First things first, John Hollinger has a pair of Insider-only links regarding Portland up on ESPN. He ranks Greg Oden 10th out of the 12 best young big men in the league, basically saying that Oden is much better than some of the guys he put ahead of him but had to discount Greg due to injuries, foul trouble and turnovers. I don’t think anyone can really argue with that.
Second, because the Blazers are on ESPN tonight, Hollinger tackled their disappointing season in his stat-heavy PER Diem, complete with a headline on the NBA page that reads “Pretenders”. He marks down most of Portland’s problems on the offensive end, the largest of which being that they are taking three fewer shots per 100 possessions:
More than three shot attempts per game have simply vanished into the ether. The causes are that the Blazers’ turnovers have increased, while their offensive rebounding has declined in roughly equal proportion. The Blazers rank only fourth in offensive rebound rate at 29.6. While that’s still an impressive figure, the drop hurts — so much of their attack was built on second shots.
That number is likely to decrease further in Oden’s absence. He led the league in offensive rebound rate a year ago and was threatening to defend his title, with only Detroit’s Ben Wallace exceeding Oden’s 16.0 mark among players with at least 250 minutes played. In what seems to be a bad omen, the Blazers have pulled down just 22 offensive boards in the three games they’ve played without Oden (counting the Houston game in which he was hurt in the first quarter).
Sound good? Great, on to the game.
We should be so lucky that this would be a game, the way Portland is playing. But this is a preview, when everyone is sunshine and hope because nothing has happened yet, so how can the Blazers win?
If there is one relatively encouraging thing, it’s that the Blazers have played up or down to most of their opponents this season. Sometimes they’ve been worse than some pretty bad teams, but other than the debacle in Utah they have been better against playoff contenders. Whether that translates against championship contenders, who knows, but I have a feeling it might, at least in terms of effort.
The big problem is going to be not having Nic Batum. Batum isn’t going to shut down LeBron James, but he has the length to cut off passing lanes and prevent LeBron from standing at the top of the key and dissecting the offense with dimes. Enter Martell Webster, who has been a decent defensive player, but is going to have to play better D than he did on Carmelo Anthony — which wasn’t bad — when Melo dropped 40. And then when LeBron gets by Martell, the Blazers are going to need their bigs to be fleet of foot and ready to step in the help, followed by everyone else being ready on the secondary help. The former is not a strong suit of old Juwan Howard or young Dante Cunningham, the latter is not a strong suit of this entire team.
This might get ugly.
So, barring some sort of defensive renaissance — coupled with the fact that we know Portland isn’t going to score in the paint and Cleveland will not let them run for a few meager fast-break points — tonight should come down to the now-regular game plan of hoping LaMarcus Aldridge has it going early, Brandon Roy has it going always and the rest of the team can hit enough jumpers to keep them afloat. That’s possible, sure, but it doesn’t make the Blazers any better of a team if they win like that. Any team can win having great offensive nights like that, but what would be vastly more impressive is if Portland could grind it out and actually dominate one aspect of the game or two.
More realistic than asking for a win is to ask for improvement. A tad more movement on offense, and couple more strong defensive sets, some dunks, some boxing out from people not named Juwan or Joel, things the Blazers can build on heading to Milwaukee tomorrow. The Blazers aren’t playing a style of basketball that can carry them to consistent success right now, and that is not going to change overnight. There might not be moral victories, but there are certainly smaller victories to be won tonight relative to the entire season.