I've never been a fan of using injuries as an excuse for a team's poor performance.
I do, however, believe in holding coaches responsible for their faults. As a matter of fact, that's a pretty good place to start.
I grade coach Cheeks with this caveat: that he's got power of who to put on the court. That may seem like an obvious element, but there are rumors that the front office is telling Maurice who to play and who to start -- largely because they want to showcase certain players such as Damon, Nick VE, and Shareef to up their trade value.
Given that this team probably isn't winning a championship anyways, is that necessarily a bad strategy? In and of itself, no. However, when it comes at the expense of developing young players (such as Sebastian Telfair and Travis Outlaw), then I believe it's a mistake.
My main issues with Mo Mo the Clown are this: 1. He doesn't play Telfair enough. 2. He plays Derek Anderson far too much. 3. It took him 30 games to realize that Ruben Patterson and Darius Miles should be starting over DA and Shareef.
Say what you will ... I don't believe that this team would be a title contender with another coach; however, I don't think Mo is the man for the job.
Point Guard: C-
Nick Van Exel and Damon Stoudamire have been exactly what we thought they would be this year: streaky shooters who don't distribute as well as a point guard should. Between the two of them, they positively affect about one out of every three or four games with some hot shooting and otherwise don't provide much. Both average less than 6 assists per game, both are defensive liabilities, and both are in the final year of their contract. Stoudamire has played better of late, but still is not the long-term solution that the Blazers need. Portland's best point guard is Sebastian Telfair; I'd give him a B+ based on his limited minutes so far this year; it's a real shame he isn't getting more PT.
Shooting Guard: D
Derek Anderson is awful. He's arguably the worst starting 2 in the league considering his contract (if you can think of a worse one, email me and I'll be happy to post other ideas.) Ruben Patterson brings rebounding, defense and hustle off of the bench but he's not a long-term solution, is out of position, and much like the rest of the team, can't shoot.
Small Forward: B
Darius Miles is a fantastic player, and I believe he'll be an all-star within 2 years. He's not at that level yet, but still probably the second-best player on the team. D-Miles is underrated defensively, great in the open court and in transition, and can get to the rim. He's been hurt and missed almost half the season due to injuries, which he's just now making his way back from. I believe he's one of the players on the team who would severely benefit from playing more with Telfair.
Power Forward: B+
Zach Randolph gets a lot of the attention on this team, both negatively and positively. He is one of five players in the NBA to average 20 and 10. He's been roasted lately for being selfish, acquiring the nickname "Stat-Bo". Yes, he could learn to pass out of double teams more frequently -- but I think we all know what the result of that would likely be: a missed jumper. He's one of the team leaders in points-per-shot and continues to produce at a very young age.
Theo Ratliff has been a big disappointment this year. He's been hurt, dragged down by nagging injuries, and clearly the effect can be seen on defense. His blocks-per-game are slightly more than half of what they were last year; and averaging about 3 fewer rebounds per game. Joel Pryzbilla on the other hand, who is now starting, has been playing wonderful basketball as of late, averaging 12.4 points and 12.8 rebounds over the past two weeks. Whether that's an aberration or whether he's coming into his own as a legitimate center remains to be seen, but it's a very good sign.
It seems that every starter aside from Zach Randolph has come off the bench at some point, so this is a tough position to grade. Let's assume that the team's starting 5 are Damon, DA, Miles, Zach, and Ratliff. That means we'll assume the "bench" is Shareef, Ruben, Van Exel, Pryzbilla, Outlaw, and Telfair. Shareef is a starter trapped behind Z-bo, so he's going to be much better than your average forward coming off the bench. He's quietly been very effective this season, averaging 15 points and 8 rebounds in about 35 minutes per game. Unfortunately, he's injured, and will likely stay injured until right around trading deadline time. Ruben has been his typical self, coming off the bench to make a few plays, add a defensive spark, and for the most part looking lost on offense. Van Exel and Pryzbilla we've already covered, so let's talk about the hot topic: Telfair and Outlaw should be getting more playing time. Now, I'm willing to accept that for now the team needs to showcase it's possible trade bait. However, if after the trading deadline we're still seeing both young players (each has shown very positive signs in their own limited PT) rack up the "DNP - Coach's Decision", I think we've got a legitimate reason to gripe.
Overall, it's been a very disappointing year for the TrailBlazers. They're playing at a .390 winning %, are six games behind a playoff spot and reside among the bottom of the Western Conference. They don't appear to have given us any reason to think they can make a playoff run.
I do think, however, that all is not lost. Between Zbo, Darius Miles, and Sebastian Telfair, they've got a potentially-fabulous young threesome to build around. If they can either make a big deadline deal for a two-guard and have Theo get healthy, this is a team that could be very exciting to watch next year. They will have a very nice draft pick -- likely in the top 7 -- and some genuine assets. Don't give up hope yet, Blazer fans -- just have a little patience.
Thoughts on my grades? E-mail me and I'll post some of the better critiques.