The beginning of training camp feels different this time around. In 2006, there was tentative excitement coming off the unspeakable era, with two lottery picks earning solid reviews from the offseason pundits. 2007 was Oden Mania. 2008 was Oden Mania again, coupled with Fernandez Fiesta and a small yet growing dose of Batum Bonanza. There’s always been some shiny new toy to play with, but now we’re presented with a solid acquisition in Andre Miller and a handful of the usual questions that in the past have been secondary to “Just show me pictures of the new guys!”.
It’s a sign of growth. The Xbox 360 has been out for nearly half a decade now and for every Fall after it dropped there was some form of new hotness that kept it feeling fresh! Next generation Halo, score! What’s this Gears of War thing? I want to touch it. Tricked out Madden — well that took awhile but they finally made a good game! By now, most franchises have had a go-round or two on the platform and most excitement this Fall is derived from steady improvement and innovation rather than horsepower and hardware. We already know the 54-win Blazers are a good team and they’ve added a veteran franchise to the lineup, but we really just want to know how much better they can be.
Shooting guard and Power forward have already been answered for us, and though the backup four might be up in the air, that’s a path that will probably be carved out by the other camp battles. What’s left it obvious. You know the questions, so let’s throw some things out there and try to predict how things will pan out.
The Point Guard Battle of Meatloaf or Chicken Dijon: It doesn’t matter who starts. Andre Miller is the better player and should be the one who finishes games. He takes more risks than Steve Blake, runs the break better, sets up his big men better and creates more mismatches with his ability to post up. The only thing Blake does better, shoot, while an important floor-spacing ability, is not as dynamic as what Miller does. The Blazers aren’t going to have Miller hang out on the same wing as LaMarcus Aldridge as he posts up and as a weakside swing option he’ll have room to step in and take a mid-range jumper — as a backup option. It hasn’t been talked about much yet, but despite being a much worse shooter than Blake, Miller can still be more dangerous from the far corner by taking advantage of the rotating defense, getting past a closing-out defender and BOOM! There’s an oop for Greg Oden.
Now will it be the best strategy to start Miller alongside Roy in the first unit? That’s for Nate to figure out. One day before training camp, everyone is still backing Blake, but the passing of Miller, especially the lobs, should be infectious. Maybe it will make Blake a better player, sacrificing his assist/turnover ration in the process, or maybe it will just solidy Blake as the sturdy dish of unexciting meatloaf. Either way, the existing Blazers are going to want to play with Miller. They’ll know when he’s out there and they’ll make moves to the rim that they wouldn’t make (or Nate wouldn’t draw up) when Blake was handling the ball.
As for Jerryd Bayless, he’ll have the opportunity to eventually force a Blake trade (we’ll get to this later) and get his minutes.
Prediction: Miller will finish games. He will also play more minutes. Blake might start as a way to stagger the unit rotations, but Miller will be the main guy. And he’ll earn that role in camp.
The Small Forward Battle of This Genie Only Grants One Wish: Nic Batum. Travis Outlaw. Martell Webster. The problem isn’t that they’re all good, it’s that I wish we could start them all. Each for different reasons, I want to see them succeed. Webster because I’ve followed him so closely his entire career. Outlaw because he deserves more credit for what he’s become since he was drafted. Batum because he could be so flingin-flangin good. I like them all, and so do most people, which is what makes this situation a tough topic with Blazer fans.
There are two main factors: Batum’s shooting and Martell’s confidence as a result of health. If Batum proves he’s become a better spot-up shooter, the starting spot will be his. If Martell proves that he’s healthy and doesn’t play like someone who is worried about hurting his foot again, he’ll earn himself some minutes. As for Travis, he isn’t a starter and will lock up those backup four minutes pretty quickly, if he hasn’t already. Between starter’s and backup three minutes and the backup four minutes, there’s enough time to get all three on the floor every game. The distribution of those minutes, as well as who finishes the games, will depend on the hot hand and the game situation.
Until Outlaw gets traded, that is. With Outlaw and Blake, the Blazers have about $9 million in expiring contracts to deal. And unlike the mega LaFrentz chip, they should be easy to deal because both of them can still, you know, play. If Martell proves he is healthy and/or Jerryd Bayless shows improvement running the point, we could even see a trade in training camp — based on the assumption that Kevin Pritchard dislikes trading mid-season.
Prediction: Batum starts, hot hand finishes, Outlaw eventually gets traded.
The Center Battle of Goliath and Please Be Thor: If everything goes as planned, this will be the biggest non-battle not only in Portland, but in the entire NBA. We could talk forever about what Joel does well, what Oden does well (rebound rate, people), and what Oden could be. We could also just stop talking about it and let Oden prove himself the Thundergod we know he can be. The only thing to say here is that if Przybilla is announced the Blazers starter, something went wrong.
Prediction: Oden flourishes in camp — thanks in no small part to Andre Miller — and the center rotation is set in stone early. For the sake of basketball, let’s just hope health doesn’t cost him another chance.