blazers finished ahead of the Rockets in fast break points scored per game, but that's it.  They finished dead last in pace, possessions per 48 minutes.  This trade-off dropped their raw offensive numbers to the middle of the pack despite the brainy play.  They were 14th in points generated per game and 15th in field goals made.  Their sterling three-point percentage brought them to 8th in three-pointers made though they were 13th in attempts.  The low number of possessions generated also submarined the assist total on an otherwise unselfish team, leaving Portland in 23rd place though passing remained a significant part of their attack.

The easiest summation of the Blazers offensive conundrum is this:  They are brilliant at running the offense as it stands but they also appear to have maxed out its production potential and it isn't enough.

The most frequently cited solution to this issue is to pick up the pace.  More fast break opportunities should generate more possessions and points without sacrificing efficiency.  In theory this is true but the cost for pushing tempo, accentuated by the inexperience of this team both overall and with each other, is a rise in turnover percentage.  Though blessed with talented wings and point guards the Blazers are yet limited in natural ball-handlers who can also run a fast-break.  They also lack experience filling lanes and finishing.  Portland is well past the Jarrett Jack/Zach Randolph era when every running opportunity looked like a Keystone Cops routine.  But they still look awkward and unpracticed when anyone besides LaMarcus Aldridge is charging the hoop...and even he needs to receive the ball late to finish well.  Portland must attempt to run but this will not be an instant panacea for their offensive limitations.

A couple of fields do remain unplowed, however, which offers hope for production without disruption.  The Blazers are only average at generating and converting free throws.  Likewise they are lackluster at producing points in the paint.  Addressing the second issue will likely bolster the first.  The mid-range jumper has become a staple of Portland's attack.  It makes a deadly option when combined with paint scoring but an unsatisfying basis for the offense as a whole.  If Portland can find a credible low post attack the offense will open up.  They need not even milk it for points.  Even a legitimate threat will be enough to draw defenders down low, allowing the quick pass out where the shooters will find their mid-range attempt uncontested.  With defenders now staying with shooters because they fear the low and high attack both, the middle opens up for guard penetration.  The low post man steps out a couple feet making his defender choose between stopping the driver or staying with him and allowing the bucket.  If the defender sags the guard either draws a foul on the opposing big man (opening up more low post opportunities when he has to hit the pines with foul trouble) or flips to the post player who is now five feet from the basket and unopposed.  More free throws, more layups, more dunks, and more pressure on the defense equals more points, more fatigue for the opponent, and a chance for the Blazers' superior depth to show late in games.  And the elements of this attack are not far different than those the Blazers already employ as long as they have a competent scorer near the basket to provide the initial threat.

Obviously the burden of that role will fall on Greg Oden.  A second factor is the willingness of Brandon Roy to give up some possessions early in the game while still staying involved, knowing that the floor is going to open for him as the night progresses.  Roy will need to adopt the superstar attitude that the first 20 minutes are for getting everyone else involved and the last 28 are go-time.

The Defense

Statistical Category

Statistical Output

Rank in NBA

POINTS PER GAME ALLOWED

94.1

4th

FIELD GOAL MAKES ALLOWED

35.3

8th

FIELD GOAL ATT ALLOWED

76.6

2nd

FIELD GOAL % ALLOWED

46.0%

17th

3-POINT MAKES ALLOWED

6.0

5th

3-POINT ATTEMPTS ALLOWED

16.0

4th

3-POINT % ALLOWED

37.4%

18th

3-POINT RATE (OPPONENT)

.209

7th

FREE THROW MAKES ALLOWED

18.3

22nd

FREE-THROW ATT ALLOWED

21.7

4th

FREE-THROW % ALLOWED

80.3%

30th

FREE THROW RATE (OPPONENT)

.219

8th

EFFECTIVE FG% ALLOWED

49.9%

14th

FAST BREAK POINTS ALLOWED

9.9

1st

POINTS IN PAINT ALLOWED

38.1

11th

BLOCKS PER GAME

5.1

11th

BLOCK PERCENTAGE

.066

7th

STEALS PER GAME

6.7

25th

OPPONENT TURNOVER %

.132

12th

DEFENSIVE EFFICIENCY

107.8

14th

Defensive Analysis

 

Much like the offensive stats, Portland's defensive numbers tell a definitive tale.  In categories that are pace-sensitive the Blazers finish high as their slower rate of play limits opposing possessions and thus cumulative totals.  The Blazers look great at 8th in opponent field goal conversions allowed, 5th in three-point conversations allowed, and 4th in free throw attempts allowed.  When you factor out the plodding rate of play and measure actual percentages, however, the results tend towards the mediocre.  Granted, mediocre is far ahead of where the team used to be.  This is a major reason for the improvement in record.  But finishing between 14th and 18th in the major percentage categories isn't going to net you an elite-level win total unless your offense is consistently high-powered.  Since the Blazers' strongest defense appears to be the same slow play that limits the offense, this isn't likely.

The Blazers showed improvement in a couple of key areas last season.  Their opponent turnover percentage generated was .132, good for 12th in the league.  This was up from .117 and 24th in the league a year prior.  The Blazers generated more steals per possession and forced the opponent into tougher plays.  This was bolstered by improved interior defense.  Portland's 11th place finish in points in the paint allowed (38.1) was up from 18th place (40.2) the year before.  40.5% of opponent points were scored in the paint in 2008-09 compared to 41.7% a year prior.  The percentages and numbers may seem small but so are victory margins in this league.  If Portland could make another leap this year their defense would look inspired.

For the last decade the Blazers have put pressure on their big men to anchor the defense and close the lane.  This year is not likely to be different.  Despite the lip service to improved perimeter defensive play the team is still stocked with guys better known for their offensive ability and commitment.  Portland has employed any number of zone schemes, disguised zones, and man rotations to disguise their shortcomings but the bottom line is sagging off to guard against the drive, thus ceding the jumper, is the most effective perimeter defense the Blazers have been able to muster.  In games where they're energetic enough the guards and forwards can get a hand in the shooter's face.  In games when the defenders are slow or the opponent is hitting anyway the only recourse is to channel into the big man and pray.  The Blazers still don't have the chops to play against the jumper and the drive.

One welcome change announced this pre-season was the team promising to let the center stay down low in pick and roll situations, thus formalizing his role as goalie and making it easier thereby.  This should cut down on out-of-position fouls and awkward rotations.  It's been amazing that the Blazers have been as effective as they have at patrolling the lane the last couple seasons with their big men wandering.  Cementing the low defense may have a trickle-down effect, allowing the perimeter guys to be more aggressive and take more chances on steals and blocks.  This would add an extra level of threat to Portland's basic "stop easy shots by staying in front of the opponent at all costs" mantra.  The extra opportunities will only come if the big men are up to it and able to stay in the game.  It will be interesting to see what the Blazers do against more mobile, perimeter-oriented centers.  In those cases the best defense will undoubtedly be banging against them in the post on the offensive end, tiring them and matching their points.  Once again Greg Oden's name looms large here.

While Blazer fans make much over the whistles blown against the team ranking 8th in opposing free throw rate and 4th in opponent free throw attempts is pretty good, especially for a squad still earning respect.  Hopefully the trend will continue.

Teams with a true desire to progress from good to great usually find their greatest growth potential on the defensive end.  The Blazers may be a little young yet to understand that but another year of experience playing together should help firm the rotations and cement responsibilities.  Defensive regression would be a sure sign that something is going south in Blazer-land.

Rebounding

 

Statistical Category

Statistical Output

Rank in NBA

OFFENSIVE REBOUNDS/GAME

12.7

1st

OFFENSIVE REBOUNDING %

.320

1st

DEFENSIVE REBOUNDS/GAME

28.6

27th

DEFENSIVE REBOUNDING %

.751

6th

TOTAL REBOUNDS/GAME

41.7

12th

OFF. REBOUNDS ALLOWED

9.5

2nd

OFF. REBOUNDING % ALLOWED

.249

6th

DEF. REBOUNDS ALLOWED

27.0

1st

DEF. REBOUNDING % ALLOWED

.680

1st

TOTAL REBOUNDS ALLOWED

36.3

1st

REBOUNDING DIFFERENTIAL

+5.4

1st

Finally we see an area in which the Blazers are undoubtedly great.  In every category the team ranks among the league's elite, if not at the very top.  Rebounding is Portland's bread and butter.  Offensive rebounds generated precious extra possessions and points for an offense that desperately needs them.  Solid defensive rebounding makes up for errors on that end.  If anything the Blazers' rebounding prospects should have improved with a deeper and bigger big-man corps and new (or returning) forwards and guards with strong rebounding tendencies.  Portland should continue to be a handful for every team in the league on the boards.

The Statistical Summation:  Point Differential

In the end the game boils down to scoring more points than you allow your opponent.  Every stat points to that end.  Here's what the Blazers looked like:

Points For

Points Against

Point Differential

Rank in NBA

99.4

94.1

+5.3

5th

Whatever else the numbers say, this was an excellent sign.  You can muddy the waters with certain stat categories but point differential based on an 82-game season is hard to fake.  Mitigating factors came into play during the playoffs, namely unfortunate matchups and a huge experience gap.  But those will not be as pronounced during the next post-season.  If the Blazers maintain this level or gain a few points they will be a legitimate threat in the playoffs.

What Has Changed:  New and Improved(?) Players

Andre Miller

As the most prominent acquisition of the off-season Miller might be expected to make the greatest difference during the coming year.  Despite a rough start in the chemistry department he brings several characteristics that bolster the Blazer attack.  The most important of these is legitimate experience at the point guard position.  Last year the Blazers had one point guard upon whom they could rely.  This year they have two.  No matter where Miller plays in the rotation bringing either him or Blake in will look light years different than bringing in Sergio Rodriguez.  He also provides a driving threat, passing acumen, and he is a good rebounder.

His liabilities as pertain to this team are outside shooting and the lack of clear-cut improvement on defense, both of which would be beneficial to Portland's perimeter game.  Also he's been a middle offensive option on almost every team he's served.  His shots per game last year would have planted him solidly as the third scorer on this team.  The actual role the Blazers will want him to fulfill puts him more in the range of 5th-6th.  Between that and working out ball-handling duties with Brandon Roy his acclimation may continue to be bumpy.  It's hard to imagine things completely falling apart, however.  Chances are if he feels truly underutilized he'll simply adapt his game and play hard enough that the coaches won't have a choice but to use him.  Miller may not be the ideal fit in every way, but he's suitable enough to provide a definite incremental improvement.

Martell Webster

Webster returns from last season's injury bringing with him outside marksmanship, rebounding, and a burgeoning commitment to attack on offense.  The first two attributes are always welcome.  One wonders whether he'll be able to prosecute the third to his desired level.  This a different team than the one he left.  Brandon Roy is now an established star with LaMarcus Aldridge not far behind.  Greg Oden needs to be established.  Andre Miller wants some shots.  Nicolas Batum will start the season ahead of Martell on the depth chart and Travis Outlaw may come sniffing for minutes.  The team could really use a small forward with ball-handling ability both to bring the ball up the court and to drive from the wing.  Martell isn't that guy.  He should be a snug fit and could even win the starting position back but it's hard to imagine him getting more than 20-25 minutes per night which is not enough to establish himself firmly.  Martell could help this team but the real question is whether he will.

Greg Oden

If the Blazers hope for improvement this year, let alone the revolution on the offensive and defensive ends that they need in order to make the ascent to rarified air, Greg Oden will carry its burden on his shoulders.  He's leaner, healthier, quicker, and more confident.  So far he's shown and said everything he needs to in order to inspire confidence.  That said, he's still in the infant stage of his development and it'll likely be another year before he is able to show consistent dominance, provided that's in the offing at all.  The Blazers are not used to an inside presence on the offensive end.  He's not used to being the inside presence on the offensive end.  His teammates will need to learn to trust him as he will need to trust himself.  He'll need to prove he can stay on the court, both healthy and foul-free.  He'll need to cope with how much the Blazers will end up relying on him and respond wisely.  Granted he still has a ton of back-up, not only in the ultra-capable Joel Przybilla but in the various skills and talents of his teammates.  It's not like he'll be exposed as the main offensive option out there.  But neither he nor the team can afford to see a season where he simply blends in with the crowd.  The Roy-Aldridge-Oden express has left the station.  Greg's production is the key to keeping momentum and indeed keeping the train on the rails.

LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy

Both have progressed remarkably well through their early years.  You could hardly ask for better.  Nor is there reason to believe that either or both will quit growing, let alone producing.  With their new (and rich...and expensive...and long-term) contract signings, however, each has reached a new phase in his career. Each is making money comparable to what today's superstars were getting at their age.  Expectations are changing.  What used to cause amazement is now taken for granted.  Production is no longer enough.  Wins count.  Playoff progress counts.  Providing an edge every single night counts. You'd like to believe that contract considerations don't factor in to what happens between the lines but it does.  Players who have been fighting for respect, to prove themselves, and to earn that huge payday now have to find new motivation for success.  It's not as easy of an adjustment as it seems.  Anyone out there who has experienced a sudden windfall knows exactly what I'm talking about.  Between dealing with new teammates, improved teammates, and the pressure that aiming for deep playoff runs brings Portland's two stars have plenty to negotiate.

Other players could be mentioned here, including Rudy Fernandez, Travis Outlaw, and Nicolas Batum.  But unlike everyone else mentioned above their positions and progress are too far up in the air to speculate on reasonably at this point.  (Martell Webster technically fits that description as well, but he's brand new to the team in essence, and thus had to be mentioned.)  The truth is even with a few weeks of pre-season we've not seen the full rotation in action.  How it all will work together is one of the most important, and open, questions of the year.  The Blazers undoubtedly have depth, but depth alone does not win games.  The team has to play cohesively and in a style to take advantage of that depth.  It's a far different problem than the Blazers have had since Nate McMillan took over as coach...one they're not experienced in handling.  Chalk this up as one of the prime issues facing the team going into the season.

The Prognosis for 2009-10

The litmus test for any team that wants to be great is how many serious questions it faces as it heads into battle.  More uncertainty means more obstacles to face on the way to the promised land.  If you haven't figured this out yet, learn it now:  a team never gets to avoid its obstacles.  Over the course of an 82-game season and through a series of seven-game playoff tilts in which your opponent has nothing else on its mind than exploiting your weaknesses, your team will be forced to face every single ghost that haunts it until it banishes them or is overcome by them.

The Blazers face fewer questions this year than they have in years past.  Their best players are more established and experienced.  Each position is filled with layers of competent players.  There's more veteran help off the bench.  The team has defensive issues but few glaring, fatal weaknesses.  This Blazers are solidly stacked.

However the questions the Blazers are facing are more esoteric and somewhat new to them.  The leap from bad to good is difficult but fairly straightforward.  The leap from good to great is more intricate.  Can you figure out where to go every night and then execute that plan every night regardless of opposition?  You have several players who delighted you by just showing up and being good.  Are those same players now ready for the prime-time spotlight?  Are you prepared to win when you have a target on your back and nobody overlooks you?  Are you prepared to win now that people expect it instead of being happily surprised by it...when instead of taking losses for granted and celebrating every win people are now taking wins for granted and ruing every loss?  Can you deal with success and the money and attention and growing egos that accompany it?  Can you keep every key player happy, or at least on track?  Can you bounce back from losses, as disappointing as they now are, and not let one bad night become three?  Now that you have the fundamentals down can you take in that extra 5% that defines the great teams from the also-rans?

What's more, by definition at this stage the people the Blazers rely on to make the biggest difference are also the people with the most questions surrounding them.  Greg Oden is the poster boy on both ends of the equation.  He is going to have games where he looks indomitable.  He's also going to have games where he picks up 3 fouls in 10 minutes and walks to the bench in frustration.  Andre Miller will have 7-for-15 games where he makes the difference.  He'll also have 6-for-15 games in which people call him selfish and a bad fit.  In order to improve significantly on 54 wins Portland would need both of these guys to come through every night.  That's highly unlikely to happen in the early season and may not happen for Greg until late in the year or until 2010-11.  There's no reason to suspect the Blazers will regress but the road forward may require a balance that the team doesn't have the confidence to find yet.

The questions that Portland will be forced to answer are likely to blunt the edge of their heretofore rapid growth curve.  This season is less likely to be a tour de force than a gut check and a time for assessment and resolve.  When they do hit their stride the team will look amazing.  How long they can keep that stride at a time will be the question, as well as how long they take to regain it after they've fallen out.

The Blazers are going to have a great shot at winning the division even if they happen to stumble a little out of the gate.  It's reasonable to assume that they'll play well enough to break the 50-win barrier again.  It's also reasonable to assume that the West is going to be more balanced this year than it was last, with several teams in the middle of the pack improving.  Some of the once-fine teams have dropped to the lower echelon but "lower" may not be quite as low as it has been in years past with teams like the Thunder and maybe even the Grizzlies being potentially dangerous on a given night.  With win totals in general evening out and the Blazers facing the challenges mentioned above I hesitate to predict a leap in win total, and maybe not even a flat-out improvement in win total.  However whatever the Blazers might miss by only achieving wins in the low-to-mid 50's should be balanced by the ordinal significance of that total.  Even 51-54 wins could be enough to win the division this year and provide homecourt advantage and an inside track to the second round of the playoffs.  Both of those goals are certainly within Portland's reach and should be achieved.  If a higher win total accompanies those achievements, all the better, but beating out Denver and Utah and then conquering the first playoff opponent are the main aims.  As long as Oden is healthy and reasonably spry that should happen.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)