Category Archives: Portland Trail Blazers

Five X-Factors For 2009-2010

When I look at the upcoming NBA season, I see five legitimate title contenders: The Los Angeles Lakers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, San Antonio Spurs, and Boston Celtics. Beyond them, I see a few teams fighting to join that group, including the Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, and Utah Jazz. It’s pointless to start making finals predictions now, as numerous things will change for these teams before we even reach the trade deadline. What we can do, however, is look at what factors could have a big impact on how everything plays out for these teams. There are some obvious ones: the health of Andrew Bynum, Kevin Garnett, and Manu Ginobili; how Vince Carter, Ron Artest, and Shaquille O’Neal fit on their new teams; and the play of Rajon Rondo following the vote of non-confidence from the Celtics’ boss, Danny Ainge. What I’m going to do now, though, is look at five people who may surprisingly turn out to be very important between now and the end of next season.

1) John Kuester: The new coach of the Detroit Pistons will have an impact in more than one city this upcoming season. The man who will usher in a new era of Deeee-troit basketball from the sidelines has left behind a vacancy in Cleveland, where he played a huge role in revamping their once-stagnant offense. It is hard to overstate the overhaul that Cleveland’s offense went through last season – the club jumped from 19th in offensive efficiency to 4th. Yes, the addition of Mo Williams gave the team some much-needed scoring punch, but they would not have become an elite offensive team if they had not advanced past the boring, uninspired isolation plays favoured by coach Mike Brown in previous years. If Cleveland is going to stay at the top of the Eastern Conference standings next season, they are going to have to remain an elite team on the offensive end, even with the loss of their offensive-minded assistant coach. I’m not sure how worried the people of Cleveland are about this, but I’m a neutral observer of the team and I’m scared of the Cavs returning to Brown’s pre-Kuester playbook, simply as an admirer of aesthetically pleasing basketball.

2) Marquis Daniels: Daniels could have an impact on the Celtics’ title chances in two ways – his play and his contract. Let’s first examine his play. In short, the Celtics really need Daniels to come through. I believe James Posey was grossly overpaid by the New Orleans Hornets last summer, but the Celtics still missed him last season. The team did not have a reliable swingman off the bench, as any fan frustrated with Tony Allen can attest. It should be noted that Daniels will not be able to hit three-pointers or play spot minutes at the 4 like Posey did, but he could turn out to be a valuable piece for the Celtics regardless. It is certain that Daniels will make significantly less money than the $6.3 million he made with Indiana last season and he will play less than the 31.5 minutes he averaged there, too. Boston badly needs him to accept this gracefully, buy into the system, and perform consistently off the bench, on both ends of the floor. He is capable of hitting shots and playing tough one-on-one defense and that’s all that they’re asking him to do. Now, onto the financial part of things – the Celtics are capped out and have used their mid-level exception on Rasheed Wallace. Thus, the only resource they currently have available to sign a player like Daniels is the bi-annual exception. If they use this on Daniels, they will be unable to sign any additional players for more than the minimum salary before the season starts. Hence, Boston is trying to work out a Colangelo-esque sign-and-trade deal with Indiana involving some of their spare parts, which would allow them to keep their bi-annual exception. The problem is that Indiana wants no part of Tony Allen and it’s proving difficult for Boston to find a third team that will take him on. This is only a big issue because of Boston’s somewhat shallow team and injury history. This is a team that had Brian Scalabrine, Stephon Marbury, and Eddie House playing significant minutes in last year’s playoffs. They’ve already passed on retaining Leon Powe and they might do the same with Glen Davis, so it’s fair to say they have depth issues. Guys like Joe Smith, C.J. Watson, and Von Wafer might take their bi-annual exception and those guys would be able to step into the rotation and contribute, even if the team luckily avoids serious injuries this time around.

3) Richard Jefferson: The new starting small forward in San Antonio must be all smiles right now, despite his messy divorce. He’s gone from irrelevance in Milwaukee to being a key cog in a championship-worthy machine. I think he could fit quite well with the Spurs, but there is reason to question how it will all work. On offense, he will have to adjust to a new role. Jefferson has been a featured player on the offensive end ever since his second year in the league. On this team, though, he should be the fourth option on offense when he is out there with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan at the start and end of games. How will he cope with this? We know that he should be able to hit the corner three-ball, which is a start. It is questionable, though, how he’ll react to playing mostly off the ball for the first time in years. He will have to change his habits, only going one-on-one when it represents a more efficient chance to score than giving it up to one of the big three (i.e. rarely). NBA players generally aren’t great at changing their habits as they age, but if Jefferson has adjusted come playoff time then the Spurs should be in very good shape at the offensive end, as he still has a lot to give this team if used correctly. On the defensive end, there are more question marks. The Spurs have long been the model of team defense in the NBA, but their perimeter defense was spotty last season, with Roger Mason, Michael Finley, Ime Udoka, and a declining Bruce Bowen unable to contain the best of the best at the wing positions. I’m sure the Spurs are aware of the fact that Jefferson showed some slippage in his defensive game last season with Milwaukee. If they end up facing the likes of Brandon Roy, Kobe Bryant, or Carmelo Anthony in the playoffs, they are going to be banking on him playing defense more reminiscent of his days in New Jersey than what he showed last season. I must stress that I am as impressed with the Spurs’ off-season as the next guy, but it is not a given that Jefferson will vault them into a contention next year. It’s very possible that he could, but, as they say, that’s why the play the games.

4) Greg Oden: Portland’s prized big man has taken more than his fair share of criticism over the past couple of seasons. Sure, he might never be Kevin Durant, but the man has proven himself to be a productive player when not hobbled by injuries. Although he was touted as a defensive beast, he impressed me more last season on the offensive end with his toughness and scoring ability on the inside. He is a beast on the offensive and defensive boards and still has all the potential we all saw in him before entering the league. The key, for Oden, is staying on the court. If he has a relatively injury- and foul-free season, Portland could become a very, very dangerous team in 2009-2010. By far, Oden’s biggest flaw is his propensity to foul. He averaged 6.5 fouls per 36 minutes last season, which is awful. We want to see the guy get more minutes next season, but this will only happen if he learns not to foul. Sure, his rebounding totals might dip a bit if he’s being more careful about sticking to the rule book, but he must make the effort to play smarter, especially on the defensive end. If he can make a leap towards becoming the defensive intimidator we all expected him to be when he came out of college, this will be a huge help to the Blazers’ team defense. The Blazers had the best offense in the league last season, so their only hope of improving this season comes at the defensive end. If Oden puts it together mentally and stays clear of physical ailments, they could make a leap and scare one of the consensus title contenders in the West.

5) Vinny Del Negro: This second-year coach has one of the most talented young teams in the league in Chicago. He has been given a brilliant young point guard in Derrick Rose, proven wing scorers in John Salmons and Luol Deng, and athletic young guys who have shown defensive prowess in Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah. Del Negro took a ton of criticism last season, much of which was probably deserved. In 2009-2010, he must free Rose to become the star we know he can be and he must utilize Deng’s wide array of offensive tools much better than he did before the injury a season ago. If he gets this group to perform as more than the sum of its parts, then they could occupy that coveted 4th seed in the East by season’s end. Once there, with some luck they might be able to scare one of the big three. I’m not saying this is the likeliest of scenarios, with Del Negro at the helm, but you never know. There’s a lot of potential here, and perhaps the best thing Del Negro could do for the group is struggle during their rough early-season schedule so a superior coach can come in and lead this team the right way.

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Filed under Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Lakers, Orlando Magic, Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs

Looking Forward: Portland Trail Blazers

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.

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Filed under Free Agency, Looking Forward, Portland Trail Blazers