It’s the midway point of the 2010-11 season, and somehow, some way, the Trail Blazers have a winning record. What better time than now for some player evaluations, right? These are in rough order of value to the team–think of them as power rankings. For our purposes, my definition of “value to the team” is based on how they’ve played this season, rather than their potential place in the Blazers’ future plans (otherwise Nicolas Batum would be higher). Greg Oden and Elliot Williams are not included, obviously, as they have not and will not play this season. For the same reason, I have also elected not to evaluate Brandon Roy. When he was playing, his knees were preventing him from contributing at the All-Star level we’ve grown accustomed to, and the recent news that he’s having both knees operated on makes it highly unlikely he will be back at all this season. So we’re going to keep it to the 12 healthy players on the Blazers’ roster.
1. LaMarcus Aldridge [38.5 MPG, 48.2 FG%, 20.6 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.2 BPG, 1.03 SPG]
It took a while, but LaMarcus Aldridge has finally become the player we all thought he could be. We saw flashes of the new LaMarcus early in the season, particularly during his scoring explosion against the Bulls in the first week. Once Brandon Roy went down and it became clear that Aldridge was going to become the team’s go-to scorer, he had two choices: either accept this role tentatively, still deferring to other guards the way he (and everyone else) did to Roy, or take the bull by the horns and embrace this new first-option role fully. And fortunately for all of us, he chose the latter. In the last month and a half or so, LaMarcus has become a completely different player than he was before. A guy who used to be criticized for being “soft” and not rebounding well for his position has become a double-double machine. And with Portland’s depth in the middle forever in limbo, he’s developed some serious low-post moves and stopped relying overly on his (still solid) jump-shot. He’s talked in past years about wanting to be an All-Star, and now he’s finally playing like one. Barring a full-strength return from Roy (unlikely at this point), this is Portland’s new franchise player.
2. Wesley Matthews [32.1 MPG, 43.6 FG%, 16.0 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.15 SPG]
I was pretty high on Wesley Matthews’ potential when the Blazers shocked the NBA this summer by signing him to a five-year, $34 million contract. That kind of money is unheard-of for an undrafted second-year player. But although I was optimistic about what Matthews could contribute, even I didn’t think he would end up being this good. At the beginning of the season, he seemed like he was struggling to find his role coming off the bench, but ever since he moved to the starting lineup (first in place of Brandon Roy when he sat out a few games, then in place of Nicolas Batum when he was struggling earlier in the season, and then finally as Roy’s permanent replacement when it was announced that the team was shutting Roy down indefinitely), he’s become the kind of do-it-all player we hoped he’d be. He was known primarily for his defense last year in Utah, and he’s continued to play solid D in Portland. But this year, he’s taken a huge step forward as a scorer as well. The consistency still isn’t quite where it could be (and I’m fully confident that will change, given Wesley’s work ethic), but he’s the kind of player who, if he finds his stroke early in a game, is probably not going to lose it the rest of the night.
3. Andre Miller [32.3 MPG, 45.8 FG%, 12.7 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 7.2 APG, 1.74 SPG]
Remind me again why Andre Miller’s name always comes up in trade rumors? I know his expiring contract makes him an attractive bargaining chip, but outside of LaMarcus Aldridge, he’s the most consistent offensive player on Portland’s roster. Although his minutes have declined in recent weeks with the emergence of Patty Mills as a reliable backup point guard, there have been times during the season when it seemed like Miller was the only thing holding the Blazers together. He still doesn’t have anything resembling a dependable jump shot, but he finds other ways to score, can usually find shots for teammates, and doesn’t turn the ball over too much. He’s too old to realistically be considered a part of the team’s future, but for this year, I can’t think of too many guys I’d rather have out there.
4. Marcus Camby [29.1 MPG, 42.6 FG%, 6.2 PPG, 11.6 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.89 BPG]
Marcus Camby was a godsend when the Blazers acquired him at last year’s deadline and needed a solution for a starting center spot that currently belonged to Juwan Howard. The two-year extension they signed him to at the end of the 2009-10 season was a no-brainer: with the health of Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla in question, the knowledge that they would have at least one solid center helped a lot of Blazers fans sleep a little better at night. Camby’s scoring has declined slightly this year, but that’s not through any fault of his own. As LaMarcus Aldridge matures into a legitimate low-post threat, it only makes sense that Camby would have less opportunities to put up points. Where Marcus is utterly invaluable to the Blazers is, of course, on defense. At 36, he’s still one of the most dependable rebounders and shot-blockers in the NBA. Long-term, Camby’s in the same boat as Miller: it would probably make sense for the Blazers to get younger in the middle. But this season, Camby’s been the guy Portland can count on to shore up their defense.
5. Nicolas Batum [29.8 MPG, 44.6 FG%, 11.3 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.4 APG]
Before the season started, Nicolas Batum was the guy we thought would have a breakout season and emerge as an elite player. And it hasn’t quite happened, at least not at the rate we anticipated, but he’s slowly getting there. Batum’s calling card has always been his defense, and he’s continued to be a difference-maker on that end this season. But as far as finding his role on offense, well, it’s a process. It certainly hasn’t been helped by the emergence of Wesley Matthews as the recipient of most of the shots that would have been reserved for Brandon Roy. But Batum has had some big scoring games, and can usually knock down shots if you give them to him. He’s also slowly developing some back-to-the-basket moves, which we’d like to see him employ with greater regularity in the second half of the season. From everything we’ve heard, Rich Cho has made it clear to Nicolas that he’s not on the trading block and the team views him as a cornerstone going forward. As they should. His potential is still nearly unlimited, and we’re seeing in spurts the player he’s capable of being. He’ll get there.
6. Rudy Fernandez [20.4 MPG, 36.0 FG%, 32.9 3P%, 7.9 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 2.0 APG]
I don’t need to remind you all what happened with Rudy this summer. He seems to be happy here now, and he’s getting real playing time. Whether or not he makes the most of his increased minutes varies from night to night. Generally speaking, the way Rudy goes is the way the rest of the bench goes. Some games it seems like Fernandez, Patty Mills, and Dante Cunningham are really gelling as a second unit; other nights they look discombobulated. And usually, that depends on whether Rudy’s shots are falling. He can knock down open threes and is maturing as a passer, but he could definitely stand to get more consistent night-in and night-out.
7. Patty Mills [14.2 MPG, 42.4 FG%, 32.3 3P% 6.3 PPG, 2.1 APG]
Even before he started playing regular minutes, Patty Mills was a favorite among fans and teammates alike. His upbeat attitude and quirky sense of humor make him an ideal locker-room guy, and he can be credited with keeping the team loose in what has otherwise been kind of a depressing season. But even more so than his personality, what’s stood out about Patty this season are the strides he’s made on the court since taking over the backup point-guard role from Armon Johnson. The Blazers are a completely different team when he’s out there. With Andre Miller on the floor, the Blazers are slower than molasses. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is what it is. But with Patty running the team, the energy level ramps up and the other players seem more comfortable running and pushing the tempo. The fact that he’s developing into a solid three-point shooter and can usually be counted on for 10 to 14 points a night off the bench doesn’t hurt things either. He’s an unselfish player, and a good passer, but not a great one yet. That kind of comes with the territory of playing your first meaningful minutes and figuring out how to be an effective point guard in this league. Regardless, you have to like what you’re seeing from Patty this season. It’s too early to make statements like “this is the Blazers’ point guard of the future,” but don’t rule it out either.
8. Dante Cunningham [18.4 MPG, 42.8 FG%, 4.4 PPG, 3.0 RPG]
To me, Dante Cunningham is the very definition of “average.” Here’s a guy you can usually count on to come off the bench, score a few buckets, play hard on defense, and not do a whole lot more than that. He played well the few games he was forced to start at center when Camby and Joel Przybilla were out, but he hasn’t established the kind of consistency you’d like to see in order to justify giving him more minutes than he already gets. With the Blazers’ bench as thin as it is, and only Rudy Fernandez and (more recently) Patty Mills able to be counted on to score, having to depend on a player at Cunningham’s level to provide offense in the second unit will often be enough if you’re playing a bad team, but it usually won’t be if you’re playing an elite one. If it sounds like I’m being hard on him, I’m not. He’s a good energy guy and a decent mid-range shooter. He’s certainly not a player you’d say no to having on your team, but if you’re counting on him to be a big part of your second-unit offense, you’re probably setting yourself up for disappointment.
9. Joel Przybilla [8.8 MPG, 75.0 FG%, 1.3 PPG, 2.5 RPG]
Given that Joel Przybilla ruptured his patellar tendon not once but twice last season, it’s a minor miracle that he still has a career, let alone came back a month and a half into this year. Unfortunately, watching him this season, it’s obvious he doesn’t have the same confidence in his physical abilities that he did before. He doesn’t go up for rebounds the way he used to, and this is reflected in his playing time. Granted, you’d still rather have Przybilla in than Sean Marks, but more and more this season Nate McMillan has gone to Dante Cunningham to back up not only LaMarcus Aldridge but also Marcus Camby. Don’t be surprised in the slightest if Joel’s $7.4 million expiring contract is traded by the deadline.
10. Armon Johnson [8.2 MPG, 43.8 FG%, 45.5 3P%, 3.2 PPG, 1.1 RPG, 1.4 APG]
Here’s a guy whose playing time has fallen off a cliff as the season has gone on. In the first few weeks of 2010-11, Armon Johnson was getting legitimate backup point-guard minutes and playing, if not spectacularly, at least well enough to keep earning the minutes. Somewhere in there, though, Nate started giving those minutes to Patty Mills, and Patty hasn’t given Nate any reason to take them away. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to divide backup minutes between two players, and since Mills has a higher upside than Johnson at this point, it makes sense to keep giving him the run. That’s not to say Johnson isn’t in the team’s future, and he could very well develop into a solid backup. But we’ve likely seen the last of him as a rotation player this season.
11. Luke Babbitt [5.2 MPG, 28.0 FG%, 1.3 PPG]
It’s hard to evaluate Luke Babbitt without having seen him play any minutes that weren’t strictly garbage time. His role may increase depending on what the Blazers do at the trading deadline, but barring another major injury (never out of the question with this team), I don’t see him getting much more playing time the rest of the season. That’s not to say he isn’t a part of Rich Cho’s plan for the team’s future–he’s a good shooter with a lot of room to grow in his game, and there’s a reason Kevin Pritchard traded Martell Webster for him–but right now there just isn’t any room in the rotation. He played well in his brief D-League assignment, and if it weren’t for the Blazers’ lack of depth, I’d almost say it would be a good idea for them to send him down again to really give him a chance to show what he can do. Give him an “incomplete” for now. (Babbitt would have finished last on this list, but his Dougieing ability bumped him ahead of Sean Marks.)
12. Sean Marks [8.2 MPG, 44.1 FG%, 1.7 PPG, 1.6 RPG]
Picked up a few weeks into the season to replace Fabricio Oberto (himself only signed as a temporary fix in the middle before suddenly retiring due to a heart condition), Sean Marks has essentially functioned as a barometer for the state of Portland’s season. If things are going well, he won’t leave his spot on the bench. But if he’s playing in any non-garbage-time situation, more likely than not there are issues.