A Daily Babble Production
The team that strolls into the TD Banknorth Garden tonight may well have the most intriguing story in all of basketball thus far this season. After a year without Greg Oden, the Portland Trail Blazers lost the big man from Ohio State in a season-opening shellacking in Los Angeles. They lost three of their first four games and have since proceeded to win 13 of 16 while getting their franchise center back as well. The Blazers are young and likable, and oh by the way, they're good, too. At this time two years ago, we Celts fans were the ones gearing up for an an Oden arrival and better times to come. We were miserable on lottery night in May 2007, but suffice it to say things have gone pretty well since then. The Blazers haven't quite hit that level of success yet, but they appear on a fast track to an era of contention, which makes tonight's tilt all the more interesting as an early-season litmus test.
Meanwhile, it's not just the team that the Portland franchise has to brag about: The fans are no slouches either. With yours truly writing ad nauseam about the Blazers in our NBA pieces as of late, we've had no shortage of visits from members of the Portland faithful, all of whom have added great insight to our discussions here. In the spirit of those discussions, we today host our end of another home-and-home by welcoming in Dave and Ben from Blazer's Edge. I'm a serial lurker over there, and I've got nothing but respect for the great community they've built. I answered some questions earlier at the Edge, and Dave and Ben were kind enough to return the favor. Without further ado, let's roll out the questions for this home-and-home:
SW: With the drafting of Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden in successive years, it became evident to many observers that this Portland team wasn't going to stay in the depths of the lottery for too much longer. We saw flashes of that even without Oden last year, particularly during the big winning streak around the turn of the calendar. After losing Greg Oden on opening night and starting 1-3 this season, the Blazers have won 13 of 16 including their last six to take the league by storm. Dave recently even wrote a post calling November "The best month in forever." Was there any expectation that this team would be this good this soon? As one of my readers asked recently, are the Blazers truly this good already, or are they playing over their heads? If it's the former, what's the secret so far? What are the standards for this season at this point?
Dave: If you ask Blazer fans, some would have said this was possible. I think most experts believe that this is on the high end of Portland’s potential production this season. I’ve been in the latter camp. You don’t win anything on credit in this league. You have to show it, night in and night out, for an extended period of time. Blazer fans are hanging their hats on the fact that the team has played an enormous number of road games and faced an inordinate number of good teams early in the season and emerged with a great record. If the pattern holds, the Blazers should have an amazing run after the calendar turns. But projections of that sort don’t mean anything unless you actually win the games.
The secret to winning so far has been threefold:
1. Rebound well and take care of the ball to maximize control over possessions and game flow.
2. Hit them where they ain’t defending. The Blazers usually field five guys you have to guard nowadays. They play a couple at least that you have to double-team. This creates problems. Double-team the inside and Portland’s three-point shooters will butcher you. Run out on the shooters and watch the Blazers thread the needle pass for a dunk.
3. Complete unselfishness on the offensive end. The Blazers find the open man, pure and simple. When push comes to shove, Brandon Roy is going to take over the game but he’s averaging a career high in assists himself. There’s offensive determination on this team but a startling lack of offensive ego.
At this point, admitting it’s still early. The standard for the Blazers has probably moved up to 50 wins from 45 or so. We’ll see how it goes with a couple more months under the belt
Ben: I thought the Blazers would be substantially better than last season. Most everyone in Portland expected them to take steps forward. With the brutal opening stretch plus Greg and Martell going down, expectations started to simmer a bit. The Lakers handing us our hats on opening night was a nice reality check. Did I think they would be 14-6? No freaking way. I still don't believe it. It still feels a little too good to be true.
Are they "this good"? Maybe, maybe not. Blazers fans are used to sweating out wins against bad teams, dropping games down the stretch to good teams and getting cleaned up by great teams. This year, that has started to change. And it's made being a fan a lot less stressful. It's nice to sit back and enjoy an alley-oop during a 30-point win every once in awhile. We forgot what that was like.
The secret is no secret at all: Brandon Roy is becoming a superstar. He does it every single night. He hits big shots. He makes good passes. He works on defense, and he gets important rebounds. He gets easy buckets, has good shot selection and is running the pick and roll better than anyone can remember. Top quality players are no secret -- you need them in the NBA. B Roy is a top quality player.
SW: How would you describe the emotional ride for Blazers fans of Greg Oden's career arc so far? Have Blazers fans begun to grow frustrated with the injuries or with Oden's rate of progress on the floor, or is he still on a grace period of sorts? How have the expectations been adjusted for him this year?
Dave: Fans are all over the map with Greg, from the frustrated superstar-seekers to the passionate Oden-defenders. The journey started with the pick itself, which sent expectations sky high. Summer League 2007 revealed the nature of Greg’s game: quick, athletic, strong, huge, awesome leaping, but needing polish. The knee surgery took away some of the quick and the leaping. It also put Greg and Portland fans in a weird, year-long limbo. In some ways expectations were tempered knowing that microfracture recovery takes a year and a half at least. In other ways, absence made the heart inflame and made the legend bigger. I had people asking me whether Greg would average 20 and 15 this year, which was never going to happen his rookie season even without the injury and the resultant dent in mobility and playing time.
Some have no doubt grown frustrated by what they perceive as Oden’s slow progress. We live in a culture of instant gratification. The wise eye looks and sees that even a 20-year old, one-year-of-college, whole-year-off, recovering-from-surgery, not-conditioned and already raw Greg Oden is bending the game by his mere presence. He has to be double teamed when his feet are in the paint. If you let him set low he will dunk. He’s an instant shot-blocker and a good rebounder who will quickly trend towards great. Give him a year or so to recover and learn the NBA game, and you’re going to see a perfect (and scary) complement to Portland’s game.
SW: What's the best thing people around the country don't know about having Brandon Roy on your team?
Dave: We get free ice cream on Tuesdays at any shop in Portland because of him. That’s because he’s so sweeeeeet!
It’s tough to gauge what other fans know about Brandon because he’s so front and center in Portland. He’s like the foundation of your house…vital to your existence but you don’t really remember to mention it enough. You just take it for granted. Brandon is one of those players who plays his own game. Defenses can’t seem to stop him even when it looks like he’s moving in slow motion. He’s unselfish and a huge winner. Yet he doesn’t demand the spotlight and has not a shred of diva in him. He is the ultimate team star as opposed to the typical highlight-reel star. He’s the glue that holds this team together.
Ben: The best thing people might not know about Brandon is that he pays respect to his elders and takes seriously the idea that he's a role model for younger players. A quick story: About 2 months ago, there was a small AAU event here in Portland that featured top high school players from Oregon and Washington. It was held on a Saturday night. Brandon had just played a preseason game on Friday night. During halftime of the AAU exhibition -- keep in mind there are no more than maybe 1,500 people at this event -- Brandon Roy (All Star, millionaire, Prince of Portland) stops by to show love to the Washington AAU coaches (Brandon is from Seattle) and to exchange phone numbers with some of the Washington players (he texts some of the regularly). The whole gym went nuts. Cheerleaders were posing for pictures, Brandon was signing autographs, the whole nine yards. Keep in mind this is a Saturday night and he just flew home from 2,500 miles away that morning. He could have been anywhere. But Brandon is the kind of person where that gym was the place he wanted to be more than anywhere else in the world (more than his couch, more than a club, etc.): to thank the coaches that helped turn him into a star and to help the younger guys realize their dreams. That's Brandon Roy.
SW: Of the point guards on this team, it seems like the one who gets the least attention nationally is Steve Blake, who of course happens to be the starter for a 14-6 basketball team. What has made Blake valuable to this team thus far?
Dave: Now that Roy is handling the ball more in the offensive sets, Blake’s main contribution has been the three-pointer. He’s shooting 42 percent on nearly five shots per game from distance and it’s important. Remember how I said the Blazers have five guys you have to guard? If Blake isn’t hitting, the defense has an extra defender to spare, and they can use him to bother the low block people. Blake is one of the unsung heroes for the team so far.
SW: Regarding those non-Blake point guards, how do you see Sergio Rodriguez's future in Portland playing out? Will Jerryd Bayless play a significant role at any point this season? If not, when can we expect him to become a contributor?
Dave: A lot will depend on whether any trades go down. Portland has Raef LaFrentz’s expiring $12.7 million contract to play around with between now and the trading deadline. There’s no pressure to move him because that money will come off of the Blazers’ cap space on a one-for-one basis this summer if they let the contract expire. However if the right deal comes along Portland will no doubt jump at it early. If a deal does go down we could see reserve point guards, small forwards, or power forwards as part of a package. They’re all young and signed cheaply and would fit together with the expiring contract.
Barring a trade, Blake and Rodriguez have the first two point guard positions locked tight right now. Bayless will eventually contribute, but he’ll spend the year learning and getting blowout minutes unless one of the other two falters. If Roy or Rudy Fernandez were injured, Bayless could also see some spot duty at off-guard.
SW: What has been the most pleasant surprise about this start to the season?
Dave: Having any kind of winning record, let alone 14-6, while playing playoff-level teams, mostly on the road.
SW: The Blazers' offensive play has been impressive this season, with the team checking in at second in efficiency in all of basketball. Why have the Blazers been so effective at that end of the floor?
Dave: See above about inside-outside synergy and unselfishness. Also add improved offensive rebounding.
SW: Time for a staple of the Daily Babble Q-and-A sessions: word association. Just hit me with the first word, phrase or thought that comes to mind.
Travis Outlaw... Dave: random goodness / Ben: bombs away
Rose Garden... Dave: fun place to be right now! / Ben: "We must protect this house!" (Under Armour)
Sebastian Telfair... Dave: what we used to pin our hopes on before we got winners / Ben: Kevin McHale and him deserve each other.
Joel Przybilla... Dave: rock-solid contributor / Ben: Sixth Man of the Year
LA Lakers... Dave: no need to swear / Ben: Magic
Bill Walton... Dave: championship center / Ben: the standard for Portland hoops
Darius Miles... Dave: Later! / Ben: never a dull moment
Seattle Sonics... Dave: We miss our regional rival. That was a travesty. / Ben: Free Kevin Durant!
SW: One other note - one of my closest lifelong friends is a big-time Blazers fan, and he's been sending me random texts since the draft trying to build the line "Batum goes Baboom!" into a standard part of Blazer-oriented lexicon. Think it's got a chance?
Dave: Brian Wheeler, our radio play-by-play man, always screams BOOOOOM-SHAKALAKA with nice dunks and such. I think the suggestion is to modify it to BATUUUUUUM-SHAKALAKA. So you’re a little late to the party. Good thought though! Let’s hope Wheeler has a chance to try it out Friday!
SW: Score prediction for tonight's game?
Dave: Boston will win barring a miracle. Don’t know the score, just hope it’s close.
Long as we can avoid any miracles tonight, that sounds just fine by me. Much thanks to Dave and Ben for coming on and doing a great job. Go green!