Training camp is a couple weeks away, players are starting to drift back into town, and team officials and sources are shifting their public focus from summer vacation to the status of their squad as the season begins. That means it's time to herald the new year (or at least the flicker of light at the end of the off-season tunnel) by letting loose with our hopes and expectations for Portland's players in the coming campaign. Each day I'm going to list two or three items on my agenda for a Blazer player and invite you to expand and/or add your own.
As is appropriate we'll begin the process with Brandon Roy.
In a way you feel bad expecting anything more from Roy than he's been giving. It's hard to argue with 47% shooting and 21.5 ppg off of a nice all-around offensive game which includes plenty of ball-handling and a few assists. You could harp on his defense which, other than some decent rebounding for a guard, looked decidedly mediocre last year but there's a difference between expectations and wishing a guy to be something he's not.
Roy's overall production dimmed slightly in 2009-10 from the season before. Much of that can be attributed to nagging injuries. This brings up an expectation common to many Blazers: health. Portland needs Brandon for more than 65 games. Portland needs Brandon healthy for the playoffs. Absent that the Blazers don't have a chance this year. Whatever it takes--drop weight, don't practice, depend on teammates more--Brandon has to do it.
Beyond that, Roy needs to integrate himself more seamlessly with the offense while retaining his production. His biggest dip last year came in three-point shooting, where he ended up with the lowest percentage of his career despite taking more threes per game than he ever has. When he wasn't shooting threes he could be found lofting tough shots in heavy traffic. He didn't get the same quality looks last year that Blazer fans were used to seeing. Health provides an asterisk (his lateral movement wasn't up to his normal excellent standards) but a couple of defensive developments also contributed. Being paired in the backcourt with the chronically-driving Andre Miller meant facing a defense prepared in the paint. Also up until last year opposing teams had been petrified of the potential of LaMarcus Aldridge as an inside-outside offensive threat. A decimated lineup put LaMarcus in the limelight and opponents discovered that as talented as he was, his points weren't going to prove the deciding factor in Portland's victories. As such defenses became more than happy to single-cover Aldridge and let him shoot over the top all he wanted, devoting attention to Roy and anyone else who started to streak.
The lineup is not likely to change by opening night but Brandon can do himself and all of his teammates (including Miller and Aldridge) a world of good by discovering two other starters who can ease the pressure: Nicolas Batum and Greg Oden. Batum's deep shooting percentage and confidence skyrocketed last year and if summer international play is any indication that rise has not abated. Batum doesn't need to score 20 per game if he can hit the deep shot and penetrate if single-covered on the sideline. If he's a credible threat Brandon has one less defender to worry about permanently. Even if he just hits threes the floor is spread farther, loosening up both ends of Roy's inside-outside game.
At first the inclusion of Oden in this equation seems counterintuitive. Slapping a big guy with limited offense in the middle would seem to gum up the paint rather than free it. This would certainly be true if the Blazers chucked the ball low to him and watched. But Greg can help Brandon immensely in a couple ways. If he can catch the ball off of dribble penetration, whether on the ground or off of an alley-oop, he cements his defender to him. This is one of the huge differences between him and Joel Przybila whom Blazer fans are more used to seeing down low, generally to the detriment of the offense. Greg's ability to catch and finish remains to be seen but should be tested every time an opposing big man thinks to help on Roy. Oden also provides an instant and enormous offensive-rebound threat. Even if Brandon can't get him the ball Oden will ram home any miss if his defender doesn't have a full body on him. As long as the ball doesn't start and stay with Oden, both of these threats should seal rather than free defenders in the lane and keep them out of Roy's face.
Neither Batum's nor Oden's potential can be unlocked if they don't have confidence in themselves and trust from their teammates, though. One of Brandon Roy's main goals should be ensuring heaps of both come their way early on even if the team has to ride through some rough adjustments to make that happen. At his best Brandon becomes the multi-tool threat than makes all of his teammates more dangerous. At his worst he becomes a multi-dribble threat who leaves his teammates looking confused and turning the offense (and the game) over to him. The latter can't happen too much with these two young guys. He has to help them grow into their roles so they can join the more steady Aldridge and Miller in producing consistently.
This brings up the final expectation I have of Roy: this team needs him to be a more vocal leader. Brandon has been the leader all along, no doubt. But there have always been other players more visibly to the fore: Jarrett Jack in the early days, Jeff Pendergraph last year. There's nothing wrong with this mid-to-low-rotation vocalism. In fact it should be encouraged...in a supporting role. Since Brandon's been here, though, he's made comments to the media about the championship being his goal. If that's true the charge can't be led by the 5th or 12th best player on the team. This has to become Brandon's squad. He needs to get in people's faces if they're not producing, they're making mistakes, or they're just not satisfied with their role and it's causing waves. He not only has to play every game like it's the most important one yet himself, he has to make the guys surrounding him believe that and put out too. He's already good enough to command the respect. He has to employ it more overtly than he has yet. This is no longer a bunch of young guns, all but equal, coming up through the ranks together. This is the general arraying his troops for the toughest battle they've yet faced with more at stake than they have yet realized. I'll be happy the first time we see or hear about Brandon taking down one of his teammates the way he took down Zach Randolph in his rookie year. I'll be happy when that expression of Brandon not being satisfied with himself spreads to the entire team. And I'll be happy when we see this team adopt his habit of coming back and taking that disappointment out in flesh and blood the next chance he gets, particularly when the game is on the line. This team needs more Brandon and Brandon needs to give it to them.
Those are my expectations for Portland's team leader. What are yours? Feel free to quantify and explain them any way you wish.