Anyone who knows me also knows that I'm the king of "Pre-Season Doesn't Matter Much". The win-loss record doesn't matter at all. You won't find me in a panic because the Blazers are 1-3 after their first four games. But if you've got the sneaking suspicion that this pre-season isn't turning out right and you're wondering if this might foreshadow things to come, you've got company.
Let's start with the defensive end. A couple years ago I said that the simplest, and in many ways best, way to envision defense is judging how much space you control on the floor. Though every scheme is perfect on paper, in practice defenses bargain, ceding lesser-valued areas to the offense in favor of holding the most hallowed ground. For years the hallowed ground for the Blazers has been the interior. This is hardly revolutionary...most teams want to keep you away from the basket. But for Portland it's practically been a religion. They'll deal with all of the backcourt scoring the opponent can muster as long as it doesn't come on the break. They don't want your big men scoring and they don't want attempts coming from short range.
Over the last few games the Blazers have been lambasted by opposing centers, forwards, and penetrators. That's a clear sign of illness. The lack of centers is an obvious root cause. No surprise there. The more shocking development will be how hard pressed the Blazers are to cover for the big man deficit. When forced to shift up Portland's players lose any defensive edge they might possess at their natural positions. LaMarcus Aldridge is mobile but not able to hold his spot on the floor. Dante Cunningham is active but not bulky. Even Marcus Camby isn't the greatest one-on-one position defender, though he's light years ahead of the other two. Camby alone won't be enough to shore up Portland's interior defense for an entire season, though. That's going to take a healthy and mobile Oden or at the very least a Camby-Przybilla tandem.
The rest of Portland's defenders are still putting pressure on that central position and that doesn't appear to be changing. Brandon Roy cedes space more than controls it. Andre Miller doesn't get stops unless he can really body a guy or he gets a steal. League rules limit the first and the second is infrequent compared to the total number of defensive possessions. Neither guy can keep an offensive player from moving or leaping without help. Nicolas Batum controls space but like most aspects of his game he does it intermittently. It's too soon to judge Wesley Matthews' effect but it appears Portland's best bet might be combining him with Batum if they can't rely on the interior players. Otherwise there's not much hope of improving the perimeter defensive game.
Now to the offense. It still isn't clicking. Once again being short personnel is an issue. The Blazers have zero legit, proven low-post players. Oden is their best shot. Even when he comes back, he'll need work and his teammates will have to work on incorporating him. Without that rim-ward threat any inside-out game becomes outside-farther outside. No matter how good your scorers are, that's not a bankable solution. When the ball doesn't penetrate the defense that defense doesn't have to adjust. All they have to do is shuffle sideways a little and you're watched. On a good day that means one-on-one moves for jumpers. On a bad day that means one-on-one moves for deep, covered jumpers.
The adjustment the team will have to make is going to be difficult. When things weren't clicking early last season I chalked it up to growing pains and the vagaries of youth. At this point, though, I'm beginning to suspect there's something structurally wrong with the team. Plenty of people are going to cry, "Coaching!" but I'm not convinced it's as easy as a different, interior-oriented scheme...a scheme which, in any case, the Blazers don't have the big offensive bodies to run right now. I suspect instead the Blazers suffer from having three main players who need the ball to be effective and a bevy of underlings with the potential to explode offensively but not the experience or credibility to demand the right to do so consistently (or even to see if they can).
That Brandon Roy likes the ball is well-chronicled. LaMarcus Aldridge needs time to develop any move besides a face-up jumper. Quick-release jumpers should not be his staple in any case. As proficient and assist-heavy of a point guard as Andre Miller is, he banks on his scoring and he thrives on the ability to decide between the shot and the pass. Take that away from him and he becomes pedestrian.
Much has been made about whether the guards can work together. I have tackled the subject myself and come away doubtful. But that's not the whole story. In any given game you can probably get two of those guys to flourish. Getting enough quality touches for all three, keeping the other two involved while the third is going off? That's a taller order. Everyone else on the team becomes an afterthought while that order is sorted out. This includes Oden, Batum, Jerryd Bayless unless he becomes the fourth guy that flat-out takes over, maybe eventually Wesley Matthews too even though he's having his way during the pre-season (when Roy and Miller are not). If Roy's having an off night who are Batum and Matthews to demand the ball until Brandon gets going? Substitute in Aldridge's name if you wish. Miller doesn't get quite as much pull, but his game is predicated on it. So most nights you end up with one or two good performances, somebody in the main trio falling short, and a bunch of other guys who could be contributing wondering if, and how much, they should. Few and far between are the nights you see Aldridge, Miller, and Roy having sterling performances, let alone the supporting cast in the same game. That's more a sign that the defense was putrid. Compare this with, say, San Antonio with Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili...all of whom have become famous because they work well together and have managed to work in guys like Finley and Bowen over the years.
I'm beginning to suspect that the chemistry isn't right between these players and it's affecting how much the secondary guys get to shine, highlighting the pitfalls of their inexperience instead of covering for them. If this is true, the games starting to count for real won't alleviate the problem. The Blazers have way too much talent to lose by the bucketful even with imperfect chemistry. But I don't think they make any dramatic steps until they're clicking together. I don't think vital cogs like Oden and Batum, Bayless and Matthews make as much difference as they should under these circumstances. They are they key to Portland's improvement.
I'm not sure there's an easy solution. You could posit any number of trades but you don't want the Blazers to become less talented or less deep thereby. Any trade of core players would have to bring back commensurate talent with tightly targeted skills and the ability to complement six other guys. The list of available players with those qualifications is tiny. I'm sure the short-term solution will be to ride it out and see if these guys can work together. Eventually something will have to give, though. These pre-season results have provided a sneak peak at that giving. It hasn't been pretty.
The immediate answer is that the Blazers have to pull it together. Whatever band-aids can be slapped on--more energy, some heart-to-hearts, some players intentionally giving up parts of their game for the benefit of others--it's time to apply them. The regular season won't wait for you to heal, nor will your division rivals. The time for trial and error is done. The team has a week to practice, then three games to show they've gotten their acts together. Two of those games are against defense-challenged Golden State. Hopefully that provides a boost. If the Blazers can't muster a cohesive effort in this final pre-season run, though, I'm going to start biting my nails for real.