There were high expectations for the Portland Trail Blazers entering the 2008-2009 season. GM Kevin Pritchard had shrewdly assembled a team full of talented youngsters who exceeded expectations the year before, despite losing #1 pick Greg Oden for the entire season due to an injury. Bill Simmons dubbed them the Portland Internets because of their interesting cast of characters and their devout online community. I was excited to see how it would all play out. I wondered how Oden, Rudy Fernandez, Nicholas Batum, and Jerryd Bayless would fare in their first NBA seasons. I was excited to see how good the up-and-coming Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge could be. I was curious about how Coach Nate McMillan would divide the minutes on this suddenly deep roster.
So, what happened? This team won 54 games in the regular season, which is a very nice achievement for a young team. Roy turned into a megastar before our eyes. Aldridge emerged as a legitimate #2 scoring option. Fernandez immediately became a fan favourite. Batum ended up starting at the 3, based on his strong defense. Oden had good per-minute numbers and showed flashes of brilliance on both ends (and endured loads of criticism, even though he was quite solid aside from his incessant fouling). Travis Outlaw and Joel Przybilla contributed significantly with their elite scoring and rebounding abilities, respectively. Sure, Jerryd Bayless was glued to the bench and Martell Webster was sidelined, but it was a positive story for most Blazers.
Things changed in the playoffs, though, when they drew the Houston Rockets in the first round. The match-up proved to be a big problem for Portland, as the team lost in 6 games despite Brandon Roy’s best efforts. Houston’s great defense created a lot of problems for Portland, much to the dismay of Blazer fans. Still, a first round loss is fine for a team with an average age of 24 years old. All you can do is look forward, try to address your weaknesses, and let your young guys grow.
So, what were their strengths and weaknesses in 2008-2009? Well, let’s look at their basketball-reference page. Here, you can see that they were the best offensive team in the league and played at the league’s slowest pace. It’s not surprising for a Nate McMillan team to be slow, but for a young team to be the most efficient team in the league, with a slow-it-down style? This is impressive and it speaks to the maturity of Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. On the other end of the court, however, they were only slightly above average – they finished 13th in defensive effiency. This is fine; it’s a recipe for a very good team. In fact, their foes in Houston, another very good team, finished 4th on defense and 14th on offense. The thing is, to be a great team, you almost always have to be one of the top teams at both ends of the floor. You would think that, in the off-season, any potential tinkering would then be on the defensive end.
Well, it hasn’t really shaken out that way. The Blazers’ pursuit of Hedo Turkoglu left me befuddled, as they didn’t really need another 4th quarter scorer who would take the ball out of Brandon Roy’s hands. While Turkoglu is a solid player, at least for now, he would likely not have put the Blazers over the top and I think that giving him a long-term contract could have been a big mistake, especially considering his defensive limitations. It may have been a huge blessing for the Blazers when Turkoglu unexpectedly chose to make Toronto his new home. When Portland then turned its attention to restricted free agent Paul Millsap, I thought the front office was being savvy, trying to get a talented rebounder at the 4 who can make up for some of LaMarcus Aldridge’s difficulties in that area. Sadly, the thought of Portland’s stacked Aldridge-Oden-Millsap-Pryzbilla frontcourt rotation died when the Utah Jazz decided to match the offer sheet.
After two failed acquisitions, the Blazers were left with significant cap room and a dwindling free agent pool. Some speculated they would stand pat with their roster, a reasonable strategy considering their collective age and their achievements last season. However, they did end up making a big free agent splash just a few days ago, when they signed point guard Andre Miller. As the only major change to Portland’s core this season (the other additions are rookies Jeff Pendergraph, Dante Cunningham, Victor Claver, and Patty Mills, who now has a broken foot), it seems appropriate to analyze the Miller signing in a bit more detail.
I’ll admit that I was against the signing when I first heard about it. It was reported as a 3-year deal worth $21 million. For a guy who will be 34 when the playoffs start, this seemed a bit much, especially considering the young and promising Ramon Sessions was still on the market. However, I soon learned that Miller’s 3rd year is a team option. This means the Blazers are paying Andre Miller $7 million for the next 2 seasons. This is fair for a guy with his ability. He coasted at times last season, but he still managed to put up 16.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 6.5 assists (to only 2.4 turnovers) in 36.3 minutes a game. These are quality numbers. He brings qualitative things, too – he is great at running an offense, throws great lob passes, and is a guy you want to have on the court at the end of games. He should make his teammates better. I still prefer Sessions because of his age, but these strengths make Andre Miller a fine player who should make Portland a better team.
Miller is not without his faults, though. For one, he is not a very good three-point shooter. This will allow defenses to cheat off him a bit and help on scorers like Roy, Aldridge, and Outlaw when they have the ball. I don’t see this as a huge issue, as the Blazers can quickly plug Blake in if they’re being exploited this way. The more important issue, to me, is that he is not a great perimeter defender anymore. This won’t actually hurt the Blazers as they’re constructed because he is certainly no worse than Steve Blake in this area, but it’s a problem. As I’ve said, the Blazers need to improve their D next season. I’m not sure how that happens now, after all the cash has gone to Miller.
Looking forward to next season, you can’t say that the Blazers are worse. They’ve added a very, very good point guard who will distribute the ball nicely and score efficiently. All of their young guys should get better and Brandon Roy might be in the MVP discussion. Martell Webster will be back from his injury. This team has the potential to give the class of the Western Conference a scare next season. It would seem one of the main problems facing Nate McMillan will be how to distribute all the minutes. However, the other main problem, defense, has not been addressed yet. Yup, they’ve improved their offense, but that wasn’t what needed improvement. If they’re ousted in the first round again, I’ll bet they’ll be trying to shore up the other end of the floor next summer.