Portland Trail Blazers – TrueHoop

October 18, 2006

Website: TrueHoop
Author: Henry Abbott

Saving pennies for a new Street & Smith’s or the Sports Illustrated preview edition was an annual tradition of all of my childhood (at least the part that I can remember). I have hardly slowed down as an adult.

Who knows how many thousands of team previews I have read? And what do I have to show for it? Not much. But I do have one thing. I know, as an iron-clad fact, that practically every team preview ever written has this theme: “This team has some good parts. The big question is: how will they fit together?”

It’s a brilliant approach, from a publisher’s point of view, because not only is it almost always true, but it also leaves plenty of room for fans of just about every team to dream of big success. Preview writers leave cracks that fan imaginations love to fill: Why not assume that Baron Davis and Don Nelson will get along swimmingly? Why not envision Nazr Mohammed doing things he has never done before in his life? Why not pencil in Darko Milicic for 20 and 10? It’s October! Anything’s possible!

But writing a preview for this Portland Blazers team–if I stare deep into my soul, intent on being as honest as possible, I can’t really shoehorn a preview of this Blazer season into that approach. The question here really isn’t how will those good parts fit together. The question is: are these parts any good?

See, my Blazers are all either too young to be proven NBA winners, or–more ominous–they are more experienced and still not proven as NBA winners.

I can hear your groan, team president Steve Patterson. But Zach Randolph! you say. Yes, he has top-shelf post-scoring ability, a nose for the ball, and a mean ol’ work ethic. But I can’t tell if he’s a follower or an anti-leader off the court, ball movement goes to Zach’s house to die, and it’s debatable if anyone is truly top-shelf after microfracture surgery.

Blazer fans, it’s time to admit that this is a team whose most untouchable player–Brandon Roy (the only one we all believe is the real deal for the long haul) hasn’t even played in a real game yet . That means that there’s not really a bankable player in the bunch. Promising? Sure. But, you know, promises, promises.

That also doesn’t mean there aren’t good pieces here. It just means we don’t know which ones they are. It means that practically everything–not just how our parts fit together, but the whole enchilada, is really to be determined. And, as long as Steve Patterson is fuming over there, we might as well trot out the rest of the bad news:

  • Even though Portland has cleaned house with an eye on eliminating off-court distractions–they deserve big credit for this–the house still isn’t totally clean. Something is up with Darius Miles. I don’t know what it is. But it’s something. I mean, OK, he got an infection last winter after his minor surgery. OK, he rushed back to the court prematurely. OK, that set back his rehab. But he still started the summer able to walk, yet somehow didn’t finish that summer ready to play. I’m no doctor, but how long can rehabbing from one minor knee operation take? I don’t know if it’s fall-out from last season’s bad relations with the team, or health problems that are more serious than what he have been told, or something else entirely. But it’s something. When NBA TV broadcast a Blazer practice last week, injured players Raef LaFrentz and LaMarcus Aldridge were on camera briefly, watching the practice. Darius was nowhere to be seen. Maybe he was in the weight room, I don’t know. But whatever is going on here–and it may well not be the fault of Miles at all (I’m open to the idea he’s not a bad guy) it detracts from the scrappy can-do toughness this team will have to have to get anywhere. Until Darius Miles is 100% with the program, or 100% not with the program, this saps energy from this team.
  • The front office is slippery. I haven’t even heard any team official say the team intends to continue operating in Portland (without shutting down or moving) deep into the future. They announced a big search for a new GM, then without a shred of evidence of any search, team president Steve Patterson was named the GM. They sold us on all the young guys, then they ditched half of them (Sebastian Telfair, Viktor Khyrapa, Sergei Monia).
  • Despite the fact that Portland stars a bunch of unproven players, this team is not good at ball movement. The one thing you ought to gain when you give up star power is ball movement, and it has not been happening.
  • OK, so those, and a roster stocked with unprovens, are the lowlights. So, um, how many wins does that get you? No idea. It’s all unknowns. My thought:

  • 20-25 wins is what will happen if the team progresses, but without any pleasant surprises
  • 25-30 wins is likely. I mean, come on, with all these promising young players, it would be bizarre not to have any pleasant surprises.
  • 30-35 wins is real progress, and means at least some of the team’s recent gambles (for instance Jarrett Jack at point guard full-time, Zach Randolph’s improved mobility, Martell Webster, Jamaal Magloire) must be hitting paydirt.
  • 35-40 wins, with this roster, would be the equivalent of winning the championship. They should have a parade. People should shave their heads or something. That many wins, at this stage of franchise development, means the Blazers are on the fast track to the promised land.
  • Now, take all my gloom and doom and reasoned perspective and stuff it under the passenger seat for a second, and I’m going to take you on an optimistic tour. Let me explain why I am genuinely more excited about the Portland Blazers than at any other point this decade:

  • Portland really did just get two of the four best players in the NBA draft. Barring injury, Brandon Roy ought to one day be the best Blazer in years. And LaMarcus Aldridge was the higher pick of the two for a reason: mobile big men, who defend, run, score multiple ways and hit open jumpers mean wins. They also both have fantastic attitudes.
  • The roster has a lot to dream on. I mean, shoot, out of LaMarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy, Jarrett Jack, Martell Webster, Travis Outlaw, Sergio Rodriguez, all the good draft picks Portland has coming, the Jamaal Magloire trade bait… how many stars do you think will eventually emerge? When some prove to be the real deal, this team changes profoundly for the better. And Joel Przybilla is already dependable and locked up affordably.
  • Watch that practice. The mood is new. This is a hustling, respectful, hard-working group. They’re in shape and working hard. They’re listening. They’re learning. Don’t just take my word for it. Joel Pryzbilla was reportedly ready to ditch this team because of attitudes, and he was wooed back with the belief attitudes had changed. What’s more, I see Nate McMillan as a coach who brings a certain basketball culture to the table. If the players are buying what he’s selling, there’s a chance for him to actually coach, and make the whole more than the sum of the parts. Basketball is something that if you play at 100%, freaky things tend to go your way. If you play at 80% everything falls apart. If the Blazers will play closer to 100% all game long, night in and night out, then suddenly the past is not a good predictor of future results.
  • I choose to believe that a lot of the unknowns will break in Portland’s favor. This is, after all, October. This is, after all, my team. I can’t wait.