Western Conference Preview, Part 4: Portland Trail Blazers
Welcome to the season outlook/preview/prediction section for our Portland Trailblazers. This little conversation between the two of us will take place over the next few days, and it will serve as a general guide through what looks like another rough season in Rip City. The season starts next Wednesday night against the Seattle/Oklahoma City Supersonics, until then, you have to live with our banter:
Question #1, how do you feel about the overall direction of the franchise right now?
Moderator: Better than I did five months ago. Which granted, isn't saying much. You can only get so excited about a team that's rebuilding, but I do think that the 2006 NBA Draft will function as a turning point for this team. I know there were a lot of people out there saying "they're already SO young, why acquire more youth?". And I hear that. But I have very high expectations for LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy; they're both building blocks. And what I liked most about the two of them was this: Roy can play now at a needed position, whereas Aldridge will take a season or two. But we don't need him now, we've got a halfway decent frontcourt, so I feel like the team kind of got the best of both worlds with those two picks. Between Aldridge, Roy, Jarrett Jack, Martell Webster, Travis Outlaw, and Sergio Rodriguez, they've stockpiled a very healthy group of potential young starts. At least a few of them have to work out, right? Portland is in for a rough year, but I would defy anyone to point to a roster with more young talent and potential than the Blazers'. I'd rather the front office looked ahead 2-3 seasons from now, and it appears that's what they're doing.
Question #2, what are you expecting the rotation to look like for the first half of this season?
Lochi: Well, I think you have to eliminate Darius Miles from the first half of the season after the reports from Jason Quick the last few days. This really throws the small forward position into a total crapshoot. Right now I'd have to say that the staring 5 that will be used the most often in the first half will be Jack, Roy, Outlaw, Randolph, and Joel. There's growing support for Udoka, if Subterfuge Stevie doesn't cut him just to be a dick. Udoka could very well start Game 1, but the smart money for the most minutes at that spot and the most starts right now is Travis Outlaw. Webster would be the guy but he's also got a bad back. On a side note, a bad back at age 19, that sounds just terrific. The bench on this team looks pretty thin after you get past the injured players. Dickau and Rodriguez both bring some flair to the court but I have a feeling Jack's going to be playing some pretty heavy minutes unless they move Roy to the point for 10-15 a night while Dixon plays the shooting guard. The front court, well, you've got Raef LaFrentz, who will win you a good solid 3 or 4 games this year by himself when he goes on one of his 9 for 9 three point binges. Then there's The All Star, who in the pre-season is bitching about playing time while averaging more turnovers than rebounds. Awesome. All that said, I'm seeing some a lot of court time for Jack, Roy, and Z-bo, which isn't a negative in my mind.
Question #3, How good is Brandon Roy? What type of player are you expecting this season, and is he the savior?
Moderator: Here's the problem: we all know how great Brandon Roy could be. He's got the complete package; he can handle the ball. Shoots it a bit. Gets to the rim. Plays multiple positions. Clutch. And he's a smart, heady leader on top of all that. But if we anoint Brandon Roy "The Savior" right now, then we're dooming him to a Harold "baby jordan" Miner-like career so let's stay away from that for the moment. I think he's in for a great career, and I think he'll be considered one of the steals of the draft in a couple of seasons. I just hope that Nate McMillan doesn't spread him out too much; i.e. split his minutes between PG, SG and SF because I would love to see him be able to learn a position. Most of you know my thoughts on the NBA -- that we don't have 5 "positions" any more but rather three types of players (backcourt guys, wings, and post players). I also don't want to see Roy play 35 or more minutes per night as Nate has been doing in the preseason. The ideal situation would be to simply let him play a generic "backcourt" role -- handle the ball a lot, run the offense at times, do a little scoring-- and start him off at 20-25 minutes per night. This way he is allowed to grow into a leadership role on the team, both off the court and on, and we might even be able to delay the inevitable "rookie wall" that he's bound to hit in March. But yes, I'm very excited about Brandon Roy, and as much as it pains me to say this about a former Husky, I can't ever remember being this excited about a Blazer rookie in a long time.
Question #4, How do you expect the roster to change this season? Which Blazers do you anticipate will be sent packing, and for what type of players?
Lochi: I think this all depends on Z-bo. Is he really a building block for this team or not? That's something that's going to have to be answered by him on and off the court prior to the February trade deadline. It's hard to find legit 20 and 10 guys in the league, and it's equally hard to find guys that can score 20 simply by getting offensive boards and garbage points. That being said, the light upstairs is not all the way on. I don't have the energy to go through all the ridiculous off the court stuff, or the fact that he hasn't discovered an alarm clock and he's past the age of 6. So, my guess is they move him. Miles is obviously the other must move part, and I think he may have played his last game for the Blazers. Just a hunch. They appear set to build around Jack, Roy, and Joel, but if they deal Zach they will have a massive hole at the power forward spot. If I had to wager, I'd say that they move Zach for a good young small forward sometime during the season. Everyone knows they've got their sights firmly set on a certain big man playing his one year of college in Columbus, OH. So, if they can get a quality small forward to go along with Jack, Roy, Oden, and Joel, well, I think they just might be ready to be a contender again.
Question #5: What players do you expect will have a better year than some might expect? Worse? Do you see anyone on this team making The Leap this year?
Moderator: We've been expecting Travis Outlaw and Darius Miles to make "The Leap" for two straight years now, and as tempting as it is to select Outlaw again, there's no way I'm taking that bait. There are two players whom I expect to have a better year than expected: Martell Webster and Zach Randolph. Let's talk about Z-bo first. After two straight years of injuries, arrests, and bad press, I think Zach playing 70 games this season and averaging 18 and 8 all season would be a major, major surprise to most Blazer fans -- but that's exactly what I expect from him this year. This will be Zach's "put up or shut up" year as far as Nate McMillan is concerned, and I think Zbo will make it awfully hard for people to start focusing on LaMarcus Aldridge as the future of the team at Power Forward with his rejuvenated play this season. Next, Martell Webster. We all saw how lost Martell looked at times last season, but this year I expect him to crack the top-9 rotation and start to put it together. My one worry is whether he gets jerked around between the "2" and the "3", but he's got a sweet looking jumper. Granted, it doesn't do any good if you can't move away from the ball and get yourself open. Playing alongside Jack, Roy and Spanish Chocolate will do wonders for Martell's away from the ball movement. Finally, a quick note about players whom I expect to do poorly this year: again, there are two. First, Jamaal Magloire. He may get 15-20 minutes per game for the first portion of the season, but once his legendary work ethic kicks in we'll see his minutes dwindle all season long and I predict that an off-court incident will be the final straw for him as far as Nate is concerned. One last player I expect to have a down year is Juan Dixon, for the sole reason that I don't believe he'll get much playing time this season. Juan doesn't bring a lot to the table to begin with, let alone when he's standing in the way of the devleopment of youngsters. He pitched in and helped out a bit last year, but it's going to be a long season for Stop Shooting Juan this year.
Question #6, In 2005-06, the Blazers were last in the league in points scored and in the bottom five in field-goal percentage allowed. Where do you expect to see the biggest improvement next year? Why?
Lochi: Beyond the whole "can't possibly be worse" argument, the reason they're going to be better off offensively is simply that the people on the floor have a steadier offensive game. Brandon Roy makes everyone on the floor better. I expect this is his biggest impact as a rookie, he's not going to show up and start scoring 28 a night. He is going to see the floor, get to the foul line (more on this in a minute), and as far as his shooting goes I expect him to be like Juan Dixon on his good nights all the time, meaning a great mid-range shooter and a decent 3-point guy. This goes back to my Manu comparison, Roy in college looked a lot like Manu to me, without the flopping. Jarrett Jack is a more consistent player on both ends of the court than either Telfair or Blake were last season, and he's also aggressive to the rim. Outlaw, for all his faults, can get to the rim as well. The easy way for this team to score more points is to get more free throw attempts, Jack, Roy, and Outlaw should accomplish this. The wild card, I'm sensing a theme here, is Z-bo. If he parks his ass on the low block and shoots 10-14 free throws a game, the team is going to average at least 5-10 more points than last year. Defensively, I'm not sure they'll be a LOT better than they were, other than cutting down on the transition baskets by getting to the line on the other side of the court. Jack's a good defender but Dickau and Sergio are going to get ripped up. Roy's a solid defender but how will he react to guarding the best players in the world and not Malik Hairston, this is where I suspect Roy to struggle early until he learns some of the tricks of the trade. Outlaw and Webster guarding NBA small forwards is horrifying, and so is Zach guarding anyone. Joel might lead the league in blocked shots this year becuase of our dreadful front court defense, remember you've also got LaFrentz coming off the bench, who's hideous defensively as well. The wild card here is Udoka, I hear good things, we'll see. Bottom line, this team will score more a lot more points, but will give up about the same as they did last year.
Question #7: Prediction time, will this team have the most ping pong balls in the Greg Oden Lottery? What are the chances they finish ahead of anyone else in the Western Conference, or the Knicks?
Moderator: Portland will not be a playoff team, and I don't believe they'll even get close. They've got a pretty brutal first 15 games of the season, with matchups against the Clippers, Hornets, Mavericks, Cavs, Spurs, Suns, and Pacers -- all clearly superior teams -- just in the first four weeks. As I wrote in the blog, I believe to Blazers to be in the bottom tier of the Western Conference, along with Sacramento, Memphis, Minnesota and Utah. Now, would it shock me if Portland finished ahead of one or two of those teams? Not really. Do I expect them to? No, unless Minnesota cashes in their chips and trades KG, or the Jazz players revolt against Jerry Sloan, or something crazy like that happens. Portland is a young team, and they'll reflect that every single night -- looking great for stretches at a time, and looking lost for stretches at a time. And in the loaded Western Conference, you can't spend a whole lot of time looking lost or you'll get buried. Portland won 21 games last season, and I expect a very mild improvement over that -- somewhere in the range of 24-29 wins. Whether that's enough to get them out of the cellar in the West, I couldn't tell you, but I do think there will be a couple of teams in the Eastern Conference (Atlanta and Charlotte come to mind) who'll be trading punches with them towards the end of the year in fighting for that number 1 draft pick. My guess is that the Blazers end up at #3. Here's my question though, to all of the pundits who think Portland is angling to get Greg Oden: why would they target a big man like him when they drafted their devlopmental PF/C combo player -- LaMarcus Aldridge -- last year?
Question #8, How many years away from the playoffs do you see this team? And how many years away from title contention?
Lochi: First off, let's get the Oden thing out of the way. Why would they be looking to get Oden, because The Marcus is a major flop waiting to happen. He's too skinny, already has two bad knees, and now a bad shoulder. They basically punted the #2 pick in the draft. Even if you think he's going to be somewhat useful, not doing everything possible to get Oden because you made a mistake the year before is the exact reason Chris Paul is not a Trailblazer right now.
Now, how many years away from the playoffs are they? Gosh, I don't know, I'd put the over/under at the 08/09 season, so two seasons from now. The thinking is they get Oden and he'd be in his second year, Roy will be in his third year and an elite player in the back court to go along with him. It took Tim Duncan and Co. a few years to get there, it will take Roy and Oden the same amount of time. As for a championship contender, I'd say you'd have to look a year or two after that, the natural progression in the NBA is compete for playoff spot (next year), then make the playoffs, then advance from there.
Question #9: OK, last question from me. Would this team be nearly as craptastic right now if Bob Whitsitt was still the President/GM? Should they have a promotional campaign on the tv and radio centered around him and set to Cinderella's "Don't Know What You've Got Till It's Gone"?
Moderator: GREAT question. And one we've all thought a lot about in the last couple of years. Personally, I'd go with a song choice of Richard Marx's "Should've Known Better", but either would be a phenomenal choice. Truthfully, this past draft was very Whitsitt-like ... acquisition of assets, many deals, most of which were a total surprise, the owner spending extra money he didn't need to, etc. I would say wholeheartedly that if we'd had Whitsitt running things for the past few years, we might not have our salary down where it is but we also wouldn't be in this "basement of the NBA" predicament that we find ourselves in. Personally, I would have loved to see what Whitsitt could have done with a simple "stop bringing in bad character guys and chill out on the doubling of the salary cap" edict rather than a simple firing. They guy had an eye for talent, and a flair for finding ways to improve the team.
Last Question, #10. Nate McMillan: What are your thoughts on the job he's done so far, and do you expect him to see this rebuilding process through to the end without turning into a balding, ulcer-ridden alcoholic?
Lochi: Does it have to be either/or? I definately think having Ime Udoka, Travis Outlaw, and Martell Webster as your 3 small forwards will drive you to drinking (it certainly drives me to drink, of course so do many, many, MANY things). I do expect Nate to be here a while for a number of reasons though. First, nobody is going to pay him like Paul Allen, even if the thing continues in its current state of awful-ness he can still kick back with some pinot noir and light his cigar with hundred dollar bills and laugh at the state of affairs. Second, he seems like a guy that genuinely likes molding a young team in his image. I think he might in the long run be a better college coach than an NBA guy for this reason. He's got a young team, he's got a tough young point guard and a do everything young shooting guard. I think he was kind of misunderstood up in Seattle because they got out and ran so much in his successful year there. I get the feeling he'd be more content with a hard nosed defensive team that is efficient on the offensive end. And third, he's entirely blameless in this disaster. Subterfuge Stevie, Paul Allen, Dwight Shrute, Nash, they all are the ones taking a public flogging. Nate gets to be the good guy that concentrates on basketball and if this does get turned around, he'll be seen as the hero. Finally, as far as how he's done so far, I think he's been pretty good. I'm a little bit gun-shy after the Mo Mo The Clown Era, where they had no plays on offense and the defensive philosophy was "go guard people". It looks like they have a plan out there, he's better than I thought he would be, and that's refreshing.
The season gets under way Wednesday night in Oklahoma City...cough...Seattle. We'll have a pre-game report as well as potentially some live blogging during the game. In the meantime, just be thankful that Subterfuge Stevie officially added Udoka to the roster so there wasn't a freaking revolt between the team and the front office before Game 1.