And now on to better things. All told, things worked out fairly well for the Blazers this season, injuries and all. They still won 50 games, saw a couple of their young players mature, dodged Utah in the playoffs and have given fans every reason to be proud of them. So, before this playoff-series on a motorcycle goes down the ramp and jumps 16 school buses, let’s take a look at some of the good memories this season has given us, and hand out a few awards while we’re at it. As before, I’ll handle the awards, while SJ takes you down memory lane.
Happy Memory: Blazers vs. Bulls, when everything felt like it was coming together. Greg Oden burst out of his shell like Terry Crews burst through the walls in one of the new Old Spice commercials. He went into a ‘Beast Mode’ level that the majority of Blazer fans had forgotten he could reach. If you do not recall, Portland beat up on the Bulls 122-98 at the Rose Garden. This is a great memory because at the time Portland was in a weird stage. The wins were coming but it never felt like Portland was playing well, some guys were on when others were off, etc. This was the night where we finally got our first glimpse as to what this team could be. 24 points, 12 boards, 10/12 from the line and 6/7 from the field for Mr. Oden. LaMarcus Aldridge dropped 24, Andre Miller had 16 and seeing all of our stars play well at the same time was a treat.
The Scottie Pippen memorial Most Valuable Player Award, or Guy That Gets Followed Around by Dr. Dre Who Will Produce Live Theme Song Mixtapes Behind Him All Year Because Guy Was So Good…Award: This was the toughest award to hand out, and sparked the liveliest conversation between SJ and I — partially because I said Martell Webster, just for fun, and SJ went into All-Caps mode. At one point or another this season, nearly every non-rookie on the team has been the MVP for a one or two game stretch. Almost every player has missed time with injuries as well, and that’s how Andre Miller and LaMarcus Aldridge got into the discussion.
The case for Miller is that he’s been remarkably consistent ever since permanently replacing Steve Blake in the starting lineup in January. The 14 points and 5.5 assists per game don’t knock you out of your seat, and neither does a solid 18.1 PER, but Miller has also had more of those “Step Up” moments than just about anyone else on the team. A guard get hurt or in foul trouble and you need points, Miller gets you points. A big get hurt or in foul trouble and you need rebounding or paint scoring, then Miller gets you rebounding and paint scoring. You need someone to keep the offense moving at an aggressively patient pace, he’s your guy. The case against Miller is that he had a rough start and really didn’t show his magical qualities on a day-to-day basis until he stole the starting spot. For whatever strange reason, he was also blocked by Steve Blake for almost three months of the season. And as great as Miller has been, the perimeter drawbacks of his offensive game have still hurt at times, as there have been games that he shot Portland out of just as he layup-ed them back in. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s been Portland’s best perimeter defender (for the entire season, so stop yelling “Batuuuuum” at me) and easily the guy you want getting around pick-and-rolls.
But we can’t realistically put Miller in front of two franchise players, can we? Nay. In fact, I made a lengthy argument for Aldridge and almost won SJ over. While Aldridge has to be discounted a little for struggling to adjust to Greg Oden’s involvement in early-season offense, he, like Miller, has been money in the Swiss bank since we switched to 2010. Like Miller, he’s Portland’s best player at his position at guarding the pick-and-roll — really, he’s the only one capable of consistently showing on the ballhandler and recovering to his man — and has also made strides in the help defense department, strides which don’t show up in blocked shots but surely would in shot defenses. “But his PER fell from 19.1 to 18.2″, you say. This is true, but a little odd, since his true-shooting percentage, defensive rebounding percentage, assist percentage and turnover percentage improved, with a slight dropoff in offensive rebounding. He also hasn’t become more an an interior player despite an ever-expanding post arsenal, but we don’t have the numbers to show how he’s improved when dealing with double teams — and he’s seen many with all the various injuries around him.
In the end, we have to be boring and give this to Brandon Roy because, well, he’s easily the best player on this team and the most valuable by whatever definition. He missed 17 games yet still leads the team in win shares (9.1) and is an easy second in qualifying offensive efficiency behind Batum despite the highest usage rate on the team. Just because Roy has looked hobbled for a large portion of the season and saw statistical dropoff across the board doesn’t make him any less of an MVP. He fought through the frustrations of nagging injuries, at times played when he shouldn’t, dealt with more defensive attention than anyone else and remained the leader of an increasingly more veteran team. Being different by not picking Roy doesn’t make you right.
Happy Memory: January 8th, 2010. Brandon Roy’s 32-point, 6 assist, 5 rebound, no turnover performance in Portland’s 107-98 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. Roy out-dueled the Black Mamba, shooting 9-for-11 from the field on the same night that Kobe went 14-for-37. Any home victory over the Lakers is nice but watching the Maestro put on a show like that takes it to the next level. And while the final score made it seem a lot closer than it was, make no mistake about it Portland was giving the Lakers a whooping. And anytime you can watch the Lakers get blown out is a *Walt Frazier voice* splendiforous stupendous event. *ahem*
The Contract-Year Theo Ratliff memorial Defensive Player of the Year Award: What do you do when your two best defenders have only been with the team for a half and a quarter of the season, or when your two best interior defenders lose their knees to the Table of Elements? You don’t give any one of them a yearly award. Tough, Nic Batum, Marcus Camby, Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla, you didn’t do it all year. Then again, who has? Aldridge has improved defensively, but subtly and gradually. Roy has, by +/-, been the worst defender on the team. Martell Webster tried hard and had some excellent games, but hasn’t had the minutes. Even Miller had his playing time jerked around for awhile.
Then why does Miller get this? Versatility and a very subjective, non-statistical version of VORP. After watching Steve Blake get toasted by a variety of point guards over the years, Miller has been a breath mint for his ability to keep bigger guards out of the lane. His greatest value, though, is in the pick-and-roll where, if the defenders have to switch, Miller is capable of low-center-of-gravity-ing power forwards. Better yet, Miller is the best Blazer at preventing the switch, using a thinking-man’s attack to getting around screens, giving forwards like Aldridge the confidence to hedge out, get quicker ball handlers off their drive line and leave the guard to Miller, who meanwhile has Jackie-Chan-ed his way up, over and around the obstacle. Looking at the upcoming Phoenix series, this interaction with Miller, Aldridge, Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire will be a hinge.
We could get into Miller’s pick-pocket ability, how well he plays the passing lanes or how quickly he can turn defense into offense. We could get into his defensive rebounding. We could talk about how, when he gets beat, he finds someone else to cover, usually returning the favor to whoever helped onto his mark. And, hey, look what we did there, we just talked about those things, and they’re all why he’s our DPOY.
Happy Memory: December 17th 2009 or Rex goes Jurassic Park on everyone. Take it back to Portland’s 105-102 victory over Phoenix. Rudy, Batum, Outlaw and Oden were all out. Who was going to step up? Andre Miller? Martell Webster? Enter Jerryd Bayless. Bayless–at that time the 3rd string PG–broke out on national TV, scoring 16 of his 29 points in the 4th quarter and playing a major role in why the Blazers were able to pull this one off.
The Upgrading from Tom Selleck to Harrison Ford for Indiana Jones Award for Most Improved Player: You wanted Batum again, didn’t you? You can’t have him, despite that fact that we’re about to frustrate you by using the same logic to give the award to Aldridge in order to not give it to Batum.
Apart from some flashes of offensive creation, Batum’s improvements have been refinements. Better shot. Better defense. Better movement off the ball. Better confidence his teammates have in him (sic?). Best true-shooting percentage (.646). More potential than you can stick a shake at. But the sample size, particularly on offense, is a smallish 37 games, and on offense, where it looks like he’s improved the most, he’s still showing the promise of further expansion rather than, consistently, anything differently than we knew he could do.
Aldridge’s improvements have also been refinements. After that slow first month, he’s been Portland’s only consistent source of post-offense, where he’s expanded his game with the baseline-spin counter move (despite losing that running hook in the lane for some reason). He’s improved his patience with double teams and passing out of those situations. He’s been a better rebounder, not only statistically, but in “Give Me Those” boards in traffic. As mentioned earlier, he’s been better on defense. And, ironically — after having trouble adjusting to Oden — he’s shown a remarkable ability to adapt to different teammates and different defensive looks. No, he hasn’t always been the first player talked about after games for dominant performances, but conversely, complaints surrounding Aldridge have mostly been, “Why aren’t we giving him the ball more.”
So he didn’t take a huge leap to All-Stardom. He’s been a rock. And Aldridge has given pause to those of you watching closely whenever you start the, “Yeah, Aldridge is good, but I’d trade him for…” conversation.
Happy Memory: Mar-cus Cam-by. That was the chant which emanated from the Rose Garden crowd on April 12th 2010, late during Portland’s 103-95 victory over playoff-bound Oklahoma City. The game had playoff implications, the battle for 6th place in the Western Conference. Brandon Roy was out and it looked as if the Blazers could be in some trouble. However, Marcus Camby gave us one of the more special moments in Blazer history with his effort and will to win the game. He did everything you could ever want to see a player do, and some. I mean what else do you need to know: in his 10th game in the Rose Garden, he played with so much passion and effort that he made the Rose Garden chant his name. Take that Walt Williams.
The Getting the No. 1 Pick in the Draft Despite 7th Seed in Lottery Award for Biggest Surprise, or “O Rly?”: There is one correct answer and it has nothing to do with Knee-A-Splosion. The answer is Juwan Howard, who shall be spared any and all old jokes as soon as we point out his age — Juwan Howard remembers reaching his own Half-Life — 36, to explain why nobody expected much on-court from a had-become NBA journeyman.
And no, this isn’t some Roy Hobbs-like story of the old man coming back and dominating. In fact, Howard’s PER of 10 and play-if-safe-Sam defense suggest he was a decidedly below-average player. But Howard was always in the correct position, always ready to shoot a mid-range jumper — like a game winner in Dallas — and always ready to push back. So, maybe he wasn’t any better than you might have expected, maybe he wasn’t Gozer the Destructor, but he played, he logged long minutes and kept the Blazers afloat during dark times. And for that, he can be appreciated.
Happy Memory: Andre Miller’s 52-pickup explosion in Dallas. He had set his previous career high of 37 points in 2002. And then he went out and dropped 52 at the ripe age of 33 years old, the second most points in franchise history and made a lot of people listen to/quote “Forgot About Dre”. 18 of Portland’s 30 4th quarter points (including 15 of the last 17). It was the game that made us all think “…..We could have had Hedo Turkoglu”.
Executive of the Year Award: Everyone except Kevin Pritchard. Duh.