It's amazing how a few wins and some key Aldridge performances have resurrected interest in the Trail Blazers the last few weeks. The approaching trade deadline helps as well. My inbox has been inundated with questions, comments, and general enthusiasm. At least 50% of the mail can be distilled to 2-3 questions so I'm going to do a limited edition of the Mailbag today covering those topics that multiple dozens of people are inquiring about. As always, you can send your own questions to email@example.com. Please put "Mailbag" in the subject line to make it easy for me.
Who will the Blazers try to trade for?!? Will they make a major move?
You're reading the rumors right alongside me. You also know that 99% of them lead to nothing and that whatever actual trades go down happen quickly and without much notice. Since nothing has happened yet, you can disregard the vast majority of the speculation.
My sense is that the Blazers would not be opposed to making a major move but simply don't have the pieces with good contracts to make that happen. If they get a recognizable name it'll be along the lines of a Devin Harris or Danny Granger, former producers who have dimmed the last couple of years. But I don't think either of those deals really floats. At the beginning of the season Portland had the luxury of going older and/or skill-specific in adding a final piece to the puzzle. The puzzle is in such disarray now that no piece could be considered final. If they're looking to put their eggs in one basket they need a young-ish player more talented than their current crop with multiple skills and probably also the ability to score. How are they going to draw that guy? Brandon Roy? Knees and contract. LaMarcus Aldridge? Not replaceable at this point. Nicolas Batum? Not enough unless packaged with one of the former, which is more than the Blazers would give. Guys like Andre Miller and Joel Przybilla don't factor well in this scenario.
You could see Portland pick up a cheap, skill-specific player like a Jason Kapono from Philadelphia. He can shoot and he's fallen off a cliff there. Watch for a move that's in the "you can never have enough of..." category, shooters and big men being the likeliest targets.
Is it time to praise Coach McMillan for the recent streak?
A couple of things come to mind. First we should praise the schedule makers, as the Blazers have seen some weak sisters lately on the road, contributing to the streak. Second, it's a lot easier to be a "good coach" with a dominant inside player. Third, this team has issues obscured by the feel-good wins. Rebounding has become a problem. Marcus Camby may solve that but not forever. The defense allows way too many good shots. Portland has no Aldridge alternative, nor any dependable Plan B when things aren't clicking...a long-time issue. I'm not sure Nate can coach his way around these over the long haul, which means he's in for his share of blame (justified or not) after the praise blows by.
I think it's clear that this team knows how to dig deep, though. The greater the adversity the more the Trail Blazers band together and, at least in a relative sense, succeed. That's been true year after year in the McMillan regime. It's not coincidental. That's his personality bleeding through to them.
I think it's also clear that the years of muttering about Nate not being able to develop talent has been so much hot air. If you look at the guys on the team, most are succeeding. LaMarcus Aldridge appears to have turned the corner. Brandon Roy succeeded wildly. Nicolas Batum is coveted around the league now. Wesley Matthews is a candidate for most improved player. Dante Cunningham and Patty Mills have had their moments. They're obviously not in the same category as the others but plenty of people around here get excited about them.
Last year I took a look at the players Portland had traded away who were once considered rising stars...guys that people complained long and hard were being held back by Nate and his lack of developmental skills. It's useful to update that list from time to time, so here you go.
- Jarrett Jack: Traded 3 times. Best seasons 12 points and 5 assists for Portland in 2006-07 or 13 points and 4 assists for the Indiana Pacers in 2008-09.
- Martell Webster: Playing in his first year for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Injured. Averaging 10.7 points in 2010-11 just as he did for the Blazers in 2007-08.
- Sebastian Telfair: Traded or released 5 times. Best season consisted of 9.3 points and 6 assists in 32 minutes per game for the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2007-08. Best Portland season: 9.5 and 3.6 in 2005-06.
- Travis Outlaw: On his third team in two years. Averaging 9.5 points and 4.3 rebounds on 37.6% shooting in 30.4 minutes for the New Jersey Nets. Best season: 13.3 points and 4.6 rebounds on 43.3% shooting in 26.7 minutes for the Trail Blazers in 2007-08.
- Sergio Rodriguez: Out of the league.
- Channing Frye: Averaging 12.2 points and 6.5 rebounds in 32.6 minutes for the Phoenix Suns. These are higher than his Portland averages by far but his Blazer stats came in far fewer minutes. Measuring by per-36 minutes rates his best production as a Blazer in 2007-08 (6.8 points, 4.5 rebounds in 17.2 minutes) is comparable, if not superior.
- Jerryd Bayless: On his third team in two years. Averaging 9 points and 3.6 assists in 20.7 minutes with the Toronto Raptors. Best season in Portland: 8.5 points and 2.3 assists in 17.6 minutes in 2009-10.
Number of stars flourishing once out from under the restrictive thumb of Nate McMillan: Zero.
Number of players whose production increased significantly after leaving Portland: Maybe one if you count Frye's bulk numbers.
Number of players even retained by the team they left Portland for: Two so far out of six.
Out of a dozen or so coaches that these guys have played for collectively after leaving Portland, none of them got any more out of these players than Nate McMillan did. The only possible crime emerging from this list is not wanting to play his center on the perimeter launching threes for 30 minutes a game instead of Greg Oden or Joel Przybilla.
At the very least it's time to declare that old canard dead. The other evaluations depend on results. It's impossible to tell what those results would have been had, say, a Phil Jackson or Jerry Sloan been coaching this team but I'm betting Nate is getting pretty close to the maximum number of wins that can be coaxed from this team under these circumstances. Maybe he shouldn't get a massive amount of credit but he also shouldn't get a massive amount of blame.
Can the Blazers hold on to the 5th seed?
Hold on? They barely got it in the first place. That's like asking if you can hold on to the girl you just locked eyes with across the produce aisle. Perhaps an introduction and some chit-chat would be in order first? Maybe even (gasp!) a date?
Looking at the competition, though, the Blazers are in better shape than they have been at any time during this season. Denver appears to be imploding with or without Carmelo. Utah is on shaky ground, though I wouldn't bet on a Sloan-induced stupor to last forever. They have talent. New Orleans also has talent but watching Chris Paul the other night legitimately scared me. I wouldn't bet on the future of any of those teams. But even with Brandon Roy and Marcus Camby coming back I'm cautious about Portland's future as well. Remember the light schedule which led to this juncture. Take a look at the post-All-Star-break schedule and tell me if you think it'll last. Also remember that even when you produce like LaMarcus Aldridge has, your success is measured in seasons, not in months. The Blazers are still ultra-vulnerable to any team that solves LMA. I'm not liking the competition's chances but they also have reason not to like the Blazers'.
At the very least, though, you can say that Portland has a clearer path out of the 8th seed. That's better news than would have been expected a month ago.
Thanks for all the mail! Send in questions to the address below if you wish.