May 03, 2010
With every season that ends, for the playoff teams at least, we felt it right to take a look ahead. TNT already has the rights to "Gone Fishin'," and because we're sure that someone, somewhere, still likes that Wyclef song, we're going with "Gone Till November." And, yes, we know the season starts in October. Today? The Portland Trail Blazers.
Injuries, as you no doubt already know, are the first thing that has to be brought up when discussing the Portland Trail Blazers. They're the reason that this team couldn't throw itself into the ring amongst the championship hopefuls this season.
And, moving forward, they'll likely be the reason why the Blazers don't contend from here on out. Because as freak as some of these maladies are, rehab, and approximations (as opposed to full restorations) have to be taken into account.
We may never get to see the full Greg Oden(notes), as promised to us in 2007. Even if he plays 82 games a year from here on out, just how much spring will be in those legs after a microfracture rehab, further knee issues and a debilitating fractured patella?
Do you know who went through this sort of start to his career? Antonio McDyess(notes). And he didn't have the triple-whammy of seeing all these ailments hit in consecutive seasons. No, he saw them spaced out over a half-decade, and by the time he got back to full health, Antonio had turned himself into a jump-shooting role player. Great contributor but a far cry from the backboard slapper that probably ranked as the NBA's finest athlete in his first three seasons.
And McDyess didn't have a 7-foot body to protect, either. Oden will be tentative and careful about leaving himself prone in game action, and why shouldn't he be?
It's a dangerous game, being a 7-footer in today's NBA. All sorts of freak accidents are bound to happen in a game that's getting faster and faster. People will run underneath you, you'll be a step-slow in slowing before bashing into some ultrafast wing player, and other clumsy sorts can fall into you or come down on your foot. It's not a coincidence that these people keep finding new ways to hurt themselves. The game is speeding up, more and more players are playing a brand of defense that doesn't allow for taking plays off, and the big 7-footers just can't keep up.
Moving forward, this team starts and ends with Oden, which is why I'm paying so much attention to him. The guy was brought in to make a mediocre defensive team good and to make a pretty good offensive team great with all his finishing ability inside. He's exactly what they need, but they might only get 80 percent of what they need from Oden as we roll along, and that's just assuming Greg plays. We're all rooting for him, and I still have faith in the guy. But I also recognize how the game has changed to the big pivotman's disfavor.
Portland has depth in this area, we know, but I'm about ready to write off nearly all of Joel Przybilla's(notes) 2010-11 season as he recovers from injuries, and though Marcus Camby(notes) is a fine stopgap, he couldn't do much to stop the Suns from waltzing all over Portland in the first round this year.
Thanks to Camby and Brandon Roy's(notes) contract extensions, the Trail Blazers will be over the cap this summer, so any improvement will have to come from cheap tweaks (trading an unhappy Rudy Fernandez(notes)) and internal development. Przybilla's expiring contract could turn into solid trade bait, but those are the sort of deals that take place in February, not July.
So it's on Roy to move past yet another knee setback and get back to his role as Kobe Jr. It's Andre Miller's(notes) job to stave off his advancing years for another season and turn Oden into a dunk machine. And it's LaMarcus Aldridge's(notes) job to realize that just getting to your per-game averages, on some nights, isn't enough. And that, yes, it does matter when and how you get those 18 points.
I wouldn't bank on it, not a chance, but imagine how better the Blazers would be if LaMarcus Aldridge turned it around! If he took those long arms and that nice touch to the low post. Even if he weren't piling up the points, he could still pile up the fouls for the other team, which would allow freebies for Miller and Roy as the defenders hit the penalty situation.
He could be the difference. If Oden can stay on the court and Roy brings his typical play, LMA in the low post and paying attention defensively could vault the Blazers to 60 wins. He's the only guy that stays healthy, and he's the only guy on this roster who you feel has so much, still, to give.
You just can't bank on it, though. The same was the case for Rasheed Wallace(notes) a decade ago. If he put his imprint on the game, taking over in the low post instead of forcing Mike Dunleavy to call another iso set or a screen and roll involving Steve Smith, then the Blazers could have really found that last personnel edge to put them over the top. Instead, he floated. And while LMA doesn't hurt a team nearly as much as Rasheed with his locker-room issues, Wallace made up for a bit of it with his defense.
So, bring them all back and assume the best-case scenario health-wise. I'm still not seeing a championship picture, unless Aldridge comes back a completely different player. And this far into a career, it's just not right to expect someone like that to change his spots. Pity, because while he's not bad (he's pretty damn good, in fact, as is), he could be the one.