Tag Archives: Paul Millsap

Looking Forward: Utah Jazz

The 2008-2009 Utah Jazz had the 8th best offense in the league, the 10th best defense in the league, and finished with a record of 48-34. That’s what you call a very good team. They were never really seen as championship contenders, though. With Carlos Boozer only playing 37 regular season games, and with Deron Williams, Andrei Kirilenko, and Mehmet Okur struggling through injuries at various points in the season, this extremely consistent franchise was fielding a team that lacked… consistency. Boozer came back to unseat Paul Millsap with a couple of months left in the season, but this wasn’t enough as they ran into the eventual champion Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. It’s tough to say if this team underachieved last year – you could definitely make the argument that this team should have finished with more than 48 wins in the regular season, but, as good as they were when at full health, they weren’t going to win a 7-game series against the Lakers.

This is the part where I normally dissect the team’s off-season moves, but there’s not much to say here. The only additions to this squad are their rookies – Eric Maynor and Goran Suton. Maynor should fit in nicely as Deron Williams’s primary backup; this is a very good pick-up for a team picking 20th in a weak draft. Suton is still unsigned at this point and it is unclear whether or not this 24-year-old rookie will make the roster, especially one with a frontcourt rotation as crowded as this one. Let’s move on.

The biggest story in Utah, going into the season, is how the Carlos Boozeer/Paul Millsap situation will unfold. After expressing his desire to be moved to Chicago or Miami and stating that he couldn’t see himself back in Utah, the fans in Salt Lake can’t be too pleased with him. He’s back, though, at least for now, and he probably won’t be traded unless the Jazz get an offer that makes sense from a basketball perspective. The only way they were going to ship him out in the summer was to save money this season, by trading him into another team’s cap space. They needed a trading partner that a) had the cap space and b) had confidence that Boozer would re-sign with them when he hits free agency next summer. No teams fit this criteria, so here we are. Recent Hall of Fame inductee Jerry Sloan has stated that Boozer will have to compete with the re-signed Paul Millsap for the starting job and Booz isn’t having it. Let’s see how this goes. My gut tells me everyone will get over it, Boozer will start, and both will get reasonable minutes in what will be the Duke alum’s final season with the Jazz. Who knows, though? Maybe the right deal comes along and they can trade him for a solid wing player. That’d certainly be a way to make a leap in the standings.

Even if everything remains status quo, roster-wise, the Jazz should improve on last year’s mark if they can just remain healthy. No doubt they were successful last year given the circumstances, but the previous season they won 54 games and that’s the kind of mark we should expect from them this year. No, they’re not at the level of the Lakers and they’re probably not up there with the Spurs, either. Still, don’t discount them. People didn’t think the Orlando Magic or Denver Nuggets were elite squads a year ago and, if a few things go their way, these Jazz could have similar success. They’ve got an elite PG, competent wings, and a very above-average frontcourt, especially offensively. They’ve also got one of the best coaches in the game, a guy that ensures his team comes to play every night on both ends of the floor. Not much has changed here, but sometimes that’s a good thing.

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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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Looking Forward: Oklahoma City Thunder

You could say that the Oklahoma City Thunder had a bad season last year. After the move from Seattle, head coach P.J. Carlesimo was fired when the “Zombie Sonics” (to borrow from Bill Simmons) lost 12 of their first 13 games. They seemed almost like a minor league team – they did not receive national television coverage, none of their players made the All-Star team, and their logo looked generic and amateurish. When the season ended, only the Clippers, Kings, and Wizards had worse records.

…but I’m going to tell you why they’re in a fine, fine place. The firing of P.J. Carlesimo was necessary – he was playing Kevin Durant at shooting guard and had Ruseell Westbrook coming off the bench, splitting time with Earl Watson. I shouldn’t have to explain why this was irrational. As soon as Scott Brooks took over, he moved Durant to his natural position, small forward, and handed Westbrook the point guard reigns, giving him the freedom to make mistakes along the way. These two franchise cornerstones shone in their new roles. Jeff Green, not a prototypical 4 (and perhaps not a suitable long-term option there), remained effective at that position because of his strength and the matchup problems he creates. Perhaps most importantly, the team seemed to buy into Scott Brooks as a coach. They played hard for him and vouched for him loudly when they were questioned about removing his interim tag.

Management helped Brooks out, too, by making several smart decisions as the season progressed. General manager Sam Presti was able to acquire Thabo Sefolosha, Nenad Krstic, and Shaun Livingston at reasonable contracts, without giving up any of the team’s significant assets. Sefolosha and Krstic became starters and all three were a part of the regular rotation by the end of the season, where they will remain when the 2009-2010 season starts.

At the end of the season, the Thunder had only won 23 games of the possible 82. Yeah, this sounds bad, but when you consider that they were 3-29 at one point, it changes your perspective a bit. The Thunder undoubtedly improved as the season went on. They competed every night, even when they were overmatched, and even beat some superior teams. With a team full of young players, you’re going to have ups and downs. When a team changes coaches mid-season, it is going to take time to adjust. Last year’s losing, for this franchise, shouldn’t be considered a problem. They had great home attendance, a happy fanbase, and had become the trendy go-to League Pass team in the NBA blogosphere by the end of the season.

I would be remiss here if I didn’t give Kevin Durant his own paragraph. I’m just going to come out with it: Kevin Durant has quickly become my favourite player in the NBA. I’m not going to talk about how underrated he is or how his mild-mannered demeanor belies his killer instinct at this point. Anyone who’s been paying attention knows this stuff already. I’m going to keep this simple: the man is the best small forward on the planet not named LeBron James and he doesn’t even turn 21 until September. He should have been a lock for the All-Star team last season, but the coaches who vote in the reserves continue to reward inferior players who are blessed with superior teammates. I have no idea what his ceiling is, but I know he wants to stay in OKC and their fans are thrilled to have the privilege of watching him reach his potential. Me too.

Durant is one of the many players on Oklahoma City’s roster still on his rookie contract, including their core of Westbrook, Green, and recent draftee James Harden. The other players on the roster have reasonable, short-term deals. In fact, the highest-paid Thunder player is the recently acquired Etan Thomas, who will be making $7.9 million in 2009-2010 before his contract expires. This team has a ton of salary cap flexibility over the next few years, which will allow them to surround their young guys with proven players when they are ready to seriously compete in the West. This franchise took a bit of heat in Seattle when they let their two all-stars (Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis) skip town and went to work acquiring expiring contracts and draft picks. Now, though, we can see that they have rebuilt the right way, and don’t think other teams haven’t noticed. It’s safe to say that the Thunder are the model franchise in terms of how to rebuild, these days.

Part of this model is avoiding desperation home-run swings that can tie up your cap space for the next few years. The Thunder have plenty of cap room as I type this, yet they have refrained from acquiring a marquee free agent. They chose, instead, to keep improving from within while keeping their options open. I’ll admit that I wanted them to make a run for Paul Millsap or David Lee, to shore up their frontline with a legitimate 4. Still, I can’t bash ‘em. They can get away with having Jeff Green at the 4 for another season. They can afford to let their young guys breathe. This is the same reason I can’t be too harsh on them for selecting James Harden over Ricky Rubio in the draft. Yes, Rubio may turn out to be a megastar, but they chose to make the pick that wouldn’t foster any chemistry issues. They knew that Russell Westbrook wanted to remain the point guard of this team, and thus they grabbed a player who fits in well beside him in the backcourt, a guy that might not have the same hype as Rubio but may turn out to be a star in his own right. I’m not going to lie and say that I would have made these two moves, but dammit, I respect them.

I wanted to avoid this post turning into a Thunder love-fest, but it’s proving difficult. I really dig the nucleus of this team. Yes, it’s very true that they haven’t achieved anything yet. Still, they’re the envy of other franchises that wish they had the same kind of young talent and manoeuvrability. Even if you’re upset at the way the move from Seattle went down (and you have every right to be), you have to love the potential of this team. You know they’re going to be fun to watch and you know they’re going in the right direction. This is how to start over in the NBA. This is how to develop talent, especially in a small market. Other franchises could learn a thing or two.

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