Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Portland Trailblazers

Coach: Nate McMillan
Last Season: 54-28, lost in 1st round
Key Additions: Andre Miller (Free Agent, Philadelphia 76ers), Jeff Pendergraph, Dante Cunningham, Patrick Mills (Draft), Jarron Collins (FA, Utah)
Key Losses: Sergio Rodriguez (Trade, Sacramento), Channing Frye (FA, Phoenix)

Offseason: The Blazers assembled one of the leagues youngest, most talented teams. Built around superstar Brandon Roy (mistakenly underrated as just a star), and power forward Lamarcus Aldridge, the team has steadily improved to the point of finishing 4th in the West last season. However, a lack of experience, and perimeter scoring other than Roy meant a 5 game knock out against the Houston Rockets.

Armed with ample cap space and a promising youngster, GM Kevin Pritchard sought out offensive help, specifically at the 3 and the 1. Pritchard’s top priority on the market was Hedo Turkoglu, hot off a great Finals run with the Magic, and fitting the bill perfectly with his clutch scoring and ball handling abilities in the problematic small forward spot. However, after agreeing to a 5 year, 50 million contract, Hedo U-turned and signed with the Toronto Raptors. However, it seems to me that the Blazers dodged a bullet here – Hedo is already 30 years old, meaning that he would have been way past his peak by the time this team reached theirs. He most definitely won’t be worth the money they were going to give him when he’s 35 and on the bench. After Turkoglu declined the Blazers’ offer, Portland turned to Utah’s restricted free agent, Paul Millsap. However, Utah matched Portland’s 4 year, 32 million offer, and the Blazers were again left without their man.

With the free agent market dwindling, the Blazers decided to address their weakness at point guard instead of their forwards, and signed Andre Miller to a three year, 21 million contract, with only the first two years guaranteed. Andre Miller should provide the Blazers with a veteran presence and some another ball-handler, though his style of play doesn’t mesh in very well with what the Blazers had last season. What the Blazers need from their point guard is a player who can knock down shots, and doesn’t really need the ball to be effective. Miller is a 21% career 3 point shooter, and is accustomed to dominating the ball on offense. In addition, the Blazers were the NBA’s second slowest offensive team last season (only Detroit had less possessions per game), and yet Miller, with his passing and his penetration, is much more suited to play a running style game. Despite these things, Miller is a good signing – he is a clear upgrade over Steve Blake, will provide a veteran presence and a tutor to Jerryd Bayless, and in case he doesn’t fit in, he will serve as a large expiring contract next season, but the Blazers have to feel disappointed that they couldn’t make more out of their favorable situation. Other offseason moves by the Blazers shouldn’t have much of an immediate effect on the team, as the three draftees won’t be asked to do much, and Jarron Collins is mainly a big-man insurance policy now that Channing Frye left.

Despite failing to sign their top-priority free agents, though, the Blazers should improve internally: Brandon Roy should cement his status as a superduperstar, not only with stat geeks and basketball maniacs, but with the mainstream media; Greg Oden is posed to have a monster season now that he’s 2 years away from microfracture surgery, already dominating preseason games and looking much nimbler; Lamarcus Aldridge will continue his ascension into the upper echelon of power forwards; and Spaniard sensation Rudy Fernandez, point guard Jerryd Bayless, and defensive ace Nicolas Batum will have their first NBA year under their belts. All in all, not a magnificent offseason for the Blazers, but they will be better next season.

- Greg Oden: After being drafted before Kevin Durant in the much hyped 2007 draft, Oden missed his entire rookie campaign due to microfracture surgery. Last year he was back on the court, but seemed very slow, fouled frequently, and didn’t dominate the paint like the Blazers hoped. In his defense, the center position has a difficult learning curve, microfracture typically takes two years to recover from, and Oden did show some skills while on the court; however, this season there will be no excuses. Oden has the potential to be an all-time great at center, or “the guy drafted before Durant”. If he wants to be the former, he needs to give a strong showing this season.

- Continued development: As mentioned, the Blazers are an incredibly young team. This featured greatly in the playoff loss to Houston, where the Blazers just seemed scared of the big stage. As this team matures, it will become better and better, with plenty of potential not even given rotation time last season (mainly Bayless, and injured swingman Martell Webster). The rate at which these youngsters improve could determine whether Portland joins the rest of the contenders, or are given that “one-year-away” label.

- Kevin Pritchard: After (deservedly) gaining a reputation as one of the best GMs in the league, Pritchard has shown some hesitance to pull the trigger, failing to move Raef LaFrentz’ expiring contract, and mainly holding on to assets instead of looking to improve via trade. Pritchard has received criticism of falling in love with his own team. The Blazers are already very good, but have the assets to pull off a major move. Another Pritchard stroke of genius could propel them into contention.

- Nate McMillan: McMillan has done a great job coaching this squad, getting the Blazers to defend, and mainly execute offensively (2nd in offensive efficiency) very well. However, one can’t shake the feeling that this team should be flying down the court, not walking the ball up. Roy, Rudy, Travis Outlaw, Aldridge – most of Portland’s rotation is ridiculously athletic, and newly acquired Andre Miller is perfect for running fast breaks. This team will probably be good no matter what style they play, but as a fan, you have to hope Nate will just let this team go loose.

Prediction: Greg Oden is posed to explode, and I believe he’ll make his all-star debut in the dilute talent pool that is Western Conference centers; Roy should garner a respectable amount of MVP votes; Aldridge should become a 20 point scorer; and the supporting cast should get better and better as they adjust to NBA level play. 56-26, 3rd in the East, and even more optimism in the Pacific Northwest.

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