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Taking Stock--Part II

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Time to continue our look at what we've learned so far about this team by detailing the progress of individual players.  We start today with the Big Three. 

Brandon Roy 

Major Stats:  22.7 ppg, 5.1 ast, 4.7 reb, 47.4% fg, 39.2% 3-pt, 82.9% ft, 6.7 fts/game, 2.59 ast/to ratio

That stat line says it all...almost anyway.  Brandon's rookie year excellence and All-Star sophomore seasons weren't flukes.  This guy is a legitimate star.  He's scoring star-level points, getting star-level free-throw attempts, shooting a star-level percentage, and filling in the rest of the boxscore nicely.  He's also been the linchpin of the team this year.  The Blazers have scored better, rebounded better, and kept better care of the ball when he's been on the court.  All of those areas are keys to Portland's success this year.  Despite the strong second unit this team languishes without him.

That's not to say Roy is the perfect player.  Until a rebound is called for, Portland's defense is better with him off the court.  There could be mitigating circumstances here, for instance his off-court minutes coming when the opposing second unit is playing, usually a weaker scoring bunch.  However Brandon is at least part of the Blazers' overall defensive weakness.  The least you can say is that it would help greatly to surround him with a couple solid defensive players, taking the pressure off of him to carry that end of the game as well.  The Blazers also average fewer assisted shots when Brandon plays than when he sits.  Part of this could be the Sergio effect.  (Assist freak, second unit, unusual statistical situation.)  But your eyes will tell you that Brandon is taking more responsibility for the offense this year and not just by taking more shots than he ever has.  He's handled the ball more.  His 2.59 assist-to-turnover ratio trails only Steve Blake on the team, but Brandon also controls the ball in a way Steve doesn't.  Your eyes should also tell you that the Blazers have needed that, though.  They've certainly prospered offensively and in the win-loss column.

Flaws and foibles aside, there's no doubt Brandon has answered most of the questions put before him.  His rookie season was a revelation.  His sophomore season was a graduation.  This year he goes for his Master's degree.  The challenge:  Is he fit to lead a winning team into the post-season?  So far he's passed with flying colors.  Barring injury (another question he has to answer) or a total collapse, he'll receive that advanced degree this year and be on his way to a Doctorate next season, ranking with the very best players in the league.  Let there be no doubt anymore.  This guy is not overrated.  He's a star, he's a winner, and he's for real.

What We Need to See in the Last 30 Games:  The finishing stretch to the playoffs is going to be difficult, more so since it is uncharted territory for this team.  It's going to be an extra challenge for Brandon because he's not only going to have to maintain his own game against increasing pressure, he's going to have to instill confidence in his teammates and make them better on the court.  This team has a ton of talent outside of Roy but it lacks direction and backbone.  Brandon is the only player who can provide those right now.  This playoff run is on him.  Welcome to the other side of stardom.

Lamarcus Aldridge

Major Stats:  17.6 ppg, 6.8 reb, 2.8 off. reb, 48.9% fg

In many ways the questions surrounding Lamarcus Aldridge this year were the same as those surrounding Roy.  Is he a star?  Will his game continue evolving?  Can he carve out a role on this increasingly crowded roster?  Lamarcus has spent his first two years in the league as an accompaniment piece to Brandon in people's minds if not on the court.  Can he shine in his own right and prove just as invaluable to the team as his draft-mate?

There's little doubt that Lamarcus is positioned as one of the best young small power forwards in the league.  While he's not scoring at Brandon's rate he's not directing the offense either.  His steady scoring and high field goal percentages are more remarkable this year than they were last because the power forward offense has changed with Greg Oden coming onboard and Lamarcus' game has become increasingly perimeter-oriented.  70% of his shots are jumpers.  More than 90% of his shots come with half or more of the shot clock expired.  Without inside or quick-hitting (i.e. open and unguarded) shots it's a miracle he's shooting as well as he is.

Lamarcus is one of two decent, proven big-man defenders the Blazers have.  He's shown himself apt at jumping out and recovering on screens.  As a power forward in the modern era he has to play against potent opponents most nights and he's not an easy night for them.

Lamarcus is also our best big-man finisher on the break, though he doesn't get to show this aspect of his game much.

The basic criticisms of Lamarcus' game are three.  First, he doesn't get the ball inside enough.  He should be able to drive or spin past defenders.  He too often settles for turn-around fade-aways...not what you want to see out of your 6'11" guy even in the new NBA.  Second, he doesn't rebound enough.  Third, his production seems to have flat-lined this year.  He's averaging the same amount of points and fewer of almost everything else though technically he's getting a tiny bit more playing time.  Lamarcus is supposed to be the Blazer with the best combination of ceiling and potential to meet it.  A no-growth season seems to betray that assessment.

The first criticism is well-founded.  Lamarcus scores easily when his feet touch paint instead of varnish.  He doesn't appear to be determined enough to get inside.  His defensive mobility may betray him when it comes to rebounding.  He's one of the best offensive rebounders in the league but he's seldom in position to clean up the defensive boards.  This is as much a feature of the defense as it is a shortcoming in Lamarcus, though again more determination would help.  The level statistical production is not as bad as it looks and certainly not indicative that Lamarcus has reached his peak.  If Lamarcus became the sole focus of the offense he'd easily be able to score 20+ as Roy does.  In a different defensive setup he could grab 3-4 extra rebounds that are now going to the Blazer centers.  Eventually these things may happen.  For now Lamarcus is producing steadily in potentially turbulent times.

The best indicator of Lamarcus' value is not his play considered in isolation, but his effect on the team.  Lamarcus actually brings a greater leap in the team's offensive production than Brandon Roy does.  The Blazers also rebound and defend better when Lamarcus is on the floor.  This exceeds Roy's influence on team numbers both in breadth and intensity.  Though he's nowhere near the statistical marvel that Brandon is, the team actually relies on him just as much, if not more.  Whatever flaws he might have, Lamarcus' threat on offense and range on defense cannot be easily replaced.

What We Need to See in the Last 30 Games:  For the most part, Lamarcus just needs to keep doing what he's doing:  finishing plays on offense and staying in between opponents and the rim on defense.  There will be at least a couple games where we will need him to step up and dominate.  Some 30-point nights from LMA would win us games.  The key there is getting inside and drawing fouls.

Greg Oden

Key Stats:  22.9 mpg, 56.8 fg%, 9.0 ppg, 7.2 reb, 2.9 off. reb, 3.6 fts/game, 3.9 fouls/game

The most obvious bullet point in that stat line is Oden's 4 fouls per 23 minutes rate.  Everything else happening between Oden, his teammates, and the opponents is in some way triggered by his inability to stay on the floor consistently.  We've seen Greg excel against weaker opponents but against quick, athletic centers or guys his size he's had problems getting enough minutes and momentum to make a difference.  This has made it hard for the Blazers to count on him and hard to gauge his progress effectively.

Discounting the fouls, however, things are not going too poorly.  Oden hasn't just been committing fouls, he's been drawing them as well.  Extend 3.6 free throws in 23 minutes to a full game and you're not far from star status in that department, and this 50 games into his first season.  He's simply too much for most opponents to handle.  Oden's rebounding rate is also fantastic.  He's already a premier offensive rebounder and he's on track to become one of the best overall rebounders in the league.  His field goal percentage is stellar, bumped up by a litany of dunks.  His back-to-the-basket game is improving week by week as well.  He is not ready to be a regular option but you're seeing signs of his jump hook and spin moves someday being as devastating as his throwdowns. 

Aside from fouling, Oden's chief weaknesses so far have been mobility, recognition, and intensity.  All three evidence themselves in the same way:  an apparent lack of speed.  When he gets his mojo working it quickly becomes apparent that this is illusionary.  He actually covers ground quite well for a 7-foot, incredibly muscled strongman.  His knee surgery and conditioning hampered his movement early.  He's still learning the game as well.  It doesn't show as starkly on offense as his range is far more limited there than what he's required to display defensively.  By the time he recognizes a play on the defensive end and reacts appropriately he's often two steps behind, of which he can only make up one.  When he is on top of things Oden has shown himself able to shut down the paint all by himself.  It hasn't helped that the camera has caught him trotting downcourt or wandering around the lane during his lesser games.  You can immediately tell what kind of night it's going to be for Greg by how fast his sneakers are moving.  Unlike the other factors slowing his production, this is wholly in his control.  As he's felt more involved his effort has looked better, but he still has to realize that this game needs to be wrested off of its hinges and carried away instead of accepted passively. 

So far the main area of Greg's statistical contribution has been rebounding.  The Blazers score marginally better with him on the court but their defense actually suffers somewhat.  This only factors in measurable quantities, however.  Greg has already had an effect on the Blazer offense by being a legitimate dunking and offensive rebounding threat.  Opponents now have to stay home on our big men instead of sending extra men to roam free.  That contributes to the offensive success the rest of the team is enjoying.  Every three-point shooter on the roster is having a better year because of Greg Oden.  Oden has also shown himself a willing passer.  His effect on the team offense should only rise from here.

Those who say Oden's showing so far has been a disappointment are correct.  Those who are satisfied with what they've seen and anticipate much more in the future are also correct.  This is not the kind of season most folks envisioned when Oden was drafted #1 overall two years ago.  Yet these are the roots of exactly the kind of improvement (rebounding, synergy in the offense, possible intimidating defensive presence in the middle) that will transform the Blazers from a nice team into a serious threat.

What We Need to See in the Last 30 Games:  Rebounding mostly, but also a continued threat in the low block.  More speed, fewer fouls.  It's pretty obvious that our success or failure can't (and won't) ride on Oden's shoulders this year.  He needs to be the backstop on which the rest of the players rely to prevent wild plays from happening.

Next:  The Rotation Players 

See assorted stats at 82Games.com.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)