A couple days ago we ran a discussion piece asking how good people thought the Trail Blazers would be assuming the lineup remained basically unchanged between now and the start of next season. The conversation in that piece was interesting. Today I want to share my glaring concern with the roster and look at the Blazers' chances of addressing it. To start with, let's review the presumed lineup:
- Raymond Felton PG
- Wesley Matthews SG
- Gerald Wallace SF
- LaMarcus Aldridge PF
- Marcus Camby C
- Brandon Roy SG
- Nicolas Batum F
- Greg Oden C (probably after January)
- Some combination of Chris Johnson, Luke Babbitt, Elliot Williams, Nolan Smith, and whatever other guys currently on the roster you'd like to speculate about.
Here's the deal. No matter what you think of the individual talents of the players involved, listing the lineup I see exactly six guys that can be depended on for semi-consistent playing time. Greg Oden's track record is obvious. Brandon Roy is still on limited minutes and has been inconsistent even so. Nobody from the bottom rungs of the rotation has shown any signs of climbing into a regular rotation spot. That leaves Felton, Matthews, Wallace, Aldridge, Camby, and Batum for the team to depend on. Even if you max out your assessment of their skills, that's a thin group.
You can go even further. Marcus Camby's effectiveness slipped in the latter part of last season following injuries. To say he's injury-prone is going too far but he's no stranger to down time. Gerald Wallace is also known as an injury risk, playing over 72 games in a year just once in his career. Now you're down to Felton, Matthews, Batum, and Aldridge as completely bankable, 82-game threats. Even if you want to throw Wallace back in you're still talking about major minutes for, and major strain on, 4-5 players. Some folks argued strenuously that LaMarcus Aldridge was overplayed last season. That problem could triple or quadruple this year. A lockout-shortened season could actually prove a godsend for this team.
People seem to be speculating that the Blazers can work their way out of this corner in a couple ways. Some argue that the team is going to get better organically through the development of all its players. I believe that some players will grow, but this argument is advanced far more than it actually happens. That kind of growth isn't automatic, otherwise every team in the league would get gradually better year by year until everybody got great. I remember particularly a year or two ago I was wondering how much more the Blazers could achieve and somebody eloquently spelled out in the comment section how impossible it would be for the team to do worse in the coming year because so many players would develop. Yet the team has won fewer games than the year before for two years straight now, likely with more promise available than currently exists. The truth is some players develop, some stay the same, some regress, and some just never make it at all. As I said last week, all six of the Blazers six first round point guard picks in the last seven years proved less than serviceable, and that's not even counting the second-rounders from Taurean Green to Armon Johnson. Nicolas Batum may get better and he may not. How much better can Aldridge get? Where is the improvement going to come from and how much will there be? It's possible a whole bunch of people may get better at once, but it's certainly not guaranteed. In any case, they're going to need a ton of organic growth to leapfrog into the conference elite.
The other common argument is that the Blazers will pick up a big man using the Mid-Level Exception, presumed to carry over into the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. I wonder who would fit the bill? Portland needs serious help at the center and power forward positions. I have no doubt that they can pick up Earl Barrons all the day long but what true difference makers will be available at 6'10" or above? Those are still among the rarest commodities in the league. And even should that guy shake free, what would entice him to join the Blazers as opposed to any of the other 29 teams that have the MLE handy? Miami is hungry for a big, as are Boston and the Lakers. How many impact players are there to go around?
The Blazers aren't in an impossible situation but they're in a tight spot. This is a large issue with no easy out. Once again we're staring down the barrel of depending upon Brandon Roy and/or Greg Oden to ride in and save the day. Nobody's comfortable with that, but it remains the most viable option unless the Blazers have an amazing rabbit left to pull out of the hat.