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Portland Trail Blazers Preview - The Inferno

por.gifPortland Trail Blazers - The Inferno 

Last Years Record: 32-50

Offseason Additions: Steve Blake (FA), Rudy Fernandez* (draft), Channing Frye (trade), Taurean Green (draft), James Jones (trade), Petteri Koponen* (draft), Josh McRoberts (draft), Greg Oden (draft)

Offseason Losses: Dan Dickau (trade), Fred Jones (trade), Jamaal Magloire (FA), Greg Oden (injury), Zach Randolph (trade), Ime Udoka (FA)

* Playing in Europe this season.

1. What significant moves were made during the offseason?
Clearly, the most significant move the Blazers made this offseason was drafting Greg Oden. I say this even after the knee injury and resulting year-long hiatus due to microfracture surgery. The Blazers were already a nice up-and-coming team for this season – the lottery win and resulting selection of Oden made the Blazers relevant for positive reasons for the first time in years, and the injury made the Blazers infamous for all the talk of a curse. I felt that the Oden-hype was a little ridiculous, but my feeling was – anything that drew interest to this team next year was good. Assuming they stay healthy (more on this in a second), the rest of the league will get a chance to see Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge for the first time, and if it took Oden-hype to get that exposure – so be it.

Beyond Oden, GM Kevin Pritchard had a huge draft (McRoberts and Green are with the team this year, Fernandez and Koponen are staying in Europe for another season) and made some solid personnel moves (signing Steve Blake, moving Zach Randolph, acquiring Channing Frye and James Jones). I wasn’t initially happy with the return KP got for Randolph, but Frye is winning me over – he and Aldridge seem almost like clones of each other, and being two deep in 6-10 or 6-11 power forwards who can shoot is a luxury teams like the Blazers usually don’t have (think Chicago could make good use of either of those guys?).

When you look at what Pritchard has done to this roster in the last two offseasons, its easy to understand why optimism is high for the Blazers again in Portland. Even with the Oden injury, this is a team that we as fans can be confident will compete every night, improve, and help move away from the reputation the Blazers earned over the last 5 or 6 years. In the first game of the 2005-2006 season just 24 months ago, the Blazers started Bassy Telfair, Charles Smith (a journeyman who didn’t stick), Darius Miles, Zach Randolph, and Joel Pryzbilla, with Juan Dixon, Theo Ratliff, Jarrett Jack, and Ruben Patterson playing off the bench. Those were dark times. Joel and Jarrett are the only holdovers still in the rotation, and while D-Miles is still here he is largely irrelevant. They have come a long way.

2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?

  • Leadership – As a fan, I can finally feel good about the people leading this team. Really, everything has changed for the better in the last 24 months. Ditching Steve Patterson and John Nash for Mike Golub and Kevin Pritchard? Check. Changing the team leaders from Z-Bo, Miles and Ruben to Roy, Aldridge and Pryzbilla? Check. Transforming an unhappy Nate MacMillan who hated the makeup of his team for a happy Nate MacMillan who finally has players he can enjoy coaching? Check.
  • PG Depth – It’s a strength on paper, and that’s really what we’re going on here. But the question is whether one of these four guards can be a "championship point guard," and this is one of the areas I’m hoping will be clarified this season. It will be interesting to see how Nate manages four point guards, but with Jack, Blake, Rodriguez and Green it’s the deepest position on the team.
  • PF Depth – Again, the Blazers are two-deep in power forwards that most teams would love to have. Frye has a bit of a reputation for being soft, but that’s probably a function both of the fact that he does shoot well from the outside, and that last season he was pushed out there to stay out of Eddy Curry’s way in NY. Aldridge, on the other hand, had a similar reputation that is quickly falling by the wayside. He was skilled but skinny coming out of school, and looks poised for a breakout year – my bet is he’ll be the leading scorer and, depending on Pryzbilla’s minutes, the leading rebounder as well. Outlaw will see minutes here as well – a place Nate likes getting Outlaw minutes because of the matchup problem he creates.
  • SF Depth – As with the point guards – there is depth here, but questions too. The Blazers are three-deep in talented small forwards, but again – are any of them the right players to plug in for the long term? Outlaw is entering his fifth season and has yet to really put it together. His athleticism is unquestioned, his shot is developing, and he offers Nate flexibility – what he needs to show is consistent effort and increased knowledge. Outlaw really would have benefited from two years in college. Webster may have won the starting job with a strong preseason – he can score, but can he do anything else? Jones has been held back by injuries, but will be ready to step in if/when Outlaw or Webster falter.

3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?

  • Experience – We’re looking at a starting lineup that will likely be filled with two sophomores (Roy and Aldridge), two third-year players (Jack and Webster), and Pryzbilla (who is entering his eighth year, but has played exactly four seasons’ worth of games in his career). The rotation fills out with Blake (fifth-year), Frye (third-year), Outlaw (fifth-year), Jones (fifth-year) and Rodriguez (second-year). There is only one player over 30 on this team (LaFrentz), and Pryzbilla is the only other player who was even born in the 70s. Pritchard has gone all in with youth, so this team is really going to be learning on the fly. Roy seems wise beyond his years, but it’s a lot to ask of a second year player to be the team leader and focal point of the game plan. If healthy, I think Roy is up for the challenge.
  • SG Depth – I just got done extolling the virtues of Roy, and now here’s the other side of the coin… The Blazers will go as Roy goes this season. He really is the only natural 2 on the team. If Roy were to miss any significant time this season, it would take a special effort by the team and Nate to surpass last season’s win total. If Roy is out, I think we’d see a lot of Jack (he played a lot of 2 his rookie year) and Webster (really a natural 3) playing out of position. Rudy Fernandez is expected to arrive next year, and will greatly help the depth at the 2 (and, if he is really as talented as the YouTube clips show, could by the thing that pushes Roy to the point full-time).
  • Health – Pryzbilla got gut-shot early last season by Troy Murphy and was never the same. Aldridge had a heart condition last season and has been banged up in training camp. Roy has "the heel." Jones hasn’t played or practiced much in camp. Oden is out for the season. Every team deals with injuries, but for this season to be successful the players need to play enough to start developing the core. Every game Roy misses is a game the team doesn’t learn how to play and win with him. Injuries this season would obviously effect this season’s record, but for this season to lead to better future seasons they’ve got to be healthy enough to get some important work done.

4. What are the goals for this team?

  • Compete – Last year was better, but the two or three years before that the Blazers simply were unwatchable for any but the most hardcore fans (yeah, I watched). If this team gives consistent effort night in and night out – they’ll be fun to watch even when they lose. And the beauty of it is – if the effort is there on a consistent basis, I really think this team has a chance to do some winning.
  • Prepare for Oden – Yeah, I said it. Until they announce that he won’t be back next year, I’m planning on him being back in some capacity. There are is a growing pool of data on players who recover from microfracture surgery, so to expect that Oden will return and become a productive player for the Blazers is not unrealistic. Pryzbilla may be able to do a reasonable impersonation of Oden’s rebounding and defense this year, but I think that this is a season where the Blazers get to have another year of playing together before they basically "acquire" Oden for next season. The further they get this year, the less they’ll need out of Oden next year for him to still make an impact.
  • Reward Fans – This is a little lame, I know. My point is this – after years of having players who thought it was uncool to consider the fans at all, or really put anyone or anything before themselves – this season is about watching a real team play basketball again. We finally aren’t being stuck with a group of mercenaries who hate playing in Portland – this team will be fun to watch if the effort is consistent and the improvement is observed. We will hopefully not be dealing with all the off-the-court garbage we’ve dealt with in the past. Pritchard has turned the roster over, and its easy to see how the culture has changed. This isn’t an unfriendly organization anymore – the Blazers are being media friendly and fan friendly. And its real – not some hokey 25-point pledge they forced the PR team write – its just a basketball team, that has acquired basketball junkies, that will be fun for fans to come watch. Pro sports really can be this simple.

5. What will you be watching out for this season?
I tried to come up with a more specific question, but there are so many things going on with this team, I’d like to highlight a few things:

  • Roy and Aldridge – I can’t think of a team in recent memory that was this young, and being led by two players this young. Roy and Aldridge are exhibit 1 and 1A on why going to college is so important (and why I think the rule forcing a year of school before hitting the draft isn’t just a good thing for players, it’s a great thing for fans). These kids came to Portland ready to contribute, and while it might have been easier for them to plug in on a team with strong veterans – I really feel like the development they had in four and two years of college (respectively) has prepared them to do the heavy lifting for this team now. I just hope they both stay healthy enough to go through some real growth this season – it will be awesome to watch.
  • Jarrett Jack – There is a lot of doubt in Portland over Jack’s ability to be the point guard on a good team. This is a big year for Jack. If he fails to claim the job this year, it won’t be for lack of effort. He puts a lot of pressure on himself, but I think he’s got the tools to develop into a top tier guard. Steve Blake will push him, as will Rodriguez and Green.
  • Taurean Green – Nate proclaimed that Green would win the Blazers four or five games this year. Given the three guards ahead of him, I was surprised. But Green is going to have a good career in the NBA, and while he is buried on the depth chart today he’s really only a turned ankle (by Roy, Blake or Jack) away from getting into the rotation. And, like I said with Roy and Aldridge – college is huge and this kid has major experience leading an talented and favored team to the title. Twice.
  • Outlaw and Webster – Is this the season these guys start to get it? Webster can shoot all day – and has scored well when made the focus of the offense – can he contribute in other ways and figure out how to let the offense come to him when the focus is elsewhere? Can Outlaw find consistency in production and effort, even while handling an inconsistent role again this season?
  • Channing Frye – Will we get the rookie who was untradeable, or the sophomore that everyone wrote off? I can’t wait to see what his role ends up being – good to have flexible players like Frye and, again, to have redundancy behind Aldridge.
  • Joel Pryzbilla – He’s in the best shape of career, and he could have a major role on this team. Oden’s athleticism was other-worldly for a 7-footer, but Pryzbilla is a similar defensive presence and rebounder. If he can fill that role, he will allow Nate to play the kind of game plan he was envisioning with Oden where the Blazers employ more traps with Aldridge and Frye, and have the center patrol the middle.
  • Sergio Rodriguez – Will he start to show glimpses of what his biggest fans expect of him? Will he even get the opportunity? Fans though the Blake signing might take minutes from Jack, but I thought it really buried Sergio. He rarely gets minutes playing for his national team – will he get them in this crowded back court?
  • Zach Randolph – I know he’s gone, but it will be interesting to see how much the Blazers really miss his scoring. 23 ppg is nothing to sniff at, but I really wondered last season how much those points were really costing the Blazers in terms of pace and efficiency. The offense, for the most part, was walk the ball up the court and dump it into Zach. He fought the tendency to float out the perimeter all season (another Portland trend – Uncle Cliffy, Rasheed, Zach – all great post scorers that found the getting easier outside than on the block). I think they’ll really miss his rebounding, but if Nate speeds up the offense, and with the emergence of Aldridge, they should get those points back pretty easily.
  • Greg Oden – I just hope we get the occasional good bit of news about his recovery. I’m a bit of a softy here – but I write a blog, not news articles. I am still a fan. And I’m pulling for Greg Oden. Not because the Blazers need a savior. Not because I’m afraid of "the curse." But because I really like this kid, I love what he brings to the team and the city, and I want for him to have a good career. For HIS sake, not ours.

Predicted Record: 38-44
If the Blazers stay healthy, this would be my "over/under" betting line (I know, it would drop because the bets would all be on the under). I can see them winning more if all goes right. I can see them having a miserable record if all goes wrong. But at 38, I have no idea which side I’d put my money on.

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