Ball Don't Lie - NBA


YSB contributor Nick Friedell, on-the-scene and in the mix from Orlando ...

As the final minutes ticked off the clock last night at Amway Arena, I headed down towards the visitors' tunnel so that I could speak to the Blazers after the game. Once I got down there, most of the people in the building were filing out, but there were two tall men who weren't going anywhere ... Portland GM Kevin Pritchard and Orlando GM Otis Smith.

Each man spent the final moments of the game alternating between watching the action on the floor, and pacing up and down the tunnel. As I watched the slickly dressed former players sweat out the last few moments, I couldn't help but think about the differences in the way their teams were built, because those differences were never more apparent.

The Blazers have been built almost entirely through draft picks and trades. During Pritchard's time in the front office, as both assistant GM and GM, the team has landed Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez among others. In one of his lone free-agent acquisitions, Pritchard landed Steve Blake who scored 20 last night and is averaging 11 points and 4 assists a game.

The Magic, on the other hand, have been built through a combination of free agent signings and draft picks. The problem for Smith is that unlike Pritchard, his moves don't seem to be paying off as much. In '05, as co-GM alongside Dave Twardzik, Smith drafted Spanish big man Fran Vazquez, who has yet to play in one game for the Magic. In '06, Smith selected J.J. Redick, who has yet to do anything meaningful during his NBA career, and found himself planted on the Magic bench again last night. In '07, the Orlando GM traded away his first-round pick to Detroit in exchange for Darko Milicic and Carlos Arroyo, neither of whom are still on the team. The Pistons, in turn, drafted point guard Rodney Stuckey, a player that the Magic would love to have right now.

Smith's decision to sign Rashard Lewis to a max deal last season and Jameer Nelson to a six year deal, which kicks in this season have already started to look bad. Lewis had six points and three turnovers last night, while Nelson had 10 points and four turnovers of his own ... not exactly the numbers you'd like to see from your point guard of the future and your $122 million-dollar forward. 

Neither player was worth the contract that Smith gave them.

By building through the draft, and holding off on signing any player to an outlandish contract, Pritchard has given himself the flexibility that Smith does not posses. He also has built a young and talented bench, which accounted for 40 points last night, compared to a Magic bench which accounted for just 12 (all of which were scored by Keith Bogans), and is one of the weakest in the league.

Pritchard will be able to go out and sign a big name free-agent if he so desires in the next few years, and if Greg Oden could ever stay healthy and return to the lineup, the Blazers' young nucleus has a chance to become special, something that the Magic simply cannot say right now, because of the way they've been constructed.

*****

A few other notes from last night's Portland-Orlando game ...

Rudy is for real: Anyone who watched the 2008 Olympics could see that Rudy Fernandez was a great player, but even I'm a little surprised how quickly he has adapted to the NBA game and started contributing for the Blazers. Fernandez had 16 points, three assists and three steals in last night's win, hitting several big shots in the process. The scary part for the rest of the league is that he is only going to get better. "He's still learning the game," Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. "He's still learning the NBA game and what it's all about ... talent-wise he can play in this league. Once he adjusts to the players and the rules he's going to be a really good player."

Oden Watch: Greg Oden is still recovering from the ankle injury he suffered a couple weeks ago in Los Angeles, but he looks like he could be close to a return. He spent the majority of his time before last night's game working on post moves with coaches, under the supervision of the Blazers' medical staff.

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