It's early, however...nearly every prognosticator on the planet was predicting futility for our young, shallow-benched Blazer squad this season. But they seem to have held their own against quality competition. Generally is this team better than you expected? With the injury karma we're due (no major injuries for the next decade), is it possible in your opinion that the Blazers could make a run at a playoff spot THIS season?
You asked this question earlier in the season, Matt, but it fits just as well right now, doesn't it? Bonus!
As I mentioned in the last game recap, we need to all take a second to celebrate that the Blazers are within a game of .500 after 23 games. That's an accomplishment. Most pundits--myself included--didn't believe that we'd be talking about .500 after the first couple weeks of the season. I wouldn't have discounted the possibility completely, but .500 was the upper limit of the imagination for Blazer success this season. Behind a variety of heroes the Blazers have met that upper-limit projection so far and they deserve a huge hand for that.
In response to the question about the playoffs, I'm not changing my tune. You can't discount the possibility completely, but a .500 record and squeaking into a low, low seed is about the upper limit of Portland's potential right now. Odds are they will not reach that lofty perch. You're probably going to see them in the middle ground between horrible teams and playoff hangers-on. With their starting five in tow, this was never going to be a 15-win team. My early guess was somewhere in the low 30's which could be modified to the mid- to high-30's now if it makes you feel better.
I'm not just being stubborn here. The Blazers' effort has been good but their defense, over time, is likely to cost them more than it has. Any small stretch of season provides aberrations but over the long haul sitting dead last (or close enough) in field goal percentage allowed is going to catch up with you. Also depth and injuries are likely to catch up with the Blazers. You've probably seen the best basketball the Blazers will play this year. As the dog days of the season approach fatigue will take its toll. We've seen a pattern of improvement and regression from Portland's bench players. Heck, we've seen that from the starters as well. That cycle of inconsistency is going to trend downward the more mileage these guys get on their sneakers. Though they'll still spike, lower will become the norm.
None of that future projection should override the applause and hopes that the season's start has generated though. Worry about the future when it comes. Enjoy 11-12 right now.
I've been checking out Roy Hibbert's stats for the start of this season. It ain't looking so good. Did we dodge a bullet on that one?
It looks like it from early returns, eh? Of course there's no telling what Hibbert would look like in a different system. With the Blazers needing a center like a hippie needs a haircut, I'd still take Hibbert.
What's the next step in the Blazers progression? What positions do they yet need to fill? Do you see anybody on the roster stepping up to fill them?
Just mentioned one. To succeed over the long haul the Blazers will need help at center. Whenever we talk about centers people want to speculate who fits in best on the offensive end. That's not the major concern. The Blazers could go multiple ways on that, anywhere from low post to high. As long as they don't get a no-offense option like Joel Przybilla or a clogging-offense option like Eddy Curry they'll be fine. They need a defender, somebody who can take on NBA big men...not even the elite, but even journeyman centers. They'll want somebody who can rebound as well as J.J. Hickson but can also push around post players, eat space in the lane, and block shots when drivers get loose.
The Blazers could also use another shot/drive creator, either starting at the wing or off the bench. Right now I'm leaning towards the bench option because the list of requirements is smaller that way. They need someone who can turn the game when things aren't going well, a guy who can dazzle and threaten. Herm Gilliam and Bonzi Wells are examples from Portland's past.
Of the two positions, the wing is more likely to be filled internally. Will Barton is a possibility. Nolan Smith plays like he wants to be that guy but his track record is less than stellar. Everyone hopes Meyers Leonard will be the center but my sense is that the Blazers will need more help. I see Leonard becoming a good jack-of-all-trades guy but I'm not sure he morphs into the steady defender that they'll need.
What's up with Jamal Crawford and Raymond Felton? We ran these guys out of town and now suddenly they're world-beaters elsewhere. Did we buy high and sell low on these guys? Was it Nate's fault they didn't thrive here? Or maybe Chad Buchanan's for thinking that they might? Can we build a time machine and transport the updated versions of these guys back to last year?Tell me our free agent signings will work out better next year...
Don't hate the playa, hate the game.
Well, OK, you can hate Felton a little.
We talked about this a little in the "Faults in the Roster" post. Not every mishap can be chalked up to individual personalities alone. Some things are systemic.
Felton bears responsibility for coming into the 2011-12 season out of shape. Nothing gets him off the hook for that. But the rest of the evil that permeated the roster last season was as much environmental as personal. Consider:
--Expectations for that team were way out of whack. The incumbents had been acquired with the assumption of a roster which included Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, at least to some degree. The newcomers were thrown together in a desperate attempt (or calculated risk) to make up for the lack of same. Nobody on that roster, old or new, was going to make up for the seismic shock of losing those two players. The game was lost before it started. Blame for that was going to be apportioned one way or another and none of it was going to fall on Roy or Oden...the only two who could have made the kind of difference fans and management wanted.
--The contract situation of that roster was plutonium-level toxic. Had the season gone exceptionally well everybody would have been fine. Winning would have deodorized discontent and worry. But as soon as the smallest crack appeared all of those veterans looking for their next deal were going to start asking what's in it for them. With the roster assuredly changing in the summer there was no incentive to sacrifice for the team. With dollars and cents on the line for almost all of the key rotation players there was every incentive to protect personal prerogatives. As the season collapsed we saw those veteran guards go into business for themselves. Once that took hold, nothing was going to glue that lineup together.
--The Blazers needed different things than those players provided. They needed a point guard who could hit a three on the come-back pass after feeding LaMarcus Aldridge in the post. That wasn't Raymond Felton. They needed a center who could score and defend in the post. That wasn't Marcus Camby. They needed a small forward who could catch and shoot. That wasn't Gerald Wallace. Jamal Crawford was the only guy who was fulfilling anything close to his normal job description. Not coincidentally, he had the best season of those four veterans.
You're not seeing better play from these guys because they wanted to screw the Blazers. You're seeing better play because they're in a better situation.
I know it's too early to make anything of it, but the Blazers' play so far has been better than expected. As has the play of Damian Lillard. If the Blazers' success continues and the chances of making the lottery dwindle towards the trade deadline, what options would the Blazers have at the deadline to improve the team and actually make a difference? We have expendable bench players, expiring contracts, draft picks and a lot of cap space; will/should the FO's focus change to one of possible contention? How realistic is the possibility of making a trade for an expensive (All-star) player that their team may need to get off the books before they have to pay luxury tax?
So many permutations...head spinning.
Here are the basic questions to ask when considering a short-term trade for this squad:
1. Who could the Blazers offer in return?
2. What longer-term ramifications would the move have?
3. How much of a difference is enough to justify the trade?
The first question is probably the trickiest. You need to find players on this roster with trade value with whom the Blazers would actually part. That combination is rare. Aldridge, Lillard, and Batum have trade value but the Blazers won't move them at this point. Portland would be more than happy to trade any of its bench players but their value is near-nil talent-wise. You're looking at J.J. Hickson on an expiring contract, perhaps Wesley Matthews. I'm hard-pressed to find anyone else who fits the bill unless the trading partner is looking for a straight salary dump. Even with a salary dump, though, the Blazers still have to find contracts to send back. In-season the Blazers are only a couple million short of the cap line. They can't absorb that much salary. How many low-salary, expiring players can you send back in a single deal?
Plenty of people would be on board with trading Hickson or Matthews if the deal was right. But then you're losing one or two starters. How many holes can the incoming player fill? The idea of a short-term trade is to make your team better immediately. It's hard to imagine the Blazers getting significantly better unless they can swing a deal without touching their starting five, which is not likely.
If they did manage to swing such a deal, presumably in a salary dump situation, you bump against Question #2. Do you want to take on a longer-term, more expensive contract for a guy who might not be a perfect fit...or at least wasn't a good enough fit at his last stop to justify his salary? Likely candidates are out there, but they're rare.
Then there's the third question, how much of an improvement is possible. This team is way more than one player away from completion, let alone contention. Mid-season moves are more natural when you're looking for the final piece. I'm not sure you make one to go from 38 to 42 wins when the possibilities open much wider in the summer and your team looks more solid after another draft.
The answer to this question is similar to the question about the playoffs. It's not impossible but at this point it doesn't look likely.
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