December 14, 2011
Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away, and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on a too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.
Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's mid-December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or we would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.
This time? It's the Portland Trail Blazers
Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to be Cheerful
The news that the Portland Trail Blazers are looking to dump the highly-compensated Gerald Wallace in return for several draft picks highlights what we just can't get past as we attempt to be cheerful: Portland is in a bad way, right now.
That's even by their typical standards. Brandon Roy went from potentially starting to definitely retiring last week, Greg Oden is at best out until January but doubtful for most of the season as the big man attempts to recover from microfracture surgery, and the team has no general manager. Sure, executive Chad Buchanan is oft-referred to as "capable" as he runs the Blazers, but fans of the team should not get past the fact that Paul Allen has turned his stewardship of the Blazers into a laughingstock.
After the rife with potential but ultimately joke that was the Bob Whitsitt era and the tempestuous dumping of GMs Kevin Pritchard and Rich Cho within one calendar year, we're having a hard time remembering when the Blazers moves haven't fallen under that category. Yes, the team makes moves, and it spends money, and it sometimes drafts well (Mar-tell Web-ster), so we're often tempted into lauding this franchise. Sometimes, we give into that temptation. But even after excusing the injuries and admiring the long string of playoff appearances … shoot. "Cheerful." I'll save this for later.
The Portland Trail Blazers, led by either Buchanan or an as-yet-unnamed general manager, could have around $30 million in cap room to work with next summer if they're able to dump Gerald Wallace between now and then. This would leave LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews on the roster, along with various rookie deals to act upon and draft picks to sign. But they'll also have cash, and though you're frustrated with NBA free agents only signing with large market teams, players under contract are subject to the whims of their front office. Portland will be able to trade for anyone.
This season? Be cheerful at the fact that Ray Felton is competent, Marcus Camby will likely continue to defy age, and LaMarcus Aldridge played All-Star level basketball last season. Matthews will never approximate Brandon Roy's gifts, but he'll be able to use more possessions this season with Roy stepping aside, and the long-armed tandem of Nic Batum and Gerald Wallace (assuming he stays) will disrupt to no end. All we could ask for is a little more running, though coach Nate McMillan (and, sometimes, Felton) prefers things at a slower pace.
Portland can attempt to fall in love with Nolan Smith, continue building up that warmth toward Armon Johnson, and wonder just what they could get for Marcus Camby and his expiring contract at the trade deadline. This is a fan base full of broken hearts and active minds, and they deserve better from the basketball gods.
They also deserve better, much better, from their owner. And they deserve a fully-realized execution from whomever leads the next plunge into relevance.
In the meantime? Fun team, Portland. Enjoy it as you usually do.
Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: Portland Trail Blazers
I'm so excited for you!
Finding reasons to be cheerful (and sometimes having to look really, really hard in the process) is Papa Dwyer's bit. But at the risk of spending too much time waxing Python, the unenviable roster position in which Portland now finds itself could actually pay dividends if the largely untested youth dotting Nate McMillan's roster can rise to the challenge.
Brandon Roy, even in his injured and diminished state, played more than 1300 minutes in 47 games for the Blazers last year; if Portland loses out in the Jamal Crawford sweepstakes, someone will need to play the two behind Wesley Matthews. Newly imported point guard Raymond Felton is reportedly ushering in a new, up-tempo style; with primary 2010 backup Patty Mills unable to return from China until March, someone will need to give Felton a breather a couple of times per game. And while Greg Oden never saw floor time last year, any minutes he might have been able to play this season are now slated to go to 37-year-old Marcus Camby and 39-year-old Kurt Thomas, the top two centers on Portland's depth chart and the late-season 1999 New York Knicks frontcourt.
Up front, it's likely that McMillan will again slide LaMarcus Aldridge to the five at times, creating matchup nightmares alongside versatile small forwards Gerald Wallace and Nicolas Batum. But no matter how talented and flexible your stars and starters are, the nightly need to fill multiple holes will eventually require more bodies, especially during a mad-dash shortened season, which could create opportunities.
Chris Johnson's 2011 contract is unguaranteed, but if he earns his keep with a strong camp, the energy, defense and shot-blocking that made him a surprise factor during the Blazers' playoff series with the Dallas Mavericks could give McMillan just the right kind of bench option to supplement his centers' old legs. If he's able to knock down perimeter shots, Luke Babbitt (back from his scrimmage sojourn to China) could help stretch defenses, giving Aldridge some extra room to maneuver on the block or an attractive target for Felton on the drive-and-kick.
Elliot Williams could offer the sort of slashing spark at the off-guard spot that the Blazers anticipated before he missed his rookie season with a knee injury (of course it was a knee injury -- forget it, Jake, it's Portland). And if whoever wins the competition between first-round pick Nolan Smith and second-year sparkplug Armon Johnson can even passably initiate the Blazers second-unit offense, it'll go a long way toward easing the loss of wing ball-handlers like Roy and Rudy Fernandez.
Losing highly-prized talents like Roy and Oden sucks from every angle. But if the Blazers' bench youth is served, the losses might suck just a little less.
I'm so worried for you!
The worry, of course, is that youth won't be served -- that none of the two-years-pro-and-under set will make anyone in Portland forget about the top-shelf talent that they aren't seeing, and that their last several late-round picks have returned too few useful pieces. (Actually, it might be better to categorize that less as a "worry" and more as a "completely legitimate fear.")
If the kids can't at least tread water and the impromptu front office can't nail down the Crawford deal to lengthen the bench, the larger worry is that everything has to go right just for Portland to compete in the Western Conference. Aldridge's heart condition has to be nothing (which, man, do we hope it is) and he has to turn in an MVP-type season. Matthews has to build off a great first year in Portland and become something like a healthy Roy. Wallace and Batum have to lock up and exploit opposing wings every night. All those things have to happen because, as the roster and balance sheet are presently constituted, Portland doesn't have much wiggle room or margin for error.
If they don't happen, the Blazers will be in deep trouble, and could find themselves on the outside of the postseason looking in for the first time in four years.
I have no idea what to make of you!
Ever since coming into the league in 2008, it's been easy to look at Batum and see the monster he could one day become. That size, that length, that athleticism, that defensive ability, that stroke -- if Blazers fans squinted a little and were in a good mood that day, they could be forgiven for seeing an incubating version of Rudy Gay (or, if they were in a really good mood, Scottie Pippen).
After a shoulder injury knocked him out for the first half of his sophomore season, Batum came back looking even more impressive than he did as a rook, showing a bit more aggressiveness on the defensive glass to go with an improved shooting touch from the field, the arc and the stripe that helped the injury-plagued Blazers make another playoff push. With his needle trending heavenward and his shoulder back to full form, the sky seemed to be the limit for Batum in 2011 ... but it kinda-sorta wasn't.
Which is not to say that Batum was all that bad -- 14 points, five boards, two assists, a steal and a block per 36 minutes is pretty good, especially for a 22-year-old. But given starter's minutes, his shooting accuracy dipped from every distance on the floor, according to Hoopdata, and his field goal percentage (51.9 percent in 2009-10, down to 45.5 percent last year) and 3-point percentage (40.9 percent to 34.5 percent) declined to below-league-average levels as a result. So did his Player Efficiency Rating, which decreased from 17.3 to 14.8. He also grabbed a smaller share of available rebounds (9.5 percent to 8.8 percent, though he did perform better on the offensive boards).
Again: Not bad -- a 117 Offensive Rating and a +10 efficiency differential are nothing to sneeze at. Just not the great leap forward Portland fans would've liked to see. If that leap fails to come again this year, it's not the end of the world -- he's still just 23, after all (happy birthday, by the way). But given their run of bad luck with dreams turning into reality, you'd forgive Portland fans for being leery about believing too much in the monstrous future for which they once hoped.
Eric Freeman's Culture Club
The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS: "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"
After several years of big expectations, major injuries, and severe disappointments, the Trail Blazers as built by Kevin Pritchard are over. Brandon Roy has retired, Greg Oden likely won't return to the lineup this season, and LaMarcus Aldridge has blossomed into an All-Star talent as if to remind everyone what might have been forever. The good news, though, is that the Blazers can finally move on. With Roy out of the picture and Oden potentially never to suit up for the team again, it's possible to start fresh and, while not exactly rebuild, rehash a new plan for a team that's been waiting on players to heal for a few seasons.
It was a tough, complicated period for the franchise, and it's understandable that people would want to forget it and move on. However, to dismiss that incarnation of the Blazers as failures and disappointments foremost is to disregard their many triumphs. It would be an outlook similar to that of Joel in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," which dramatizes his character's attempts to rid himself of every memory of his ex-girlfriend, only to find that he wants to hold on to them as his subconscious experiences them all over again. The point, apart from various takes on the irrationality of love, is that a bad ending doesn't necessarily render an experience terrible or rob it of its value. It was still occasionally fun, and more often than not there are things to learn from it for the future.
So, yes, Blazers fans have every right to lament what they lost when Roy lost his knee cartilage and Oden proved incapable of staying on the court for more than a few months at a time. But those 78 games the two played together were still exciting, and not just because of what they suggested for the future. This team had talent fought hard every night, and made enough noise in the playoffs to stand out as something other than a lost cause. The Blazers mattered, and we should remember that as often as we try to forget how they never panned out as expected.