Last night the Blazers held their obligatory Fan Fest celebration in an effort to both let the community know that basketball starts pretty sure, like this coming Monday, and to introduce some of the team’s newest additions.
Along with getting a first look at Raymond Felton and Kurt Thomas in Blazer jerseys–some people saw Felton at the Rip City Basketball Classic but that wasn’t a team-sanctioned event–Blazer fans had a chance to watch Cornell seven-footer Jeff Foote get some burn and cheer for Portland native Seth Tarver one more time. They also were made privy to Craig “Rhino” Smith’s million-dollar grin and Elliot Williams’ hops, and if they looked closely they could see LaMarcus Aldridge and new Blazer sixth-man Jamal Crawford whispering like school kids. (I know all those tweets are mine, but I thought I’d run them back just in case you missed them last night.)
Something like Fan Fest is hard to quantify. As fans we see things that we like, and we are quick to make a value judgement on those things e.g. last night Raymond Felton did a good job of pushing the pace, finding open shooters and slashers in transition, and basically running the offense, and that means that the Blazers shouldn’t have to worry about the point guard position going forward. Now it’s true that Felton did a lot of those things, and will continue to do those things well. But beating up on Nolan Smith, and basically running a couple of rookies and sophomores off the court probably won’t translate when it comes to actual games against actual players.
The same is true when you flip it the other way. Everybody was sloppy, nobody could hit jumpers with any consistency, the Blazers are very limited at the center position offensively, and aren’t much better at the power forward when you take LaMarcus off the floor. READ: We’re screwed. Again, it’s just a scrimmage.
Yes Portland lacks for scorers inside, but Chris Johnson and Craig Smith are finishers (Smith didn’t play last night so there’s that), and yes Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum can be streaky with their Js, Eliott Williams is untested at the pro level, and Luke Babbit just plain can’t hit, but Jamal Crawford is a tested outside shooter, as is Raymond Felton. Will Portland rely on the jumper a lot? At this point is that even a valid question? Of course they will.
The hope is guys like Williams will get their sea legs early, and Wesley and Nic will learn when they’re hot and when they aren’t and will start attacking the basket to get lay-ups or free throws when the mid-range and threes aren’t falling, and that Babbitt only plays when the score is plus/minus 15. Just as we shouldn’t read too much into the good that comes out of an intra-squad scrimmage, so too should we not dwell on those things that looked bad at times and at others downright awful.
Here are my takeaways in brief:
Chris Johnson versus Earl Barron
Portland has one spot left on its roster. That spot will go either to Chris Johnson or Earl Barron. Last night they battled one-on-one a little, but not enough to say that in a head-to-head competition one clearly bested the other. It doesn’t really matter anyway. That last roster spot more than likely will go to Chris Johnson. Barron is a serviceable big with a lot of court experience, but he just can’t do what Johnson can do. CJ can run the floor, he can defend, he can move his feet, he can block shots, he can dunk. Barron probably has the advantage when it comes to shooting–CJ shoots a little like Marcus Camby and not in a good way–but that’s about it. With the addition of Craig Smith and Kurt Thomas, Johnson probably won’t be a feature in every game, but with the schedule the way it is, Portland is going to need young big men that can go hard for 10 to 15 minutes on the last night of a four games in five days scenario. CJ is likely that guy. Who knows, if he adds some low post moves, he could be an impact player.
Nolan Smith versus Armon Johnson
The Blazers have officially signed Nolan Smith, and Armon is guaranteed through 2011-12, so these guys aren’t fighting for a roster spot. They’re fighting for something bigger, time on the court. Armon’s rookie year was strange to say the least. He came out of the gate at a break-neck pace, then foundered, then was buried at the end of the bench. This season has started as a continuation of how last season ended. Nate McMillan has already said that Armon is probably not best suited to play the point position, and although he looks like he might be one of the fittest guys on the roster, maybe in the league, Nate is going to be hard pressed to find a place for him in the rotation. His ball handling has gotten worse, his shooting hasn’t improved enough, and his passing is sometimes flat out not good. Those are three things a point guard in the NBA has to do, basically the only three things. AJ doesn’t seem to lack for confidence, and maybe that’s the problem.
As for Nolan Smith. He’ll probably end up as the back-up point guard, whether that translates into regular minutes remains to be seen. Portland’s rotation will likely be Nicolas Batum as the first guy off the bench, replacing Camby and sliding Gerald Wallace and LaMarcus up a position, then Crawford as the first guard. That means when the second unit is on the floor, Crawford will handle the ball a lot, as will Wesley Matthews, as will Nic. Portland has gone this route before, no back-up PG, and sometimes it’s worked sometimes it hasn’t. Nolan can get PG minutes, they’re out there, but to have them and keep them he has to not do what Armon did last year. Fail, then not get better.
If you look back at last season, Armon had a couple great games in the early going. Then he had a five turnover game, then he had another, then he had another, then he was done. One five-TO game is passable, it’s not great, but it’s a forgivable offense. Two even can be understood for a rookie playing the league’s hardest position. But three in short order? Sorry, that won’t keep you on the floor. Friday night, Nolan looked OK. He didn’t blow me away, but he didn’t fail miserably. Also, he didn’t look too shook by the RG crowd (although it wasn’t much of a crowd), which is a sign that he could be ready for the NBA spotlight.
Elliot Williams has had the most hype coming out of training camp, mostly because he can leap out of the building. In last year’s Fan Fest, Elliot looked a little scared, and barely did anything. This year he looked determined. Starting with a couple of fantastic dunks in warm-ups, carrying through to some really solid play in the scrimmage, and capped by another really solid dunk, I would say the Williams looked as ready for the season as anybody in the house. Again, what that means in reality is hard to say. Like Nolan, there are minutes available right now for Elliot Williams. If Nate goes with Jamal as his first guard off the bench, eschewing a second point guard, there’s no reason the second guard off the bench can’t be Elliot Williams. His jumper looks good, his athleticism is astounding, I’ve already mentioned that he can dunk. The way Elliot stays on the court is by playing defense.
If Portland’s second five is Crawford, Batum, Williams, some combination of Kurt Thomas, Craig Smith and Chris Johnson, the offense isn’t going to be run specifically for Elliot. He‘ll score by playing active offense, hustling for offensive rebounds, knocking down open jumpers when he gets them, etc., and he’ll win the trust of his coach by not getting burned by whoever he has to guard. It can be done. There wasn’t a ton of D in the Fan Fest scrimmage, and I think Nate should give Elliot a lot of time in the two preseason games to see how well he can stop a guy like Gordon Hayward. That’s the type of player Elliot is going to match up against, so Nate will be doing himself a favor by getting an early look at how he does it. No defense and you can bet that Elliot Williams is limited to garbage time. But if he puts in that extra effort he will play. It’s up to him.
The Guys That Didn’t Play
Everybody was at the RG last night, but not everybody played. Jamal Crawford and Craig Smith sat out as did Marcus Camby, LaMarcus Aldridge, and of course Greg Oden. This is really only interesting for one reason. Of the five guys that didn’t play, four of them are bigs. Smith wasn’t held out for medical reasons, Camby stayed out of the fray with a sore back, and LA was inactive due to his heart surgery. All those guys will be a go for Opening Night. We all know the situation with Greg. The issue is, what happens if, god forbid, Portland loses a lot of minutes to injured post players? Kurt Thomas looked good, but he’s getting up there in years. I’m not sure he’s got a Juwan Howard type season in him. For right now, I won’t focus on the possibility of injury, there will be plenty of time to do that later, it’s just interesting to think about the pressure there is going to be on the newest additions to stay healthy. Hopefully they don’t believe in curses.
Crash was gifted with the highly sought after Fan Fest MVP. I think he deserved it, he looked pretty great, and it felt a little like a not-so-subtle way for the organization to say they aren’t going to trade him for four first rounders so Dwight Howard can get out of Orlando. Portland may still trade Gerald Wallace. He has a player option for 2012-13, and the team probably doesn’t want him to walk for nothing. Having said that, getting Gerald Wallace for 66 games is something I’m looking forward to. He never really seemed to get comfortable last season, hopefully that will change this year. The addition of his former Bobcat teammate Raymond Felton shouldn’t hurt. I would love to see Crash take fewer three attempts in 2011-12, and I would like to see Nate put some stuff into the offense intended just to get him going to the basket. I understand that featuring Wallace more means less for Batum. It’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. Crash stays a Blazer for this season, maybe next, and then probably that’s it. Nicolas could very well be the next franchise player. Portland will lock him up when the time is right. He still needs to learn some stuff, and I can think of no better time then at this point in his career where his skills will help the team win games, but the franchise isn’t strapped to his shoulders.
Talking About Brandon
Blazers play-by-play guy Mike Barrett kicked off the evening by asking Nate McMillan to talk a little about Brandon Roy. In my opinion, not the best move. Or at least not the move that I would have made. There isn’t a person in Portland that doesn’t know about Brandon Roy and his situation. I think that right now we are all still dealing with it, and bringing it out front and center first thing is a little tough to take. There are a lot of good B Roy retrospectives out there (Ben Golliver from Blazersedge, Jason Quick from the Oregonian, Eric Koreen from Canada), so I think collectively we haven’t really moved on from the depression stage to the acceptance stage of our grieving. Talking about Brandon like he’s six feet under doesn’t help. I know it has to be addressed, and I know getting out in front of it is good for marketing, I’m just not really ready to admit that Brandon’s played his last game at the Rose Garden.
Quick tweeted that Larry Miller said Brandon will be honored by the team when he’s ready. Let’s hope it’s soon, but until then, I’m OK with talking about the Blazers as they are now. We’ve moved beyond denial, there’s no sense in going backward.
Sorry to end on a bit of a down note. Preseason starts Monday at the Rose Garden. After that it’s on for real. I really think Portland has put together a good squad. With a few teams in a bit of disarray in the West, and a few others with as of yet defined personalities or abilities, this season could be a great opportunity for the Blazers to make a good run.
If I learned anything from Fan Fest 2011 it’s this: Watching basketball in the Rose Garden with a bunch of really fired up Blazer fans is a lot of fun.
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Topics: Armon Johnson, Brandon Roy, Chris Johnson, Craig Smith, Earl Barron, Elliot Williams, Fan Fest, Gerald Wallace, Greg Oden, Jamal Crawford, Jeff Foote, Kurt Thomas, LaMarcus Aldridge, Luke Babbitt, Nicolas Batum, Nolan Smith, Raymond Felton, Seth Tarver, Wesley Matthews